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PopEntertainment.com > Miscellaneous > Blame In on the Melisma

Blame It on the Melisma

By Mark Mussari

In the late 1500s Pope Gregory the XIII decided enough was enough.  Gregory believed that the melodies of the Gregorian chant, the musical mainstay of the Catholic Church’s mass, had become corrupted.  Singers were singing more than one note for each syllable of the chant—a vocal technique known as melisma—and the pope wanted to put a stop to it.  

Gregory ordered church officials to banish all use of melisma from the singing of Gregorian chants.  The pope ultimately failed in his attempt, and by the late 1800s the Catholic Church had rejected all of his changes.  Still old Gregory the XIII may have been on to something.

Living proof that the pope was fighting a losing battle with melisma can be found in the angelic voiced Aaron Neville, who hasn’t met a note he can’t bend, trill or alter with his mellifluous tenor.  It takes a singer of Neville’s range and control, however, to pull off all this vocal maneuvering. 

The effect of melisma on contemporary singing is undeniable, and one need look no further than American Idol to realize its often deleterious effects.  Each week the contestants attack a new song with the vengeance of a threatened mountain lion. 

The nascent singers, almost all of whom are younger than the songs they sing, run the gamut from pseudo-soulful to pseudo-country—but they all share one thing in common: their performances have replaced the drama of emoting with unbearable over-singing, heavily reliant on melisma.  We no longer listen to lyrics, because the singer’s histrionics are now the sole focus of attention.

The progenitors of melodramatic pop singing are Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder.  In their heyday Franklin and Wonder, possessed of incredible ranges and vocal control, could soar around notes, rip through lines and transform even the most mundane lyrics into human drama.  Both were also musicians (many forget that Franklin is an accomplished pianist), and their inherent musical knowledge often protected them from straying too far from the note.

In other words, to quote American Idol judge Randy Jackson, they were rarely “pitchy.”  Unfortunately many who have followed Franklin and Wonder lack both the vocal dexterity and the musical knowledge to pull off either the dynamism or melisma of those two powerhouses.

Today’s musicians refer to melisma as “runs,” those trilling embellishments, favored by hip-hop artists, in which the singer dances all around the actual note.  Struggling to do more than their voices are capable of doing, most of these singers end up singing flat.  As Jackson would say to his Idol wannabes: “You didn’t make your runs, dawg.”

By the time Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, the templates for today’s bombastic female singers, came on the scene, another cultural phenomenon had taken place.  The song became simply a vehicle for the singer to flex her vocal muscles.  The lyrics, once the reason for singing, began to wane as Houston and Carey—and most who have followed them—moved the attention onto their vocal maneuvers.

There’s a great irony to this development, clearly evident in the young American Idol hopefuls.  In their attempts to prove they are “great” singers, they are oddly void of relating any real emotion.  The song’s meaning, located in that intricate dance between words and music, becomes lost in the shuffle. 

Watching “American Idol,” you are rarely moved or touched by anyone’s performance, no matter how impressive, because no one seems actually to feel anything.  The singers have become disassociated from the very words they are singing.  A recent New York Times article even lamented the increasing influence of this approach on Broadway singing.

By over-singing and rendering the song irrelevant, contemporary singers are unwittingly contributing to the disposability of popular music.  Sadly enough the singers, thanks in great part to too much melisma, are killing the song.  

 

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Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 29, 2005.

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