Can You Say Melisma?

An earlier article mentioned how stress is the primary way of emphasizing syllables in English poetry and forms the basis of poetic meter. And how music has other ways of bringing emphasis to parts of the lyrics, tools that are not available to the poet.

By the standards of poetry, song lyrics can look a little flat on the page, and sometimes they include clichéd phrases or unoriginal observations. But that’s because the lyrics weren’t written to be read like poetry, but to be sung.

For example, look at the first line of the chorus that supplies the title of Dolly Parton’s famous song:

      And I will always love you

You might not be very impressed by this as poetry. But banality of the words aside, when you hear it sung, the line is transformed into something almost profound. Here’s Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You”:

Houston uses throughout this song a technique called “melisma,” where she changes the pitch of her voice on a single syllable, giving the quoted line an impact it would otherwise never have. You could also argue that in this case complicating the line lyrically would only detract from its sound when sung; here a simpler lyric is better.

Melisma has been around for a long time and it’s hard to find a song that doesn’t use this technique at all. That’s because it also serves as a way of lengthening the line to fit a musical phrase, providing flexibility both to the lyricist and the singer.

Here’s an example of a song without much melisma, something closer to a pure “syllabic” technique where each syllable gets its own pitch. This is the band Brass Against doing a cover of Alanis Morissette’s song, “Uninvited”:

Poetic stress often involves an increase in pitch on stressed syllables. With a poem in meter, the rise and fall of pitch is determined by where the “accents” fall within each word and the position of each syllable in the meter. It’s interesting to hear singing against the natural meter of the words, the way Sophia Urista does in this song, particularly with words like “unfortunate,” where the pitch increases with each syllable, which is not how the word would be sounded out in spoken English.

If you’re looking for an example of a song that mixes these various vocal techniques, listen to Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop”:

Another thing to listen to is how the singing and instruments interact. Are the lyrics sung over the instrumental parts, or do the instruments pause or drop in volume when the singing begins? And what happens during pauses between sung phrases, does the music swell in volume there or change in some other way?

A good example of this interaction is the 60s song “I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)” by the Electric Prunes. As an exemplar of “psychedelic” music, this song features several odd sounds not often heard in pop music. For example, just before the first chorus, you’ll hear an oboe-like sound after each phrase. That this sound doesn’t appear until about the 45-second mark makes me think it was saved for emphasis because of the effect it creates, almost like an echo of or a comment on the phrase it follows:

Returning to the example of Led Zep’s “Misty Mountain Hop” from above, one of the most distinctive aspects of this song is its grinding, relentless guitars repeating the same few notes over and over. And yet the guitars usually fade into the background with the singing, either to keep the song from becoming monotonous or maybe so the lyrics remain intelligible. In either case this grind-sing-grind-sing-grind interplay creates a drama of its own, independent of the lyrics.

Each of us has a unique speaking voice, a combination of sounds and rhythms that usually reflect how and where we learned to speak, but can also be full of random things that don’t fit a predictable pattern.

Just as a speaking voice is the result of numerous influences, so too is a singing voice, sometimes even changing from song to song, perhaps to better fit the mood or music of a song or to imitate (or differentiate from) another singer who did the song.

Earlier articles cited example songs sung by Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. To my ear, Dylan and Fogerty do not have singing voices that I would characterize as typical of where they grew up (northern Minnesota with Dylan and the San Francisco Bay Area with Fogerty). That suggests they altered their voices in some way, perhaps more than once. In both cases they seem to have created a voice that sounds like it’s from “someplace else.”

By that I mean they have incorporated bits of how various Americans sound. For example, contrast any of the Dylan songs cited in previous articles with his cover of the old American folk song, “House of the Rising Sun,” from his first album. Is he imitating his early idol, Woody Guthrie (from Oklahoma), or some old-time singer, or is he just a young singer still searching for his voice?

© 10 Franks 2022

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