Melisma in Music

A surreal landscape of notes and syllables seen while approaching Washington Square Park. Posted in Melisma in Music on OpeningNight.Online. Digital Art by Edward Kliszus
A surreal landscape of notes and syllables seen while approaching Washington Square Park. Digital Art by Edward Kliszus

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-side label of Dance with My Father vinyl single by Luther Vandross. Posted on Melisma in Music on OpeningNight.Online.Public Domain

A-side label of Dance with My Father vinyl single by Luther Vandross. Public Domain

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.

Emotional Effect

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.

After Thomas Hudson (1701-79) - George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) - RCIN 405649 - Royal Collection. Public Domain

After Thomas Hudson (1701-79) – George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) – RCIN 405649 – Royal Collection. Public Domain

Every Valley

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.

The Enlightenment

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 LockeImmanuel Kant, Voltaire, or Denis Diderot.

Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746). "Voltaire à l'âge de 24 ans, 1728" Huile sur toile. Paris, musée Carnavalet. Posted in Melisma in Music on OpeningNight.Online. Public Domain

Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746). “Voltaire à l’âge de 24 ans, 1728” Huile sur toile. Paris, musée Carnavalet. Public Domain

Readers may also enjoy our reviews of Timbre in Music, The Counter ReformationBar Italia MadisonChez Josephine, and Madrigal Music.

Melisma in Music


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