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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Melisma, the art of running many notes from one syllable, dates to Gregorian chants and Indian ragas. It was adopted by African-American churches and popularized by soul singers like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. In another installment of our Thursday series, "Sing Out," we’ll find out how melisma became the singing style among American Idol contestants. We're joined by Laura Barton, columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, and Anthony Heilbut, Grammy-award winning music producer and author of The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.


Laura Barton and Anthony Heilbut

Comments [43]

Alex from Kent, England

I am so impressed with this post, I'm featuring (and referencing) this podcast in my dissertation, which is a focus on Melisma.
Thankyou ,Soundcheck for a fantastic debate, and for everybody who has contributed their opinion towards the topic! This has really added some insight to my argument on whether to love or hate it!

Mar. 02 2011 05:22 PM
Stoney McMurray from Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY

Melisma is a term I can't recall hearing as an instrumental and vocal musician from age 3 to age 30, despite some theory along the way. But it can be very useful, and does have a long history. I think back to "Adeste Fidelis" ("Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful", the oldest hymn outside The Psalms we know of in Christendom, which I performed in rote-learned Latin at age 7: it preserves the melisma(s) in the English translation of the first verse and chorus; I never learned the other verses in Latin, but suspect they do also, no mean feat of translation.
Here are a couple of links to an old friend of mine in some not-well-recorded videos from 20 years ago somebody put up on YouTube, in which one may find some judicious use of melisma. Yeah, Barbara is showing off her chops, but when they're that good, why not? Not much point in developing chops if they're not to be used.
A couple of the numbers feature what I call "coloratura scat", which may answer another listener's question about the relation of scat and melisma. If takes a really well-trained and exercised voice to do this sort of thing. Enjoy!
To find more of her work on YouTube, seach for "Barbara Pendleton" and "Ms Pendleton".

Feb. 05 2010 12:59 AM
Dora Oh from Manhattan

People never like it when singers show off. Many complained when the castrati of Handel's era sang acres of runs either, but their names came down in history: Carafelli, Farinelli. Let's not make an unnatural rift: a good riff is good, a bad one empty and inexpressive. But c'mon, was Aretha doing something different? It's an honorable tradition and shouldn't be dissed to death just because some people are going overboard. I loved Lady Gaga and Bionce at the Grammies -- they both have great chops!!

Feb. 04 2010 11:25 PM
Maya from Brooklyn

I wonder if anyone recalls "Hook" from Blues Traveler. Not only did he use mucho melisma, but the song's actual topic was that Pop Music's audience cared less about real emotion or truth coming through the headphones, but about it being pleasing to the ear. "It doesn't matter what I say, as long as I sing with inflection," goes the first line of the song. He was able to mock the public to their face and be met with ignorant applause. That song was quite popular at it's introduction to the masses. My point? What's your point? Who named it melisma? That sounds like a disease.

Feb. 04 2010 10:45 PM
Soundlanguage from Jersey City / West Village

Excessive or improperly applied melisma comes off sounding warbly and insincere. I call these painful attempts in songs as "faux soul" ..... it's like adding MSG or over salting food. If done right, you don't need to add anything to cover up mediocrity.

History will show the majority of singers for the last decade have suffered from this inner lack of soul and talent but try so to hard to convince audiences they have chops .... such eager beavers end up embarrassing themselves running out onto a stage, trying to bust out singing a song they can't handle obviously don't feel.

Listeners with "good ears" can spot who has a natural ability to employ it well, and can spot a phoney right off. Either "you got it, or you don't", if you don't keep practicing (or find a new hobby).

Funny it's never brought up that before American Idol was the Gong Show- amateurs who couldn't sing got gonged (after the audience got a laugh) today's terrible "singers" get pats on the back, loads of myspace fans or recording contracts! What happened to only great talent being rewarded? Standards have sunk so low why even bother handing out awards, they don't mean anything.

Singers in the 70's & 80's sure weren't lookers but damn, could they SING.

Feb. 04 2010 03:12 PM
NC from NY NY

Correction: JHud was not the runner-up on American Idol. She was kicked off early -- finishing the competition in seventh place.

Feb. 04 2010 02:54 PM
Jimb Around from Red Hook, NY

Some where, a place for us....

I'm sure it's still fashionable and hip to dislike what's popular in some places, even after "Scrubs", but bending the notes, to make them blue are what makes American music great.

So there you are, encouraged by a British critic, who finds it all vain, objecting to standards set by Billy Holiday, Stevie Wonder and these younger pop tarts, in favor of who, Pat Boone? How about we go back to marching band and waltz music for war and peace time?

Do you hear yourselves? I smell a big white wash at the bottom of all this "debate" over what fruit makes the best jam.

It's 1000 times more foolish and boring to entertain anyone who takes a stand against riffs, runs, bending or blue notes, and even rookie singers who are just attempting blue notes, than to hear these notes in action.

And it makes no difference if blowhard Bob and Betty from London are just showing off their knowledge or personal preferences, suggesting their taste is a cut above the pack. Life no long enough to read or listen to critics who make a living never saying something nice.

Feb. 04 2010 02:48 PM
austin gil from hudson county nj

to grimey: re: like vs. dislike. as a revelatiion,is not what you said,akin to saying water is rather wet.

Feb. 04 2010 02:46 PM
K from Yonkers

Not that I'm complaining (at all), but did I just miss it, or did John at least spare us Mariah?

Feb. 04 2010 02:44 PM
Romesh Banerjee from Rego Park

I'm surprised, nobody mentioned that in most cases today malisma is FAULTY singing. When the singer sings the WRITTEN music (such as Gloria in Excelcia) then it's correct. However, most singers today (American Idol types) use this technique because they are not confident of hitting the right note the first time. So they waffle up and down irregular notes to cover up. Haven't you noticed - they cannot repeat the malisma? Now we have a new word for annoying!

Feb. 04 2010 02:43 PM
bob from huntington

Look folks, a lot of what you're hearing today described as Melisma is not a singer showing off all the notes the can hit.

All too often, it's someone of limited ability desperately throwing enough stuff against the wall in hopes that something will stick!

It's not ability; it's inability.

Feb. 04 2010 02:35 PM
Robots Need To Party from NYC

Its great when your smackdown guests come armed with knowledge and not just opinion. Kudos to the guests. They've made an annoying topic interesting to me. :)

Feb. 04 2010 02:35 PM
William D.

There's nothing 'wrong' about using a melisma. However, it's all about context, context, context. To my ear- I just don't hear context in most modern applications of the melisma. It's painfully obvious it's become some kind of musical sceptre the singer shows to the masses who watch such performances.

Feb. 04 2010 02:35 PM
Cantor Marcia Lane from Long Branch, NJ

Melisma pre-dates Gregorian chant. It dates back to Second Temple times, and is certainly also evident in classical hazzanute - the music of Jewish synagogues -- to this day,

Cantor Marcia Lane

Feb. 04 2010 02:35 PM
guy anglade from brooklyn, new york

In rock music, I think one should look into Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins as she mastered the art of melisma. Fraser's vocal abilities gave a sense of mystery to their music.

Feb. 04 2010 02:34 PM
guy anglade from brooklyn, new york

In rock music, I think one should look into Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins as she mastered the art of melisma. Fraser's vocal abilities gave a sense of mystery and heightened their music.

Feb. 04 2010 02:34 PM
guy anglade from brooklyn, new york

In rock music, I think one should look into Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins as she mastered the art of melisma. Fraser's vocal abilities gave a sense of mystery and heightened their music.

Feb. 04 2010 02:34 PM
Barbara from Yonkers

Quality, rather than quantity, is what matters here. Sam Cooke and Marion Williams are completely connected to the music they're singing, so the melisma is integrated and organic. With most contemporary pop singers, it's about the melisma, or showing that they can do it, rather than any connection to the song or the music. Yuk...

Less is definitely more!!

Feb. 04 2010 02:28 PM
The Truth from Brooklyn

John, enough with the Mariah Carey and American Idol. Please, I go to public radio to avoid this stuff!

Feb. 04 2010 02:27 PM
Vinny_G from The Upper West Side

My dog doesn't mind it, but I do!

Feb. 04 2010 02:27 PM
Marcelo from Park Slope

Honesty has a way of showing itself thru expressions of art. When the singer is true to what they're singing, a melisma can give you goosebumps. When the artist is simply showing off, the melisma comes across with that same intention, snobby and showoff'ish. Maybe it's a good measure of who's the real thing.

Feb. 04 2010 02:27 PM
Frank Grimaldi from EV NYC

Melisima is beautiful when it is used sparingly and/or on certain songs. Sam Cook knew when and when not to use the technigue, unfortunately Beyonce and Mariah do not!!!!!!

Feb. 04 2010 02:26 PM
austin gil from hudson county nj

sam cook knocks it out of the ballpark with subtlety and grace-what an extraordinary singular talent.

Feb. 04 2010 02:25 PM
Hank from Brooklyn

I don't think melisma is the same a long Clapton riff. That would be more like Fitzgerald skatting. Melisma is often too long.

Feb. 04 2010 02:24 PM
Grimey Boatlegs from Brooklyn

Y'all are being ridiculous. This argument is basically turning into "When its used in songs I like, its good, but when its used in songs I don't like, it stinks." Duh.

Feb. 04 2010 02:23 PM
Voter from Brooklyn

There seems to be an absence of opera in the discussion about melisma.
What’s the correlation to vibrato or tremolo and melisma. Marion Williams melisma was also heavy on vibrato.

Feb. 04 2010 02:23 PM
Bob from New Jersey

C'mon, we all know a lot of these singers do this because they just can't reach or sustain the high notes. So they slide them all over the place.

Feb. 04 2010 02:17 PM
Greg from UES

John, as you know, melisma was used for centuries in Arabic music, in Baroque opera, in Gregorian chant. I wonder if there were reactions against such display in those genres and eras? Particularly when there's a religious element involved, and music was there to praise a higher being, did "indulgent" display rub the religious authorities the wrong way?

Feb. 04 2010 02:16 PM
Richard from Brooklyn, New York

This is so far from the wonderful masters of, what in Indian music, is now as "gamuk", and the heart-wrenching gospel vocalists.

A mere wavering and extension of notes with no musicality to it is what has become in vogue.

It consistently has the opposite effect of what is seemingly intended - I find it emotionless and affected as performed by most singers these days.

I wish some of these people would hear the true use of melisma.

Ask Lenny Lopate to play you some examples from his extraordinary collection of black gospel music.

Feb. 04 2010 02:16 PM
Bob from New Jersey

C'mon. We all know a lot of singers, particularly on Idol, do this because they can't reach or sustain the high notes, so they slide them all over the place.

Feb. 04 2010 02:16 PM
Ted In Atlanta from Design Department

Matt Serletic had (has?) a studio in Atlanta called Melisma, interestingly. It may have legit origins but imho certainly has become the hallmark of tacky /flamboyant/ gaudy; I guess just overused, perhaps just not my taste.

Feb. 04 2010 02:16 PM
Soundcheck producer from New York, NY

OK, OK: several votes against melisma in pop. What about Greg's example: Stevie Wonder and "Superstition?"

Feb. 04 2010 02:13 PM
austin gil from hudson county nj

corelation of melisma to scat?

Feb. 04 2010 02:13 PM
Erica P. from NJ

Contrary to the guest's assertion, I feel melisma , especially as it's employed nowadays, decreases the emotional content of the words. As in most aspects of music, restraint and taste are required and in short supply.

Feb. 04 2010 02:12 PM
Edw from NYC

It's doing scales in a song!
Vocal exercises belong in the practice studio, not in a song.

Feb. 04 2010 02:11 PM
Marielle from Brooklyn

Never knew there was a name for it - I thought it was just called annoying.

Feb. 04 2010 02:07 PM
bob from huntington

Melisma also gives cover to a lot of singers who can't hit and hold a note--witness 95 percent of American Idol contestant.

Feb. 04 2010 02:07 PM
Robots Need To Party from NYC

Melisma in Pop is the most annoying and egotistical thing a singer can do. Soundcheck should just stop the smackdowns after this. You're really struggling for some subject matter. You've just resorted to torturing a good portion of your audience, and their dogs with any soundbites you might play.

Feb. 04 2010 02:06 PM
austin gil from hudson county nj

mariah carey-melisma porn anyone?

Feb. 04 2010 01:07 PM
Greg from UES

Monteverdi's opera Poppea has some of the most florid uses of melisma anywhere. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is another master of the melisma. And of course, in the pop vernacular, Stevie Wonder's Superstition...

Feb. 04 2010 12:42 PM
Rocky Balboa from Grammercy Park

Josquin du Prez totally rocks the melisma.

Feb. 04 2010 12:01 PM
bryan from brooklyn, ny

angels we have heard on high?

Feb. 04 2010 10:59 AM
Kathy from Wantagh, NY

I am so sick of vocal acrobatics! Please, just sing the darn song!

Feb. 04 2010 09:01 AM

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