Melisma, in music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note.


Music of ancient cultures used melismatic techniques to induce a hypnotic trance
Trance denotes a variety of processes, ecstasy, techniques, modalities and states of mind, awareness and consciousness. Trance states may occur involuntarily and unbidden.The term trance may be associated with meditation, magic, flow, and prayer...

 in the listener, useful for early mystical initiation rites (such as Eleusinian Mysteries
Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation ceremonies held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece. Of all the mysteries celebrated in ancient times, these were held to be the ones of greatest importance...

) and religious worship. This complex quality is still found most famously in Arabic music where the scale is said to consist of "quarter tones". Orthodox Christian chanting also bears a slight resemblance to this.
Middle Eastern melismatic music was developed further in the Torah chanting
Cantillation is the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue services. The chants are written and notated in accordance with the special signs or marks printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible to complement the letters and vowel points...

 as well as by the Masoretes
The Masoretes were groups of mostly Karaite scribes and scholars working between the 7th and 11th centuries, based primarily in present-day Israel in the cities of Tiberias and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq...

 in the 7th or 8th century. It then appeared in some genres of Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services...

 where it was used in certain sections of the Mass
Mass (music)
The Mass, a form of sacred musical composition, is a choral composition that sets the invariable portions of the Eucharistic liturgy to music...

, with the earliest written appearance around AD 900
Year 900 was a leap year starting on Tuesday of the Julian calendar.- Asia :* April 21 – Namwaran and his children, Lady Angkatan and Bukah, are granted pardon by the Datu of Tondo, as represented Jayadewa, Lord Minister of Pila, which released them of all their debts as inscribed in the...

. The gradual
The Gradual is a chant or hymn in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist for many Christian denominations. In the Tridentine Mass it was and is sung after the reading or chanting of the Epistle and before the Alleluia, or, during penitential seasons, before the Tract. In the Mass of Paul VI...

 and the alleluia
The word "Alleluia" or "Hallelujah" , which at its most literal means "Praise Yah", is used in different ways in Christian liturgies....

, in particular, were characteristically melismatic, for example, while the tract
Tract (liturgy)
The tract is part of the proper of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist for many Christian denominations, which is used instead of the Alleluia during Lenten or pre-Lenten seasons, in a Requiem Mass, and on a few other penitential occasions, when the joyousness of an Alleluia is deemed...

 is not, and repetitive melodic patterns were deliberately avoided in the style. The Byzantine Rite
Byzantine Rite
The Byzantine Rite, sometimes called the Rite of Constantinople or Constantinopolitan Rite is the liturgical rite used currently by all the Eastern Orthodox Churches, by the Greek Catholic Churches , and by the Protestant Ukrainian Lutheran Church...

 also used melismatic elements in its music, which developed roughly concurrently to the Gregorian chant.

In Western music, the term melisma most commonly refers to Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services...

. (The first definition of melisma by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary is "a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable in plainsong
Plainsong is a body of chants used in the liturgies of the Catholic Church. Though the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church did not split until long after the origin of plainchant, Byzantine chants are generally not classified as plainsong.Plainsong is monophonic, consisting of a...

".) However, the term melisma may be used to describe music of any genre, including baroque
The Baroque is a period and the style that used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music...

 singing and later gospel
Gospel music
Gospel music is music that is written to express either personal, spiritual or a communal belief regarding Christian life, as well as to give a Christian alternative to mainstream secular music....

. Within Jewish liturgical tradition, melisma is still commonly used in the chanting of Torah
Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five books of the bible—Genesis , Exodus , Leviticus , Numbers and Deuteronomy Torah- A scroll containing the first five books of the BibleThe Torah , is name given by Jews to the first five...

, readings from the Prophets
Nevi'im is the second of the three major sections in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. It falls between the Torah and Ketuvim .Nevi'im is traditionally divided into two parts:...

, and in the body of the service itself. For an examination of the evolution of this tradition, see Idelsohn
Abraham Zevi Idelsohn
Abraham Zevi Idelsohn was a prominent Jewish ethnologist and musicologist, who conducted several comprehensive studies of Jewish music around the world....


Today, melisma is commonly used in Arab, Middle Eastern
Middle Eastern music
The music of Western Asia and North Africa spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Afghanistan, and its influences can be felt even further afield. Middle Eastern music influenced the music of India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, Southern Italy, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as in chalga...

, African, Balkan
Music of Southeastern Europe
The music of Southeastern Europe or Balkan music is a type of music distinct from others in Europe. This is mainly because it was influenced by traditional music of Southeastern European ethnic groups and mutual music influences of these ethnic groups in the period of the Ottoman Empire...

, and African American
African American music
African-American music is an umbrella term given to a range of musics and musical genres emerging from or influenced by the culture of African Americans, who have long constituted a large and significant ethnic minority of the population of the United States...

 music, Portuguese Fado
Fado is a music genre which can be traced to the 1820s in Portugal, but probably with much earlier origins. Fado historian and scholar, Rui Vieira Nery, states that "the only reliable information on the history of Fado was orally transmitted and goes back to the 1820s and 1830s at best...

, Spanish Flamenco
Flamenco is a genre of music and dance which has its foundation in Andalusian music and dance and in whose evolution Andalusian Gypsies played an important part....

, and various Asian
Asian music
Asian music encompasses numerous different musical styles originating from a large number of Asian countries.Musical traditions in Asia* Music of Central Asia** Music of Afghanistan** Music of Kazakhstan** Music of Mongolia** Music of Uzbekistan...

 folk and popular musical genres. Melisma is also commonly featured in Western popular music
Popular music
Popular music belongs to any of a number of musical genres "having wide appeal" and is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. It stands in contrast to both art music and traditional music, which are typically disseminated academically or orally to smaller, local...

 and is utilized by countless pop artists, although this form usually involves improvising melismas (and melismatic vocalise
A vocalise is a vocal exercise without words, which is sung on one or more vowel sounds.-In classical music:Vocalise dates back to the mid-18th century...

) over a simpler melody. The melisma is a common feature of Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevland Hardaway Morris , better known by his stage name Stevie Wonder, is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer and activist...

's music; the trend in R&B
Contemporary R&B
Contemporary R&B is a music genre that combines elements of hip hop, soul, R&B and funk.Although the abbreviation “R&B” originates from traditional rhythm and blues music, today the term R&B is most often used to describe a style of African American music originating after the demise of disco in...

 singers is considered to have been popularized by Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey is an American singer-songwriter, record producer, and actress. She made her recording debut with the release of her eponymous studio album in 1990, under the guidance of Columbia Records executive Tommy Mottola, whom she later married in 1993...

's "Vision of Love
Vision of Love
"Vision of Love" is a song by American singer-songwriter Mariah Carey. It served as Carey's debut single, the first from her self-titled debut album. Written by Carey and Ben Margulies, "Vision of Love" was released on May 15, 1990 by Columbia Records. After being featured on Carey's demo tape for...

". In recent years, there has been increased criticism of melisma being abused by singers, in part due to the popularity of shows such as American Idol
American Idol
American Idol, titled American Idol: The Search for a Superstar for the first season, is a reality television singing competition created by Simon Fuller and produced by FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment...

and the trend of contestants imitating the artists who popularized the technique.


The French carol tune "Gloria" arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes
Edward Shippen Barnes
Edward Shippen Barnes was an American organist.He was a graduate of Yale University where he studied with Horatio Parker and Harry Jepson...

 in 1937, to which the hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High
Angels We Have Heard on High
"Angels We Have Heard on High" is a Christmas carol. The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child....

" is usually sung, contains one of the most melismatic sequences in popular Christian hymn music, on the "o" of the word "Gloria". The choral work "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" from Handel
George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel was a German-British Baroque composer, famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Handel was born in 1685, in a family indifferent to music...

's Messiah
Messiah (Handel)
Messiah is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742, and received its London premiere nearly a year later...

(Part I, No. 12) contains numerous examples of melisma, as in the following excerpt. The soprano and alto lines engage in a 57-note melisma on the word "born."

External links

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