melisma – vocal ornamentation

With the tv success of American Idol – forgetting that most of the participants fade quickly into obscurity – nearly all genres of music have felt its presence in one key way: melismatic singing.

Melismatic singing – singing many, many notes on only one syllable of lyric – is a great and powerful musical tool. The right amount of melisma in any melodic passage can add an indefinable bit of excitement to a recording or a live performance. Similarly, too much use can ruin a well-composed tune.

And there we see the ground laid for a debate – to use this style or not to use this style – that is the question.

For me the answer is simple: Melismatic singing is part of an individual singer’s style. How much any singer chooses to add – or not – is completely up to the singer and those with whom the singer may be working.

So, if you’re the lead singer in a band, and you are also the sole songwriter, the main melody of every song is pretty much up to you. How much you choose to ornament that melody is also up to you, and you will probably get some input on your style from your band mates. And at that point, you may meet some disagreement.

Suppose, for example, you’re the kind of singer that uses lots of vocal ornamentation. When you write your melodies, you think of them as a basic framework to which you can add musical features on the fly, in an improvisatory manner. Let’s also suppose that some of your band mates think of music in a less ornamental manner, and prefer instead to plan out – that is, arrange and/or compose – everything ahead of time. They may not appreciate your additional ornamentation, regardless of your skill in execution.

Of course, musical skill is a part of the whole package as well. If we go back to the same band, we can wonder, “does the band require the lead guitarist to pre-plan solos, or does the band expect that solos will vary, depending on the lead guitarist’s improvisation of the moment?”

But we can ask these types of questions forever, because we’re simply dancing around style choices, and no one person can ever be correct.

So, here’s a few more questions to ponder:

    What’s the difference between a transcription, a cover, an arrangement, and a composition?
    If your band does a song by another artist, how much of the original song to you have to retain?
    At what point does ornamentation – vocal or instrumental – render a melody unrecognizable? Does it matter?

Maybe, as a listener, you completely love the style demanded, produced, and pushed by the American Idol franchise. In that package, all musical genres demand that the singer add a lot of vocal ornamentation. I’m certain that this style is not to everyone’s liking, but it’s one of the ways that the judges and those in charge of marketing push the contestants to adhere to one musical idea.

On the other hand, that show does not feature original music; instead, the contestants perform their own version of established hits. As a listener, you may not care for the resulting, melodic changes applied by each contestant.

But it’s all personal taste.

I would note, however, that none of the great, classic singers of pop, rock, and folk used very much vocal ornamentation. They used some, for sure, bit they applied it carefully for maximum effect.

I would also note that, over time, things change, and we could easily be entering a new era in which highly ornamented singing is the norm, instead of the exception.