Melisma: How much is too much?

Melisma, in music, is the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. Music sung in this style is referred to as melismatic, as opposed to syllabic, where each syllable of text is matched to a single note.  [ ]

In current music, we hear a lot of melisma in the vocal styles of artists like Christina Aguilera and Beyonce. For example: 

  • Beyonce, Fever:  The first 30 seconds especially, but also around the 1 minute mark, and throughout the entire song generally.
  • Christina Aguilera, Beautiful: First 20 seconds, around 1:52, and at 2:08-2:10, 2:20-2:23, 2:35-2:40, 3:02-3:04, and 3:14-3:16… for example.


The vocal acrobatics are so impressive that I see a lot of younger singers attempting to sing this way… I suppose because they want to sound accomplished.  Some can do these vocal acrobatics well, but most cannot.

This is one skill that I believe some people are simply better at than others.  You can improve, but I believe your natural starting ability determines a lot about whether you will end up being able to execute the most complicated moves cleanly.

What does it mean to do these moves cleanly?  

Every note in the run must be on pitch, and the notes must be cleanly delineated from each other – no slipping and sliding around to approximate the run.

This means you need to know exactly which notes you intend to sing throughout the whole run!

If you can’t do a lick, trill, or run perfectly cleanly and accurately, you have three options:

1) Practice.

If you can do an embellishment pretty well and just a couple notes are not exactly on pitch, then slow it down and clean it up.  Gradually speed it back up until you can consistently do it cleanly at real tempo.

2) Simplify.

If you’re imitating a very complex run, simplify it.  Take out some of the notes so that you have fewer distinct pitches to hit accurately in the same time frame.  If the run moves both up and down in pitch, consider modifying it to run in only one direction to eliminate pitch “bounce.”

3) Don’t do it.

You don’t have to sing embellishments to be good.  Excessive use of melisma is a relatively new development in the whole history of music.  Plenty of artists do NOT use lots of embellishment.  Even Christina has songs that do not use much at all, such as Hurt and Fighter.


It is much more important to communicate with your audience than to impress them!

So how much melisma is too much?  It’s too much when you are worrying more about executing the run cleanly than communicating emotion to your audience.


(c) 2011 Adrienne Osborn

Adrienne Osborn is a vocalist and performance coach based in Colorado.   For more free articles and tips, visit