When you sing a melisma, you are elongating one sung syllable by adding a variety of neighboring tones with great pitch accuracy that fits well in the context of a song.
For example, Whitney Houston's "And I Will Always Love You" has many melismas in the chorus section.
A melisma usually has a series of at least three notes, that are close in pitch, and sung consecutively.
Think of someone running down and up a flight of stairs, where the person running is the voice, and each step is each note or pitch that they hit while singing downward or upward.
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Note how stairs are different from a slide, so sliding down a scale vocally is not singing a melisma. Each note needs to be crisply hit with pitch accuracy.
Here's an example of me singing a melisma with three notes. The notes, E, D, and C, or also Mi, Re, and Do, go straight down the major scale.
Here's one where I sing two melisma phrases put together, totaling six notes. Their paired 3 and 3 with E D C, then D C A, or Mi Re Do, then Re, Do, La.
My examples are of me running in a descending direction, but you can also do runs or melismas upwards. I personally find upward runs a bit harder to do, and to back up my point, I rarely hear people do them!
Melismatic techniques go as far back as music from ancient Greek music, Irish folk music, and Arabic music.
Melismas were often used in the baroque style of music, with many of them written in harmony for choirs to sing. It is very often heard in Gregorian chants where elaborate melodies are sung on long sustained vowels, as in the Alleluia.
More modernly, melismas are commonly found in pop genres of music, including R&B, gospel, country, and dance music.
Melismas are regularly used in Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, Portuguese, Spanish, and some Asian and Celtic folk music to give music variety and embellishment.
Runs and riffs are often used as terms that are synonymous with melismas and used in more modern styles of music.
While they share a lot of similarities, runs and riffs more often refer to melismas that are done at a very quick pace and more often in shorter phrases.
The examples I gave above where I sing melismas with 3 to 5 notes consecutively are closer to runs and riffs, while melismas are more often sung at a slower pace with more notes sung in the phrases.
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Melismas require precise pitch accuracy as you navigate through multiple notes in quick succession. Work on your ear training and practice hitting each note crisply and accurately. Use vocal exercises and scales to improve your pitch control.
Building vocal agility is crucial for executing melismas effectively. Practice exercises that involve quick note transitions, such as scales, arpeggios, and vocal runs.
Gradually increase the speed and complexity of these exercises to enhance your vocal flexibility.
Adequate breath control is essential for sustaining melismas and ensuring a smooth transition between notes. Focus on diaphragmatic breathing and learn to support your voice with proper breath control.
This will help you maintain consistency and control throughout the melismatic phrases.
Melismas should enhance the song's meaning and emotional expression. Take the time to understand the lyrics and the overall context of the song.
Tailor your melismatic embellishments to fit the mood, dynamics, and message of the song, creating a cohesive musical experience.
If you're new to singing melismas, begin with simpler phrases and gradually increase the complexity. Practice melismas with fewer notes and slower tempos, focusing on precision and clarity.
As you become more comfortable, challenge yourself with longer melismatic phrases and faster tempos.
Study and listen to accomplished singers known for their melismatic abilities. Pay attention to their technique, phrasing, and interpretation.
Analyze how they navigate through melismas and incorporate their style into your own singing. This can help you develop your unique melismatic approach while drawing inspiration from experienced performers.
If you're looking to add short melismas that are like runs and riffs, they are best used when you're freestyling on a song, also known as adlibbing.
You will often hear runs in intros, outros, and the adlib part where a singer is freestyling over the hook of a song. These types of melismas are also often used in the climactic point of a verse or chorus to emphasize a key phrase.
If you want to add ornamentation to your music that is more embedded in the song's structure, consider adding a melisma to your chorus or pre-chorus section.
Melismas are easy to remember and can be quite catchy if written well, so they make for great additions to the sections of the song that you want to be most memorable and to stand out the best.
A great song that comes to mind is Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry Bout A Thing" which has been covered several dozen times. The chorus section has the perfect mid-tempo melisma on the word "thing".
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