It’s Independence Day in the US, so Americans will be hearing their national anthem sung perhaps even more often than usual. And I’m willing to bet that, with current fads in singing, many will have heard it (as also at baseball and football games and so on) sung in a manner sometimes lately described as oversouled – a miasmal malaise of melisma: “O-oh, sa…ayee-ay-ayyy, ca-uh-aw-ah-uhn yoo-ee-uh-ew-oo-oo-hoo seeheee…” Oh, I smell a wannabe…
Even worse when you accidentally stumble into some “reality” music contest show or other, and they’re all trying to jam as many frills and trills in as they can, some of them (I swear I have seen this) tracing the air in squiggly lines with their index fingers as they do this. Talk about rhythm and bruise.
But while I have a dislike of pretentious oversouling, it would not be fair to tar all melisma with the same brush. Indeed, melisma is a foundation of western (and much non-western) music (with the exception of certain Finnish groups who seem to fit about seven syllables into the same note). At base, it’s just the practice of singing a single syllable over multiple notes. It can range from the long meditative but lifting lines of Gregorian chant (for instance in a Kyrie – click link for a video example) to the wail of a flamenco singer to practically every piece of Arabic song out there to Handel and Mozart and Hall and Oates to… well, take your pick. Not too many songs keep to one note per syllable. Not all have long and involved ornamentation, but I challenge you to find me a popular song (I don’t mean a kindergarten song) that has no instance of melisma: a syllable held over several notes.
Hardly seems even to need a word in that broadest definition, does it? And indeed the word melisma has only been in English since the 1880s, brought over from German (where Felix Mendelssohn used it in 1831), which took it from Greek – Hellenistic Greek melisma μέλισμα “song, air, melody”, from Ancient Greek melos μέλος “song, melody”. (Oh, yes, Greek music has it too. And long lines of melisma were apparently favoured in the ritual music of the Eleusinian mysteries.)
But it’s a lovely word, warm and friendly and lithe and, well, melodic. I feel certain that at this very moment there are hundreds of girls and women walking this earth with the first name Melisma. Why not? Warmer than Melissa, softer than Melody, longer than Lisa or Emma… It has not one phoneme in it that cannot by itself be sung for a long passage: /m/, /ɛ/, /l/, /ɪ/, /z/ (probably the least likeable, musically), /m/ again, /a/ (for singing, or /ʌ/ or /ə/). Reminiscent of mellifluous – which (cognate with French miel) refers to honey – and the Eleusinians and the Elysian Fields and perhaps Irish milseán “sweet, candy” and a smile and perhaps something lissome… And the isma could have been an ism like so many other isms, but the added a makes it so much more singable.
So while you may with justification dislike the many imitators of Whitney, Mariah, Christina, et al., I enjoin you to put them out of your head for a time and listen to Mohamed Khaznadji show how it’s done. Think of him singing the word melisma on one of his myriad-noted melodies…
Thanks to Doug Linzey for suggesting melisma.