Melisma (Greek: μέλισμα, melisma, song, air, melody; from μέλος, melos, song, melody, plural: melismata) is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, in which each syllable of text is matched to a single note.
Music of ancient cultures used melismatic techniques to induce a hypnotic trance in the listener, useful for early mystical initiation rites (such as Eleusinian Mysteries) and religious worship. This quality is still found in Arabic music where the scale is said to consist of "quarter tones". Orthodox Christian chanting also bears a slight resemblance to this. Middle Eastern melismatic music was developed further in the Torah chanting, as well as by the Masoretes in the seventh or eighth centuries. It then appeared in some genres of Gregorian chant, where it was used in certain sections of the Mass, with the earliest written appearance around AD 900. The gradual and the alleluia, in particular, were characteristically melismatic, for example, while the tract is not, and repetitive melodic patterns were deliberately avoided in the style. The Byzantine Rite also used melismatic elements in its music, which developed roughly concurrently with the Gregorian chant.
In Western music, the term "melisma" most commonly refers to Gregorian chant (the first definition of melisma by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary' is "a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable in plainsong"). However, the term melisma may be used to describe music of any genre, including baroque singing and later gospel. Within Jewish liturgical tradition, melisma is still commonly used in the chanting of Torah, readings from the Prophets, and in the body of a service. For an examination of the evolution of this tradition, see Idelsohn.
Today, melisma is commonly used in Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, and African American music, Fado (Portuguese), Flamenco (Spanish), and various Asian folk and popular musical genres. Melisma is also commonly featured in Western popular music. Early in their careers, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly. Melisma is used by countless pop artists such as Michael Jackson, although this form usually involves improvising melismata (and melismatic vocalise) over a simpler melody. During the fadeout of the Beatles' 1966 track "I Want to Tell You", bassist Paul McCartney can be heard singing a high-pitched melisma in the style of classical Indian music.
The use of melisma is a common feature of artists such as Deniece Williams, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, among others. Use of melismatic vocals in pop music was slowly growing in the 1980s. Deniece Williams topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May 1984, with Let's Hear It for the Boy with her melismatic vocals. Although other artists used melisma before, Houston, her rendition of Dolly Parton's love song "I Will Always Love You" pushed the technique into the mainstream in the '90s. The trend in R&B singers is considered to have been popularized by Mariah Carey's song "Vision of Love", which was released and topped the charts at number one in 1990, and went on to be certified gold.
As late as 2007, melismatic singers such as Leona Lewis were still scoring big hits, but around 2008–2009, this trend reversed to how it was prior to Carey and Houston's success – singers with less showy styles such as Kesha and Cheryl Cole began to outsell new releases by Carey and Christina Aguilera, ending nearly two decades of the style's dominance of pop-music vocals.
The French carol tune "Gloria" arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes in 1937, to which the hymn "Angels We Have Heard on High" is usually sung, contains one of the most melismatic sequences in popular Christian hymn music, on the "o" of the word "Gloria", which is held through 16 different notes. "Ding Dong Merrily on High", arranged by George Ratcliffe Woodward, contains an even longer melisma of 31 notes, also on the "o" of "Gloria".
George Frideric Handel's Messiah contains numerous examples of melisma, as in the following excerpt from the chorus "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" (Part I, No. 12). The soprano and alto lines engage in a 57-note melisma on the word "born".
Melisma is also used, though rarely and briefly, in the music of Jethro Tull: examples include the eponymous track of the album Songs From the Wood and the song "Skating Away (On the Thin Ice of the New Day)". One of the most striking instances in recent pop music occurs in Bruce Springsteen's "The Ties that Bind", in which the "I" in "bind" is iterated 13 times.