AskDefine | Define melisma

User Contributed Dictionary



From μέλισμα.


  • /mə'lɪzmə/


  1. A passage of several notes sung to one syllable of text, as in Gregorian chant.
    • 1985: A choir sang one of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The mournful melisma accompanied the slow procession to the palace built by Herod the Great, at present untenanted. — Anthony Burgess, Kingdom of the Wicked



Extensive Definition

Melisma, in music, is the technique of changing the note (pitch) of a single syllable of text while it is being sung. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where 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 (Eleusinian Mysteries) and religious worship. This quality is still found in much Jewish, Hindu and Muslim religious music today. 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 the service itself. For an examination of the evolution of this tradition, see Idelsohn.
Melisma first appeared in written form in the system of Torah chanting developed by the Masoretes in the 7th or 8th century and then in some genres of Gregorian chant, with the earliest written appearance around AD 900, where it was used in certain sections of the Mass. 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 their music, which developed roughly concurrently to the Gregorian chant.
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". Moreover, the choral work "For Unto Us a Child is Born" from Handel's Messiah (Part I, No. 12) contains impressive examples of melisma.
Melisma is today commonly used in Middle Eastern, African, Balkan and various Asian folk and popular musical genres. Melisma is also commonly featured in Western popular music, although this form of melisma usually involves improvising melismas (and melismatic vocalise) over a simpler melody, and is utilized by countless pop artists. Popular artists famous for melisma include Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. The use of melisma is common in Indian classical and popular music.

See also

melisma in Bulgarian: Мелизъм
melisma in Catalan: Melisma
melisma in German: Melisma
melisma in Spanish: Melisma
melisma in Esperanto: Melismo
melisma in French: Mélisme
melisma in Italian: Melisma
melisma in Hungarian: Melizma
melisma in Dutch: Melisme
melisma in Japanese: メリスマ
melisma in Polish: Melizmat
melisma in Portuguese: Melisma
melisma in Russian: Мелизм
melisma in Simple English: Melisma
melisma in Slovak: Melizma
melisma in Finnish: Melisma
melisma in Swedish: Melism
melisma in Thai: เมลิสม่า
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