What is this musicial technique called?

There is a trend in music that I find so annoying - putting a huge number of grace notes in songs. For instance, during the Inauguration concert, Beyonce Knowles managed to cram something like 12 different notes into the single syllable word “sea” during “America The Beautiful”.

This is not pretty, and frankly it is not impressive. It requires more skill to hold one pure note well than to jump all over the place. But American Idol seems to have made this stuff the default.

I’m sure there must be a proper, technical term for this other than “cramming an excessive number of notes into a place where the writer only put one”. What is it?


Cool, thank you. I quite like the fact that it sounds like a terrible disease that one would want to give money to help wipe out. “Please give so we can defeat Melisma in our lifetime”.

Melisma is a disease of the soul.

That wiki link has now got that “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oria” tune stuck in my head. Worse because that’s the only word of that song I remember. AHHHHHHH!

Vox Imperatoris

in eggshells this day-ay-o

why yes, I was a choirboy, why do you ask?

The technical term for it is ‘crap’.

Vocal Gymnastics

Much as I love the song, I wish Stevie would have cut it out with the technique:

But, but, if it weren’t for melisma, how would we ever have learned that “I-I-I-EEEE-I-I will always love YOOO-OOO-OO-OOOO-OO-OOO-OOO-OO-OO-OOOOOO-OO-OOOOUUUUUUUUUUUUUAAAAAH will always lo --”


THANK you. Anyway, where would we as a society be without that particular masterpiece, hmm?

Gads I hate this style of singing!!! How did it ever become popular??

(FWIW - Last year “American Idol”, a show that seems to just lurve melisma, was won by David Cook, a good singer & the finalist who DIDN’T sing this way. This is truly a hopeful time in our nation’s history).

Is this one of those things where the problem isn’t melisma but the overuse of melisma? In other words, is there a popular song where the occasional, restrained use of this technique is effective?

“Amazing Grace” seems to be a particular candidate for murdering in this way.

It’s a stylistic concept used heavily in soul music. Contrast the straight-arrow performance of the spiritual, Soon it will be done as sung by this high school choir (at about 3:25), followed by a soulful free-form rendition of the same song by Hervy Hodges (at about 6:40), who claims to be channeling Mahalia Jackson:


Yes, as mentioned, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” better known as “the one that goes, ‘Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!’” The difference being that it’s not screeching improvisation and warbling that can’t settle on a goddamn note, it’s very distinct and solid notes meant to be sung sequentially over the same elongated syllable. Every choir or singer can to it and do it well and sound good at it because it’s mathematical and makes sense.

Now get off my laaaaa-aaaaw-aaaaaw-aaaaaahhhhh-AAAAAAAH-AWN!

Thank you for bringing this up. I thought I was the only one that hated it! I think it started with Whitney Houston (or at least I choose to blame her). And I haven’t been able to listen to any of these so-called divas since without wanting to strangle them. The SINGER is supposed to showcase the SONG!

It’s one of those things that comes and goes in terms of fashion. Sometimes the composer uses it deliberately to great effect. In “Messiah”, there are many instances in both the solo parts and in the choral parts where it is used to reflect the words that are being sung - ‘Thus saith the Lord - the Lord of hosts: Yet once, a little while, and I will sha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ake the Heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land - and I will sha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ake;’ etc. giving the aural effect of shaking. Or ‘All we like sheep have gone astra-a-a-a-a-a-ay.’, with the lines going off in different directions. Tasteful, beautiful, sanctioned by the composer.

And then there are times where it gets too ornate and starts to piss people off…

It’s a chance for the singer to show off their vocal ability and their taste. And when it gets to be too much, the singer gets reactions like the above, and the taste starts to change back to “just sing the f!@#$g tune!”, which it does for a while until people start to find that a little dry, and then somebody does a decorative flourish that people find cool and the cycle starts all over again…

So true - melisma is a spice best used sparingly so it doesn’t spoil the entree, if you will.

If you ever get a chance, find VH-1’s first Divas tribute - divas like Carey and Dion (I think it was those two) were nauseatingly melismatic ;-). Then the Queen of Soul was introduced - now THERE is melisma done right - itty-bitty flourished to sting a phrase

I think it should be called Girl, You Ain’t Mariah.

I agree that it can be quite lovely when done right, it’s the bebop I can sing like Charlie Parker played stuff that grates.