Articulation and melisma

Because the most rhythmically significant part of a sound is normally its onset, our symbols for sounds of both specified and unspecified duration give prominence to the onsets by making the left-hand edge of each symbol the tallest part (see Unspecified duration, Specified duration). But not all onsets in music are equally distinct, and in much melodic music there is an important difference between onsets that are marked only by a change of pitch and onsets that are marked in some other way (with or without a change of pitch). This is called a difference of “articulation.”

For example, in songs, each onset in the melody may coincide with a new syllable in the lyrics. If so, this is called a “syllabic” way of singing: one in which each syllable is sung on a single pitch. Alternatively, a single syllable of the lyrics may continue through one or more changes of pitch in the melody. This is called a “melisma,” and this way of singing, “melismatic.”

While all of our song examples so far have been syllabic, melismatic singing is common in many kinds of music, including classical, gospel, and various traditional music of Asia, the Middle East, and around the Mediterranean. A classical example is the soprano solo “Rejoice Greatly” from Handel’s oratorio The Messiah. Here the key word “rejoice” is first sung twice syllabically, and then with increasingly long and elaborate melismas on the second syllable “-joice.”


In Global Notation, melismas are indicated similarly to pitch bends (see Pitch bending). That is, a rotated T symbol is placed with its “top” at the beginning of the syllable and its “stem” extended and “bent” through one or more changes of pitch.

If the changes of pitch are by distinct steps rather than slides, the “bends” will all be right-angles connecting horizontal with vertical lines. Each onset will still be identifiable by a vertical line, but in this case the line is only long enough to connect the two horizontal lines that precede and follow it, showing that the change of pitch is performed “legato,” without a break in the sound. There are no vertical extensions beyond the bending line that depicts the melisma: such extensions are reserved for the beginning of a new syllable, where the articulation is more distinct (see Relative pitch).

An example where melismsas are displayed by the "T" not being 'reset' to indicate that there should be no break in sound while the pitch is bent

Instrumental music has its equivalents of melismatic and syllabic articulation, too. For instance, in playing a wind instrument, the equivalent of articulating a new syllable is the technique called “tonguing,” where the flow of air is momentarily interrupted by touching the top of the mouth with the tongue as if pronouncing the letter T.

For distinct articulation, every onset may be tongued. For a smoother melodic line, only the first onset of a phrase may be tongued, with subsequent onsets articulated only by changes of pitch. This forms the equivalent of a melisma; and in such cases, we will use the term “melisma” in reference to instrumental as well as vocal music. The alternative terms, such as “slur,” are potentially vague because they refer to a feature of notation when we are really talking about sound.

With bowed instruments, the equivalent of articulating a new syllable is to change the direction of the bow, which again produces a momentary interruption of the sound followed by a distinct “attack.” For legato playing, a series of pitch changes may be articulated (by the left-hand fingers) without changing the direction of the bow. For non-legato playing, every onset may be marked by a change of bow direction.

The contrast between these two ways of playing is often exploited by composers and performers. For instance, the violin melody at the beginning of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is mostly played non-legato, with a change of bow direction on every onset. However, Bach marks certain groups of notes with a slur to indicate that they should be played without changing the direction of the bow. These instrumental “melismas” are circled in the score below.

Melismas in Bach's "Brandenburg concerto" circled at points where the bow direction must not change for a violin player.

This time, the music begins right at the end of a bar - or perhaps it would be more logical to say right before the beginning of a bar - so the score begins there too, rather than devote a lot of space to almost a whole bar of silence.

In specifying articulation, as with so many aspects of music, there will often be judgments to be made between more than one legitimate way of notating the same music. 

Depending on the performance and the listener’s interpretation of it, the notes in the first half of this melody may seem connected enough for the whole first half of the melody to be notated as a single continuous line. On the other hand, they may seem so detached that there should be some empty space between any two symbols, as in the second half of the score. In that case, a vivid way of highlighting the contrast between the melismas and the separately bowed notes would be to notate the latter with unspecified duration.

All notes in this global notation are marked as arrowhead symbols without lines following them, aside from the times in which a pitch is bent. This more clearly shows the flexibility of the notation.
Bach-Brandenburg3-start (1).mp3

There is no getting away from the need to make such judgments: notators simply have to decide what they want to convey and how best to convey it.

Just as an onset can be marked by a change of pitch without any other articulation, an onset can also be marked by some form of articulation without a change of pitch. A pitch that is already sounding can be repeated, for instance by singing a new syllable, by tonguing, or by changing the bow direction, while keeping the pitch the same. 

In Global Notation, these “repeated notes” appear as a series of rotated T symbols at the same vertical level and touching each other, which looks like a continuous thick horizontal line with short vertical lines crossing it wherever a new onset is articulated. This might be illustrated with another example from Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!, the beginning of Fagin’s song “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two.”

Global notation of the song from Oliver, "You've got to pick a pocket or two"

If the spacing of the pitch lines looks different from our earlier examples, it’s because this song is in a “minor key,” which contrasts with a “major key” in having scale degrees at 300 and 800 cents instead of 400 and 900 cents respectively. In classical music theory, the scale degree below the tonic in a minor scale is at 1000 cents, but in practice the pitch at 1100 cents is used more often, so that is what is shown here, leaving a wide gap between the scale degrees at 800 and 1100 cents.

We might now return to our earlier Middle Eastern example, “Sama’i Bayyati,” which we found looked rather fussy with every onset marked by the “top” of a rotated T symbol (see Scales and melody). The melodic line will look smoother - perhaps more like the way it sounds - if these “tops” are placed only where there is a distinct articulation, such as a change of bow direction, rather than just a change of pitch. Note that some of these articulations occur without a change of pitch, i.e., they repeat a pitch that is already sounding.

Middle Eastern song, "Sama'i Bayyati", written in global notation without distinct "T" marks unless there is a clear separation of sound

We have now covered many of the features that we will most often want to specify when notating melodies; but in all of our melodic examples the onset timing has been structured by a regular meter. To conclude our overview of specified pitch, we will return to the specification of onset timing where there is either no pulse (see Pulseless onset timing) or no regular grouping of beats into bars (see Beats), adding the new elements of specified pitch and duration.

Sources of audio

Handel, “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” from The Messiah, sung by Arleen Augér with The English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock, Archiv CD, ASIN: B0000057DB (1988), track 16.

J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major, first movement, performed by Northern Sinfonia of England conducted by George Malcolm, SKC Ltd. Korea, SKCD-L-0144, track 8.

Lionel Bart, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from Oliver!, sung by Ron Moody in original 1960 London cast album, Decca CD, ASIN: B000025BD5, track 7.

“Sama’i Bayyati” from Salah ‘Arram and Firquat al-Awtar al-Dhabiyyah, Classical Instrumental Music of the Middle East: A Performance from Egypt, Global Village CD ASIN: B003DSXSKK (2010), track 3.