What is Melisma or Melismatic Singing?

This may be the first time you’ve heard of the terms Melisma and Melismatic singing, but we’re confident you’ve heard this style of singing before.

Also known as a vocal run, Melismatic singing is simply when a vocalist sings different notes over a syllable. But while many people have heard a vocalist perform this style of singing before, they may not have heard of the technical term. 

What is Melisma or Melismatic Singing

While normally a note is sung on each syllable, with Melisma the notes change and more are added.

What kind of changes are made to the note is up to the vocalist, with notes also varying.

While Melisma was once used sparingly, it is now used very liberally and these days is most often associated with singers wanting to display their vocal prowess. 

Below, we’ll take a look at the history of Melismatic singing, some famous examples of the vocal style, as well as tell you how you can practice it yourself!

A Brief History of Melisma

Melisma is one of the oldest styles of vocal enhancement and is present in many cultures. Once used as a spiritual method to induce hypnosis, it was known for its calming effect on people who were afraid or anxious.

You can find examples of Melisma everywhere, from Gregorian chants to African, Arabic, Indian, Jewish, and Orthodox Christian ragas.

More recent examples of Melismatic singing can be found in gospel and opera, with the former’s use of Melisma influencing a lot of modern music.

In fact, the entire R&B genre is derived from the blue notes sung by slaves from Africa.

The vocal run of ‘regular’ notes to lowered third, fifth, and seventh scale degrees is what marks a vocal performance as distinctly bluesy. 

As we alluded to at the beginning of our article, Melisma is sometimes considered an obnoxious form of singing, associated with the contestants of TV talent shows trying very hard to show what they can do.

In fact, American Idol heavily frowned upon the use of Melisma as it was attempted by so many eager contestants on the show.

Examples of Melismatic Singing

Many classic religious hymns are sung in a Melismatic style. One popular example is the carol ‘Angels We Have Heard on High,’ where the ‘o’ on the Gloria section of the song is sung for just under 20 notes.

When you’re first practicing Melisma this is a fantastic beginner piece to practice with if you’re familiar with the carol. 

Meanwhile, one of the greatest examples of Melisma in popular music is ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston.

The song was written and originally performed by Dolly Parton, and if you listen to the two songs, you can clearly hear the extra notes Houston employs. She is a shining example of Melisma used right! 

But before Whitney Houston hit it out of the park, a song by the R&B and soul singer Deniece Williams was featured in the movie Footloose.

Soul is a genre where Melisma abounds, as there is a lot of focus on vocal harmonies and performance. 

You can also find examples of Melisma in rock and roll too. Two minutes into the Beatles track ‘I Want to Tell You’ Paul McCartney employs an Indian style of Melisma.

You can also find Melisma in the Bruce Springsteen song ‘The Ties That Bind,’ and also the famous Queen track ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ also has elements of Melisma.

More recent examples that have made people look down on Melismatic singing come from artists like Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey.

Now, Aguilera and Carey are both extremely talented vocalists and nail Melismatic singing, but unfortunately they have inspired a lot of amateur vocalists to emulate their Melismatic technique and the results don’t sound quite right.

Practicing Melismatic Singing 

What is Melisma or Melismatic Singings

When it comes to examples of Melismatic singing, we could go on forever and forever listing them.

Particular genres like soul and gospel are full of songs that use Melisma, but when practicing Melismatic singing, the most important things to remember is that less is usually more and resisting the urge to overly riff is crucial. 

While some of the examples we listed included artists known for their lengthy vocal runs, they still know when they should hold back and control their performance.

The longer you make the run, the harder it is to maintain control, and you just sound silly rather than powerful. 

Melisma isn’t the easiest technique to teach either, and neither is teaching singing in general. It can be difficult to detail the muscle movements needed to achieve Melisma, but being able to mimic people well and having a natural ability for singing already helps.

But even if you don’t have those abilities, you can still learn how to achieve Melismatic singing. You can still learn your notes and scales, make use of video tutorials and, if you can, go to paid lessons.

But one of the best ways to teach yourself Melismatic singing is to sit at a piano and practice your intervals, focusing on the tension within blue notes, since this is where Melisma is often used.

The great thing about training your voice is that it’s one of the less costly instruments. It needs no cases or band supplies, after all. Training your voice is relatively cheap and something you can do all by yourself.

Plus, you can begin straight away! Practicing Melismatic singing involves a lot of improvisation rather than notated or written sheet music.

Training your ear is also a crucial part of practicing Melismatic singing, as you will need to be able to spot the notes your favorite Melismatic singers are hitting.

Melisma is often confused with vibrato, and we will go into what exactly vibrato is below. But when seeking out learning materials for Melisma, remember to be specific with your searches.

Melisma vs Vibrato: What is the Difference?

Vibrato is often thought of as a pitch variant but is actually a vocal timbre, or an integral part of tone that is spread out evenly over a collection of notes rather than as a pitch deviation.

The parameters of vibrato are generally pitch excursion (oscillation), the temporal rate (cycles per second), and amplitude variance.

Vibrato normally enters vocal production as a relaxant because of your body’s need to relax muscles during heavy or intense vocal activity when singing sustained notes at high pitches.

It is generally believed to result from neuromuscular excitation of the laryngeal mechanism and the result of a balance between muscle systems working against each other in phonation.

When balanced, the antagonistic muscle systems create an alternating pulse that reflects the continued energy level needed to maintain equilibrium and protect your muscles from damage, just like muscles in your arms begin to shake when you hold a heavy object for a long period of time. 

This rhythmic pulsing of the larynx in response to tension and sub-glottic pressure is a natural response to protect the vocal folds and is what produces the famous vibrato sound.

Final Thoughts

Auto-Tune is somewhat of a nemesis to Melisma. Tools that correct pitch are becoming increasingly popular, even for use in the home.

This software recognizes Melismatic singing as a mistake and will ‘correct’ it, and this is something to be mindful of when recording yourself practicing Melisma. 

Gospel, R&B, and soul are enduring genres and as long as they are around, Melisma will not die out.

Yes, it’s garnered somewhat of a bad reputation thanks to American Idol, but it will always be a stunning vocal technique when done correctly. 

We’re sure that Melisma will find its way into new styles and genres and go through multiple revivals throughout the years.

But it will only live on if people keep practicing it, so next time you’re blasting some R&B in your car and singing along, give it a try!

David Williams
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