Syllabic, melismatic and neumatic singing: what’s the difference?
The purpose of this guide is to answer the following questions:
What does syllabic and melismatic mean in music?
What is the difference between syllabic, melismatic and neumatic singing?
Let’s begin by saying that syllabic and melismatic are types of singing styles that characterize sacred and profane music all around the world.
These terms have been introduced into Western music theory to describe different kinds of melodies that get called syllabic or melismatic depending on the way in which the syllables of a given text are set into music.
In this article we’re going to consider some actual examples of syllabic, neumatic and melismatic singing:
When it comes to explaining how syllabic and melismatic text settings work, I think it can be useful to start by examining melodies belonging to Gregorian and Vedic chant.
Syllabic and melismatic phrasing can be easily recognized while listening to Christian medieval music and ancient Vedic chanting.
Keep in mind that even though the words syllabic, melismatic and neumatic derive primarily from a specific subset of Medieval sacred repertories we can find traces of these three concepts in other musical traditions as well.
Let’s get started!
Syllabic singing: definition and examples
Syllabic singing means one note per syllable and refers to a melodic style that can be found in different genres of music: from Medieval Gregorian plain chant and Indian Vedic recitation to contemporary pop-rock music.
The fact that every note has its own syllable means that the text becomes easy to recognize when set into music even when it’s arranged in a polyphonic style (see the article on Parallel Organum).
Let’s look at an example of syllabic singing.
The melody I’ve chosen for you is taken from a Gregorian chant called Condit0r alme siderum.
If you are curious to know how I’ve derived the notes from the Medieval 4-line staff, this article can be of help: “Clefs in Gregorian chant“.
When you look at the score, you can see that each syllable of this Latin hymn has one corresponding note and this suffices to say that the singing style is syllabic:
Listen to this performance of Conditor alme siderum to get a better idea of how a syllabic chant sounds and notice how the singer uses one note per syllable:
In India, syllabic chanting characterizes, for example, the recitation of the Yajur-Veda, which follows a one-to-one correspondence between syllables and notes (svara).
Here you can listen to the chanting of Mantra Pushpam, a sacred text written in Sanskrit which is usually sung in a syllabic style by all the priests together after performing any Pooja (worship):
Melismatic singing: definition and examples
Melismatic singing is radically different from syllabic singing: you take one syllable and start moving your voice around it by singing different notes on the vowel of the same syllable.
The word melismatic comes from melisma, a latin word which indicates a run of notes sung on the vowel of one syllable.
Technically speaking by melismatic singing we mean a series of more than four notes sung to a single syllable.
The presence of melismatic phrasing can be found in many cultures but the first written references to this term appeared within medieval European vocal music, primarily in the Florid Organum.
The vocal passages sung in this Alleluia are a perfect example of melismatic singing.
As you can easily see by taking a look at the score below, there are many notes sung on the final vowel “a” of the word “alleluia”:
Listen now to the vocal performance of the Alleluia notated above focusing on the number of notes assigned to the same syllable:
Various examples of melismatic singing can be found in Indian classical music.
Here’s an enchanting vocal performance of a thumri by Nina Burmi which contains several melismatic passages:
Neumatic singing: definition and examples
When we say neumatic singing we are referring to a particular type of melismatic singing, developed in the Middle ages and based on groups of notes ranging from 2 to 4, called neuma.
Gregorian chants are full of neumatic passages that were created for the precise purpose of enriching the rigid melodic structure deriving from syllabic singing.
Ave Maris Stella is a hymn that begins with a combination of neumatic and syllabic singing, as you can easily notice by looking at the score below:
The neumatic passages are located on the words “ave”, “stella”, “mater” and “alma”.
The words “ave”, “mater” and “alma” present in fact a 2-note neuma while the last syllable of the term “stella” is decorated with a 4-note neuma.
Have a listen to the audio below and try to tell which passages are sung in neumatic style:
So, let me recap for you the difference between syllabic, melismatic and neumatic singing:
when singing is syllabic you find one note for each syllable; when singing is melismatic there can be several notes for each syllable.
Neumatic singing refers to a peculiar way in which Christian monks called those groups of 2 to 4 notes that were sung on the same syllable of a liturgical text.
Given that setting a text into music using a syllabic style is easier, it is quite obvious to expect that this is the most common type of singing adopted by world’s musical traditions.
Throughout the history of western civilization, syllabic singing was adopted by those religious traditions and artistic movements that wanted their followers to maintain the focus on the meaning of the words instead of getting lost in the fascinating ornamentation of melismatic passages.
However, there are also religious traditions that have deliberately decided to employ melismatic passages to magnify the spiritual effects of sacred texts and prayers.
I’m referring to Quranic and Samavedic recitation as well as melismatic organum and Hallelujatic jubilations belonging to Christian sacred music. Speaking of the Islamic recitation techniques, let me suggest you an article I wrote to explore the melismatic passages included in the Adhan, a unique type of call to prayer performed in the mosque by the muezzin: Reciting the Adhan | Guide to the Islamic call to prayer [History, meaning and soundscapes].
Moving to the world of popular music, the vast majority of pop-rock singers tend to prefer syllabic singing while gospel, soul and R&B artists are definitely more inclined to embellish their vocals through melismatic passages and other types of vocal ornamentation.