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 And, inevitably, there is the Soulful Syllable Stretch. The Soulful Syllable Stretch involves elongating words with flashy arpeggios and trills: "love" becomes "lo-oh-ho-HEY-ah-ho-HO-ho-hoooooooOOOOOOOOVE!" A Soulful Syllable Stretch Grand Mistress, such as Beyonce Knowles of Destiny's Child, can make one word last a week. Keys alternates Soulful Syllable Stretches with pregnant pauses. How Come You Don't Call Me? is so rife with the latter, you suspect the involvement of Harold Pinter.

Alexis Petridis reviewing an Alicia Keys concert.


When it comes to singing, there are basically two approaches you can take: syllabic or melismatic.

Syllabic means that if you have lyrics, each syllable gets one note. Pretty straightforward enough. In fact, it's so straightforward it's basically the universal way of singing.

This also includes the songs where for a certain syllable the note sung goes through a bit of tremolo, or there's a glissando between one syllable and the next one. You can throw in flourishes if you want, but the rule of thumb remains "one syllable = one note".

Melismatic means that you hold down one syllable while moving through several notes. This is called melisma. It's very common in religious, Arab, Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, Indian and various other types of music, especially Folk music (such as the Portuguese fado).

Melisma migrated over to pop music at some indistinct point (credit for popularising it varies between Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey or some others), and now it's pretty common in R&B or R&B-influenced pop music. Remember Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You"? That's melisma.[1] It's easy to see why it ended up in pop music: used properly it can have a great effect. The only problem is that there have been many singers recently who just blindly abuse it to lend their songs some sort of "soulfulness" or whatever, and it just becomes annoying, as demonstrated by the above quote. A frequent way to deride these singers is to note that they take simple words like "yeah", "I" or "whoa" and stretch it to something like over 9000 syllables. But the real problem is that some artists don't have the skill or vocal range to actually pull it off.

More info about the abuse of this technique can be found here.

People who love melisma:

  • Hell, throw a rock in R&B, you're gonna hit somebody who does this.
  • Regina Spektor
  • Beyonce
  • Christina Aguilera
  • Alanis Morissette
  • Handel's Messiah takes this Up to Eleven with a 57-note melisma.
    • Handel was pretty fond of melismas in general--the rest of the Messiah alone is full of examples.
      • Something he had in common with a lot of Baroque composers. "Vittoria mio core" is a notable example.
  • "I'm Gonna Sing 'Till the Spirit" by Moses Hogan. The tenors start and it piles up with Sopranos and Altos and it has more notes than the Handel piece.
  • Edward Shippen Barnes, the person responsible for the most famous arrangement of the Christmas hymn "Angels We Have Heard On High".

 Glo-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-o-o-o-o-O-ri-a in Ex-cel-sis De-o!

  • Harry Belafonte: "Daaaay-O! Da-a-ay-O! Daylight come and I wanna go home!"
  • Dream Pop bands like Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance and Love Spirals Downwards frequently used this trope. Awesomely.
  • Religious music was AMAZINGLY GOOD AT THIS. In a piece intended to be sung at Christmas Mass from the 1300s, 10 minutes were needed to sing two sentences due to the massive amounts of melisma.
  • Lou Gramm from Foreigner.
  • Bobby Kimball from Toto.
  • Roza Rymbaeva
  • Non-music example: the voice of Nicol Williamson, which John Boorman described with this trope, saying he had "an uncanny knack for putting more syllables in each word than there already were".
  • David Draiman of Disturbed has a good knack for doing this, possibly rooted in his training to be a cantor in Jerusalem during his youth. He rarely has opportunities to use it in the band's music, but it can make surprise appearances.
  • American Idol contestants.
  • Martina McBride has a powerful soprano, and she's not afraid to use it.
    • Of course, she's not standing alone in the Country Music Pantheon. Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, and Sara Evans all do it as well, and it's fairly common amongst country singers. So much so, in fact, that new singer Kimberly Perry of The Band Perry received praise for her "unpolished" vocals.
  • Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts is guilty of this from time to time.
  • Reba McEntire did this throughout most of the 1980s, but stopped doing it around the mid-1990s.
  • Aaron Tippin does it on "My Blue Angel", stretching out "Blue" into God knows how many syllables.
  • In The Simpsons episode Dancing Homer, Bleeding Gums Murphy's rendition of the American national anthem at the start of a baseball game is so full of melisma that he manages to make it last 26 minutes: he starts singing at 7:30, he finishes at 7:56, to the great relief of the audience.
  • One of the most famous instances in musical theater is Christine's stunning vocal run at the end of "Think of Me." (This particular rendition is performed by Rebecca Caine of the original Canadian production - go to 2:53.)
  • Alexandra Burke, but oddly enough the reason why many critics liked her song Bad Boys was because her she averted this trope and her vocals were very reigned in and controlled, making the melody more intense.
  • Axl Rose pulls it off at the end of "Don't Cry".
  • "I've got the mooo-oo-oooo-oo-ooves like Jagger!"
  • Freddie Mercury anyone? "Somebody tooooooooooooooooooooooo... LOOOOOOOOOOOooOoOoOoOooOoOOuuUuuuuhuhuhuuuuuuuuuuv."
  1. Though to be fair, Dolly Parton did it in the original version, too, though not nearly as much.