What Is A Melisma In Singing? Tuesday January 18 2022, 7:26 PM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
What Is A Melisma In Singing?

How To Sing A Melisma


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 3 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 that has 3 notes in it. 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 upwards runs or melismas. I personally find upward runs a bit harder to do, and to back up my point, I rarely hear people do them! 

Melismas Throughout Music History


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. 


Melismas Vs. Runs And Riffs


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.  

Related Post: What Is A Run In Singing?

When Is The Best Time To Do A Melisma?


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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Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 200 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, features, nursery rhymes, and DJ drops, she currently spends her time engulfed in creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Her most recent creative collaborations include work with PBS Sound Field, Tribe of Noise, and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Check out Yona’s latest music releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share the music if you like it!

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