Girl’s Caterwauling, or as the Music Pros Call It, Melismatic Phrasing

Okay, you probably didn’t know there was a technical term for it, but the vocal “embellishments” and “fancy-ness” that the I-wanna-be-a-star kids do on television (usually at either American Idol or when they are called upon to sing on a large, televised platform (say, the national anthem, etc).  You know, when the kid belts out some completely imitative ornate version of a song they have heard some “star” do, that just sounds completely not-about-the-song, but about the amateurish credentials of the singer.  Here is an example, a 11 year old kid singing (!) the National Anthem:

This is the Worst National Anthem Rendition Ever,” by Timothy Burke, Deadspin, July 28, 2010. (Video 2:52)

There are so many things wrong with that rendition that it isn’t worth the time to go over them.  But one thing stood out in my mind: the times the little girl used the technique variously called–among gospel singers–“church runs” or–to music scholars– melisma, the embellishment of a vowel in a syllable, by giving it more notes than one.

Melismatic Phrasing: a Definition

Melisma is, according to Wikipedia, 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.

So, when words (and their syllables) are paired with music, there are two ways in which this can be done: in a melismatic way, and in a syllabic.  Here is an example that included both types of pairings, sung by the soprano voices and the alto voices:

The words and syllables at the beginning of the line are sung by each syllable: “For unto us a Child is”, and the last word, the word “born” has the vocal “o” in it, which is used for all of the notes that follow in Handel’s Messiah (melismatically).

In fact, we find melismatic singing in many forms of classical and religious music, and indeed, in our own very early Western tradition singing, that is Gregorian chant.  Gregorian chant, as in this short YouTube example, “Dominica in Albis,” is a combination of both techniques:

Dominica in Albis Gregorian chant (YouTube 1:56)

Then there is Aretha’s version of melisma, as I say, in this usage, called a Church Run:

Aretha Franklin Church Runs (Melisma)  (YouTube 5:09)

Jody Rosen’s Article about American Idol
and the Kid Corp Who Try Embellishment

While looking for articles on melisma and its use today, I ran across a gold mine: a 2003 article in the New York Times by one of its pop music critics, Jody Rosen. The article was titled “State of the American Singing As Heard on ‘I-I-I-I-I-I-Idol‘”.

But what is noteworthy about ”American Idol,” whose new winner will be crowned on Wednesday, is the similarity between its young hopefuls and the reigning royalty of Billboard’s pop and rhythm and blues charts. ”American Idol” offers a telling glimpse of the state of American popular singing, an art which has in the last decade been dominated not just by a single style — a kind of watered-down gospel-soul — but by a particular vocal mannerism: melisma.

A melisma is a passage of several notes sung to a single syllable. It is a nearly universal musical gesture — heard in everything from Gregorian chant to Indian raga to the Muslim muezzin’s trilling call to prayer — and a fixture of many of the genres that nourished American pop, in particular the gospel music that Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and others carried out of the black church and recast as secular soul and R & B.

Christina Aguilera hurtles across octaves, distending the ”I” in ”I am beautiful” into a fluttering ”I-I-I-I-I-I”

R & B stars like Destiny’s Child and R. Kelly pile melismas atop a skeletal backdrop of beats and backing vocals.

Singers of R & B ”slow jams” are particularly prone to melismatic flights — Stevie Wonder impersonations gone terribly wrong.

”How You Gonna Act Like That,” the current hit ballad by the R & B lothario Tyrese, is typical, packing more than a hundred melismas into its 4 minutes 54 seconds. There is scarcely a vowel sound in the song that Tyrese does not use as an occasion for vocal embroidery.

Then Rosen gets at the differences between the originals and the pretenders:

Soul innovators like Mr. Charles and Ms. Franklin were capable of melisma that could singe the false eyelashes of divas like Ms. Carey and Whitney Houston, but they used the technique more sparingly, and more meaningfully — as fevered expressions of emotions beyond words. Listen to Mr. Charles’s ”Come Back Baby” (1954). He employs all kinds of vocal flourishes, whooping and growling, lagging teasingly behind the beat and sliding into an unearthly falsetto. When he does break into melisma, he does so in the service of his song: in his vocal hiccups we hear the pain of a spurned lover.

Ms. Carey and Ms. Houston are technical virtuosos, but their overwrought melismas communicate nothing but ego. The difference between ”Come Back Baby” and Ms. Carey’s melisma-saturated ”Hero,” between Ms. Franklin’s transcendent 1972 recording of ”Amazing Grace” and Ms. Houston’s showpiece ballad ”I Will Always Love You,” is the difference between a musical performance and an athletic exhibition — the difference between soul and ”soul.”

Here are the REAL singers using melisma:

Ray Charles,Come Back Baby(YouTube 3:06)

Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace(YouTube 2:02)

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