What does melisma mean?

Word count: 158 words

Reading time: about 30 seconds

If you increase your vocabulary you’ll not only help your reading, you’ll also make your writing more precise. Here is my word of the week, melisma.

My husband, girls and I just returned from a spring break holiday that my son chose not to attend. (He dislikes heat and we were off to the desert seeking sun!) I was eager to see him again and particularly enjoyed chatting at dinner tonight. And, wouldn’t you know it, he gave me my word of the week: melisma.

My son is musical (a baritone) and melisma refers to the singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession. The best known example of this in the Western canon is likely the famous chorus in the Christmas hymn, Angels We Have Heard on High. Hum along with me now, and count how that “o” in the Gloria is stretched over ever so many notes.

As my son and I talked about the word we guessed it was of Italian origin — as he pointed out, most musical terms are French, Italian or German. But my etymological dictionary tells me it is from the Greek “melisma,” meaning air, song or melody.