Melisma on the Radio

Last month, inspired by a post on Chloe Veltman’s blog Lies Like Truth, I wrote a response addressing the melismatic, overwrought style of singing that seems to have been in vogue since the 1990s. Chloe read my piece and invited me to collaborate on an episode of her radio show VoiceBox dedicated to this subject that will air tonight on KALW. (And available streaming from KALW’s website for the next seven days.)

Preparing for this show forced me to clarify my thinking about the technique. For one thing, I’ve decided that we don’t really have a good label for it. The New York Times and NPR has, in several articles, referred to it as a ‘melismatic style’. But that’s really not right. Melisma is simply singing multiple pitches on the same syllable; that’s just not specific enough. All sorts of singing is melismatic (Bach’s polyphonic choral works, Indian raga, Gregorian chant), but there’s a very specific style of singing that we’re trying to get at.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this style of singing has three distinguishing characteristics:

This style is:

  • ornamental
  • melismatic
  • spontaneous or unique

Ornamentation is a melodic technique that involves groups of pitches sounded in quick succession around a longer, more important pitch. In baroque music, sometimes these ornaments are explicitly notated, sometimes they’re indicated with special symbols, and sometimes they’re not in the music at all; it’s left to the performer to recognize where ornaments belong. Large chunks of music theory are dedicated to codifying and classifying the various ornamentation techniques used in history. (See also – non-chord tones)

Ornamentation is not unique to vocal music, it can occur in any instrument capable of playing a melody.

Melisma, however, is only meaningful in the context of vocal music. It refers to how the words are set to the melody. If a single syllable of text is stretched out over multiple pitches (at least 4) it’s considered to be a melismatic setting. If you have a new syllable for each pitch, it’s considered to be a syllabic setting. Syllabic settings more closely mimic natural speech. Melismatic settings emphasize a more emotional or non-verbal aspect of song.

It turns out that most ornamental singing tends to be melismatic as well. Ornamental notes tend to be fast, which makes singing separate syllables on each note challenging (like the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan). But while vocal ornamentation and melisma tend to go hand in hand, one should distinguish between the two.  They are not the same thing.

And finally there’s this notion of spontaneity, or at the very least uniqueness. This style of singing (that we haven’t yet coined a phrase for, although I’m fond of author Anthony Heilbut‘s ever so slightly derisive ‘Gospel Gargle’) contains melismatic ornaments that are made up on the spot, or at least feels like they’re made up on the spot. If it turns out that they’re actually pre-written, than they need to be unique, happening only once in any given performance. If the same melismatic ornaments happened repeatedly, then it shifts from affectation to just the way the melody goes. As an example, listen to Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. The main melody of the verse is absolutely bare bones simple, but each time he sings that melody, it’s touched with a completely unique set of ornaments and inflections.

This can get kinda confusing, so I’ve prepared a handy Venn diagram, so you can follow along at home.

And as a soundtrack while you’re trying to navigate your way around the diagram, here’s Destiny’s Child singing a remarkably melismatic, ornamental, and spontaneous cover of the BeeGees song Emotions.

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