Melisma in music sounds complicated, and its roots commonly link to music from centuries ago. Consequently, you may have heard of composers like Giovanni de Palestrina and William Byrd when the word melisma entered a conversation.
In any case, did you know that melisma in music (aka melismatic music) is simply about someone singing a series of notes on the same syllable?
A House is Not a Home
If you like Pop, R&B, or Rock singers, you’ve certainly heard melismatic music. Next, watch and listen to Luther Vandross, one of the greatest R&B singers. On this occasion, he sings the beautiful song A House is Not a Home written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
From the opening of Vandross’ performance, he sings many series of notes on single syllables. Accordingly, he sings “whoa” using the vowel “o” sound, and throughout the song uses “um,” “a,” “yeah,” and much more. As you watch and listen, notice how he sings syllables or parts of words over many notes. Above all, let yourself feel the emotional effect of his performance on listeners.
Power and Tenderness
Overall, I’ll bet you agree that the beauty of Luther Vandross’s performance is unparalleled, and his ability to sing melismatic passages is astounding. Basically, he sang with power and tenderness, pouring every ounce of his emotion into the song and inviting you to feel what he felt.
Spiritual, Meditative Qualities
Back in the day, during the Renaissance period of the 17th and 18th centuries, people were hearing melismatic music and enjoying its beauty and spiritual, meditative qualities. Hence, it’s a neat way of organizing sound with many musical notes for each syllable in choir music.
Here’s an exciting example of music with melismatic passages performed by solo tenor Mark Padmore with the London Symphony Orchestra. It’s undoubtedly one of the most famous of all arias. Straightaway, do enjoy Every Valley Shall be Exalted from George Frederick Handel’s Messiah, written in 1741. Finally, note its incredibly difficult passages on single syllables that still inspire and thrill listeners.
Now that you’re well versed in melisma in music, enjoy this marvelous recording. Accordingly, it’s a performance by Grammy-nominated VOCES8 singing Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus, written around 1630 during the reign of Pope Urban VIII. If you’re walking down Fifth Avenue entering Washington Square Park heading to SOHO, you may want to sit for a quiet moment to listen and reflect on the questions humankind has been asking for millenniums. Perhaps you’ll spend a moment reflecting on the thoughts of our heroes of the Enlightenment like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, or Denis Diderot.