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Melismatic Vocals

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"And, inevitably, there is the Soulful Syllable Stretch. The Soulful Syllable Stretch involves elongating words with flashy arpeggios and trills: "love" becomes "lo-oh-ho-HEY-ah-ho-HO-ho-hoooooooOOOOOOOOVE!" A Soulful Syllable Stretch Grand Mistress, such as Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny's Child, can make one word last a week. Keys alternates Soulful Syllable Stretches with pregnant pauses. How Come You Don't Call Me? is so rife with the latter, you suspect the involvement of Harold Pinter."
Alexis Petridis reviewing an Alicia Keys concert.

For the proper reading experience, play the music from this video while reading on.

When it comes to singing, there are basically two approaches you can take: syllabic or melismatic.

Syllabic means that if you have lyrics, each syllable gets one note. Pretty straightforward enough. In fact, it's so straightforward it's basically the universal way of singing.

This also includes the songs where for a certain syllable the note sung goes through a bit of tremolo, or there's a glissando between one syllable and the next one. You can throw in flourishes if you want, but the rule of thumb remains "one syllable = one note".

Melismatic means that you hold down one syllable while moving through several notes. This is called melisma. It's very common in religious, Arab, Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, Indian and various other types of music, especially Folk Music (such as the Portuguese genre Fado).

Melisma migrated over to pop music at some indistinct point (creditnote  for popularising it varies between Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey or some others), and now it's pretty common in R&B or R&B-influenced pop music. Remember Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You"? That's melisma.note  It's easy to see why it ended up in pop music: used properly it can have a great effect. The only problem is that there have been many singers recently who just blindly abuse it to lend their songs some sort of "soulfulness" or whatever, and it just becomes annoying, as demonstrated by the above quote. A frequent way to deride these singers is to note that they take simple words like "yeah", "I" or "whoa" and stretch it to something like over 9000 syllables. But the real problem is that some artists don't have the skill or vocal range to actually pull it off.

Some singers who practise melisma also often sing Incredibly Long Notes, such as Whitney Houston. However, another criticism leveled at melisma is that singers who can't pull off Incredibly Long Notes sometimes use the technique to give the illusion that they are doing so; stretching the syllable out without having to actually hold a particular note for very long.

More info about the abuse of this technique can be found here.

People who love melisma:

  • Hell, throw a rock in R&B, you're gonna hit somebody who does this.
  • Regina Spektor
  • Beyoncé
  • Christina Aguilera
  • Alanis Morissette
  • Lisa Hannigan does this on occasion.
  • Edward Shippen Barnes gave us the most famous arrangement of the Christmas hymn "Angels We Have Heard On High", which features a 16-note melisma in its chorus that, while far from the most impressive example on this page, is probably the most well-known example of a melisma going beyond what most people would consider average.
    Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!
  • George Ratcliffe Woodward's arrangement of "Ding Dong Merrily on High" ups the ante by featuring a 31-note melisma in its chorus (also involving "Gloria").
  • This type of singing was very prevalent in Classical Music, especially during the Baroque period (c. 1600—1750) and a bit less so in the Classical (c. 1730—1820) and Romantic period (c. 1810—1910). The term 'coloratura' is used, which often means not only melismatic melodies but also wide leaps, difficult words or diction (especially at a fast tempo) and trills (and other ornaments).
    • Delibes Lakmé has some famous pieces for its titular character, who is always sung by a coloratura soprano.
    • Handel's Messiah is rather notorious among choral singers for having melismas of up to 57 notes in the chorus "Unto us a child is born." Handel was pretty fond of melisma in general—the rest of the Messiah alone is full of examples.
    • Bach has a 64-note melisma in the 4th movement of ''Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen'' (BWV 66). Take a gander at the score here (on page 30-31). Bach also has many other examples in all of his other religious works.
      • Something he had in common with a lot of Baroque composers. "Vittoria mio core" is a notable example.
      • The seventh movement of the cantata Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (BWV 113) is infamous for its abuse of melisma. In fact, it is considered almost unperformable due to the melisma instances being excessively long.
      • The third movement of Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde (BWV 83) overuses melismas in the vocal part, including some of over 40 notes.
    • Mozart was very fond of melismatic lines in his operas, usually given to the soprano but on occasion to the tenor (eg originally in Idomeneo, Re di Creta) or bass (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The more famous examples include:
      • The Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" and "O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" from The Magic Flute are coloratura soprano showpieces, with both having melismas going up to high F.
      • "Martern aller Arten" from The Abduction from the Seraglio — described by Salieri in Amadeus as "ten minutes of ghastly scales and arpeggios, whizzing up and down like fireworks at a fairground".
      • He particularly liked writing these for his lifelong muse, one-time love interest and eventual sister-in-law Alosiya Weber (she originated Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, among others). The 'concert arias' (arias where he never actually wrote the whole opera - often having taken lyrics from a work he'd seen and deciding he could do better) are even more extreme.
    • The effect of these arias, especially in Baroque work, mean that lyrics are repeated over and over. This may have been so the audience got the message - Baroque opera audiences usually talked, socialised, ate, wondered about and played cards (and made assignations with prostitutes) while at the opera; it wasn't until the 19th century that they were expected to sit still in the dark and pay attention.
    • Hector Berlioz's Treatise on Instrumentation strongly condemned "those ridiculous tonal roulades on the words 'Kyrie eleison' or 'Amen', which contribute toward making vocal fugues in church music an indecent and abominable tomfoolery." His Damnation of Faust nevertheless includes an "Amen" fugue of this type for the sake of tradition/parody.
  • Cesare - Il Creatore che ha distrutto gives a lot of these to both Cesare Borgia and his father Rodrigo. The way Cesare ends his debate with Angelo in the classroom scene with a lofty flourish shows his dramatic and confident personality.
  • "I'm Gonna Sing 'Till the Spirit" by Moses Hogan. The tenors start and it piles up with Sopranos and Altos and it has more notes than the Handel piece.
  • Melissa Donovan
  • Harry Belafonte: "Daaaay-O! Da-a-ay-O! Daylight come and I wanna go home!"
  • Dream Pop bands like Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance and Love Spirals Downwards frequently used this trope. Awesomely.
  • Roy Orbison, which suited his operatic singing style. The chorus of "Crying" turns the titular word into 5 syllables.
  • Religious music was amazingly good at this. In a piece intended to be sung at Christmas Mass from the 1300s, 10 minutes were needed to sing two sentences due to the massive amounts of melisma.
  • Lou Gramm from Foreigner.
  • Bobby Kimball from Toto.
  • Roza Rymbaeva
  • Non-music example: the voice of Nicol Williamson, which John Boorman described with this trope, saying he had "an uncanny knack for putting more syllables in each word than there already were".
  • David Draiman of Disturbed has a good knack for doing this, possibly rooted in his training to be a cantor in Jerusalem during his youth. He rarely has opportunities to use it in the band's music, but it can make surprise appearances.
  • American Idol contestants.
  • Martina McBride has a powerful soprano, and she's not afraid to use it.
    • Of course, she's not standing alone in the Country Music Pantheon. Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, and Sara Evans all do it as well, and it's fairly common amongst country singers. So much so, in fact, that Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry received praise for her "unpolished" vocals.
  • Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts is guilty of this from time to time. It's especially egregious in his case, since he has an extremely nasal voice and tends to oversing.
  • Reba McEntire did this throughout most of the 1980s, but stopped doing it around the mid-1990s, mainly because the style was contributing to vocal polyps.
  • Lana Del Rey on "National Anthem" while she makes "ovation" sound like "ohhhVAYsheeunununun" and in "Put Me in a Movie" where she turns "action" into "axeeeeyyyhhhyum" and finally in "Yayo" multiple times. She stretches "tattoo" on this so into "tayyayyatoooo" fact, just listen to all of her music, it has so much of this.
  • Aaron Tippin does it on "My Blue Angel", stretching out "Blue" into God knows how many syllables.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Dancing Homer", Bleeding Gums Murphy's rendition of the American national anthem at the start of a baseball game is so full of melisma that he manages to make it last 26 minutes: he starts singing at 7:30, he finishes at 7:56, to the great relief of the audience (except for Lisa, the only audience member smiling in rapt attention for the entire 26 minutes).
  • One of the most famous instances in musical theater is Christine's stunning vocal run at the end of "Think of Me." (This particular rendition is performed by Rebecca Caine of the original Canadian production - go to 2:53.)
  • Alexandra Burke, but oddly enough the reason why many critics liked her song Bad Boys was because her she averted this trope and her vocals were very reigned in and controlled, making the melody more intense.
  • Axl Rose pulls it off at the end of "Don't Cry".
  • "I've got the mooo-oo-oooo-oo-ooves like Jagger!"
  • "Holiday ro-OH-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh-oad, holiday ro-OH-oh-oh-oh-oh-ooooad!"
  • Plenty of songs by Simon & Garfunkel used this, though quite a few of their recordings were of traditional folk songs, so this was by necessity at times.
  • Corey Glover of Living Colour.
  • LaJon Witherspoon of Sevendust.
  • Mahalia Jackson is probably the Ur-Example for gospel music.
  • Sharon Den Adel (Within Temptation) does that a whole lot in "Mother Earth".
  • Auto-Tune singers in the realm of T-Pain use this in order to bring out the "robot" effect of the Auto-Tune.
  • Not at all uncommon in the realm of musical theatre.
  • Daryl Palumbo of Glassjaw, which goes along with his use of Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable.
  • Demi Lovato
  • Ariana Grande
  • China Anne McClain
  • During *NSYNC's heyday, both Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez could absurdly stretch out notes when they sang live. The videos for "Bye Bye Bye" and "It's Gonna Be Me" show JC really belting them out while "Gone" is a showcase for Justin's falsetto.
  • Gospel Music, to the point where you can say that its prevalence in other modern genres like R&B started here with this genre.
  • Benjamin Britten's operas have melismas all over the place, especially in the parts written for Peter Pears (who had a talent for them). Act II, Scene II of Peter Grimes begins with Peter singing "Go there!" in a 28-note melisma. In The Turn of the Screw, Peter Quint's repeated melismatic calls of "Miles!" are an important Leitmotif; Miles's "Malo, Malo" song from the same opera is based on a more restrained series of melismas.
  • Japanese-born German yodeler Takeo Ischi belted out some pretty impressive vowel extension in his new song Chicken Attack.
  • 1930s musical star Jeanette MacDonald does this in San Francisco, especially when belting out the Title Theme Tune during her big number near the end. "Sa-a-a-a-a-n Francisco, open your golden gate..."
  • Samantha Fish does a strong one singing the word "break" on her cover of Nina Simone's "Either Way I Lose", starting with a long sustain on the tonic, and then going up and down through several notes.
  • Patti LaBelle is known for this.
  • Traditional Amish hymns are sung this way, sometimes with an entire line of music for each syllable. It's not uncommon to take up to 20 minutes to finish one song.


Video Example(s):


Donald Glover (Hakuna Matata)

Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) provides adult Simba's speaking and singing voice in the 2019 remake of The Lion King. Hakuna Matata features more musical riffing from Simba near the end... which Timon and Pumbaa begin to lampshade to the moon and back.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (1 votes)

Example of:

Main / MelismaticVocals

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