Word I Learned: Melisma

The latest piece in Slate’s excellent daily audio podcast was Bigger Than Elvis, an encomium of Mariah Carey. In it, writer Jody Rosen repeatedly uses the term ‘melisma’ to describe Ms. Carey’s singing style:

Mariah’s accomplishment begins, of course, with her voice, or, rather, The Voice—that cyclonic force capable of hurtling unnumbered octaves, shattering crystal ware, and inducing musicogenic epileptic seizures in Japanese women. Carey is the most influential vocal stylist of the last two decades, the person who made rococo melismatic singing—the trick of embroidering syllables with multiple no-o-o-o-o-o-tes—the ubiquitous pop style. Exhibit A is American Idol, which has often played out as a clash of melisma-mad Mariah wannabes. And, today, nearly 20 years after Carey’s debut, major labels continue to bet the farm on young stars such as the winner of Britain’s X Factor show*, Leona Lewis, with her Generation Next gloss on Mariah’s big voice and big hair.

I expect this word is familiar to musicians and music historians out there, but it was new to me. Wikipedia says that the technique has its origins in “early mystical initiation rites and religious worship”. Apparently the most well-known usage is in Gregorian chant.

Jody Rosen actually makes a pretty good case for not dismissing Mariah Carey. I’ve never been a fan, but I was reminded of “Heartbreaker”. It’s a half-decent pop song, and has a pretty watchable video:

You can’t go wrong with a pink knit bikini top, a cat fight and that guy from Sliders.


  1. Here’s my problem with Mariah: she’s had a large number of top hits. But can anyone hum, or even remember, any of them a year or two or five later? Not me. She may be vocally influential, but based on the forgettability of her songs, I think she’ll have less long-term musical influence than any number of one-hit wonders.

  2. “Pretty watchable” is the only positive thing I’ve ever had to say about her 🙂

  3. I think her first album is probably the best one before bubblegumification took over.

  4. Melisma is one of those musical terms that Microsoft Word’s spell checker would insist was spelled incorrectly. Although the word it complained about the most in my music papers was “cadential”. Hey, music has a lot of cadences.

    Firefox’s spell checker is complaining on these right now, too. It’s an anti-musicologist conspiracy.

    And how can you bring up Mariah Carey this week and not mention “Ken Lee”? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_RgL2MKfWTo

  5. The only thing that really stays with me about Mariah Carey was the rumour in the early 90’s that a certain high note in the song ‘Emotions’ could open older model garage doors.

    I doubt it’s true, but a girl can dream.

  6. Let’s do one of those word mashups to create a new word: Mariah + melisma = miasma. Oh wait, that’s already a word.

    While I am not usually into bashing artists, I do think the Mariah phenomenon was a serious step backwards in pop music.

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