Melisma in Religious Music

by nrho

I am taking another music course this semester named Jazz, Style, and History. In that class, we’ve listened to a little bit of gospel music. And something that I’ve noticed is the extraordinary level of melisma that seems to dominate it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it bothers me, because it doesn’t. I just truly don’t understand why melisma has become so deeply rooted in gospel music. Our professor, Guthrie Ramsey, briefly mentioned this as a side note after we listened to Karen Clark Sheard. Melisma in religious music doesn’t make sense to me for three main reasons. First, when you’re performing music “for god” where the words are meant to be a prayer or a hymn, I think it’s hard to disagree that the words of that prayer or hymn are important. And when you draw out words to the extent that, say, Ms. Clark does, the meaning of the word is lost to impressive melodies. This is relevant to our 1000 years of musical listening, because this became a very controversial topic back in the 16th century during the reformation and involving the Council of Trent. The melismas in masses and other religious pieces at the time were so extravagant and drawn out that it would take minutes to finish single words or phrases. The Council of Trent wanted to refine how music in mass was being used and wanted to preserve “the word” in mass. Pieces became much simpler and purer. People could sing along. And this brings me to my second point. Religion and its practice is supposed to be a unifying experience. That’s why singing in unison is so prevalent. But when you have people like Karen singing, no one can sing along. The melismatic nature takes away from some of the community aspects of practice. And finally, religious practice is supposed to be about worshipping your god as a community and as an individual. When impressive and talented artists take the stage and preform like Karen does, I feel like that is lost. Her way of singing begs applause and the unmatchable tone and melodies she can belt out is nothing short of impressive. It’s almost as if people are worshipping the performer, which seems wrong to me.

But there’s a lot of validity on the other side of the argument. There is still singing in unison at gospel churches. Just because there is a solo performance, doesn’t mean the unifying experience of singing with other people does not exist in gospel churches. But more importantly, a big part of religious practice is spirituality. One cannot underestimate the power of watching someone sing for god with so much passion. If looked at in a different way, it’s like giving god a great gift. Having Karen, one of the most talented singers in the world, sing for god, is an extraordinary gift. And I can’t even imagine how inspiring it would be to be present in the audience watching someone like Karen to put so much physical and emotional effort into her religious music. Maybe she doesn’t even consider it performing. Maybe her example could be considered a service to god and all those watching and listening. These are just thoughts.

(and here’s a link to one of Karen’s performances