A brief history of melisma in popular music feat May Devun
A brief history of melisma in popular music feat May Devun

As you find yourself standing on the edge, do you fall or fly? What’s real is surreal, LA indie pop songstress May Devun sings in her latest track, “Say the Words,” released last week. To answer the question: The earth-shattering vocal runs in “Say the Words” are enough to send me over the edge and barely touching the bottom of the drop before being catapulted into the highest range possible. Listening to a May Devun track is like getting whisked around by a glittering nebula high above the earth. Real, but surreal.

How does her voice reach these astronomical heights? With training and practice, that’s what most would presume. The technique she’s using is called melisma, a single syllable stretched over a vocal run (or series of different notes). Melisma is a vocal tradition dating back 3,000 years ago, originating in the performances of religious opera (George Frideric Handel’s Latin prayer, The Messiah) and classical music. A style of drama and ethos, it’s no wonder R&B and pop singers of the early 80s and 90s have adopted melisma into their singing vocabulary — grammy award-winning artist Whitney Houston has famously owned the style, but before Houston, there were the enigmatic gospel runs of Whitney’s godmother, Aretha Franklin, who burst onto the scene as a choir singer in the late 50s.

Melisma made it into the pop mainstream in large thanks to the choristers who started small and hit it big with their first record deals, but the style often causes eyes to roll because of its over-usage. Sometimes melisma is used similar to how a person with a blemish uses concealer to make up for the natural, or in the singer’s case, natural talent. When a novice singer (or even a great one) uses melisma to over-intensify their vocals, it can amplify other less-than-flattering aspects of their voice (cracking and shakiness) as opposed to enhancing their natural tonality and range.

A case of both novice and great that comes to mind is the fictional YouTube character popularized by actress and comedian Colleen Ballinger, Miranda Sings. Colleen made a killing on the Internet and in her Netflix series, as the self-absorbed, wannabe professional singer on a ruthless quest for fame and stardom. The problem is, she’s not a melismatic singer (although she tries). But little girls the world over love her theatrics and over-the-top personality, mostly because as much of a talentless hack that the character is, Colleen the person is a wonderful singer; she majored in vocal performance at Azusa Pacific University and is classically trained. She also empowers younger audiences to take ownership of their talents. Below, Miranda Sings teaches a young Ariana Grande “the ropes” of singing and acting in a comical performance.

 

So who falls or flies when it comes to melismatic singing? We can say safely that May, Whitney, and Aretha pass with flying colors. We can’t say the same for Miranda Sings (or most rejects from American Idol or The X Factor. Sorry!).

 

 

 

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