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I have been wondering whether there is a term for the technique singers use when they sing one syllable of text over a large number of different notes very quickly. There are examples of this in Händel's operas. Since this technique is used within a syllable and there are no consonants available to separate the notes from each other, it often sounds as though the singer is singing an 'h' to facilitate the separation of pitches.

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This answer actually has two parts:

Melisma is when a vocalist sings multiple pitches on one syllable. When you hear music in this way, you would say that the music is melismatic.

Coloratura is a "coloring" of musical figuration meant to embellish the musical line. In Handel's time, much of the embellishing was improvised over the written line. It also concerns how the melisma is used in the music.

  • Very semantic question, but: would you lump in grace notes in jazz, trills in Irish music, register "cracking" in pop/country, etc etc into "coloratura"? And further: in pop music, would you describe as "melismatic" the style of a vocalist who is prone to this (I am thinking, for example, of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull)? – commonhare Jan 18 '15 at 13:29
  • Actually, not a semantic question. To answer your question, yes I would. See my comment to Wheat Williams' answer below for why. – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '15 at 16:45
  • I'm afraid the sort of vocal decoration pop singers revel in - "I will always love you-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-u" are difficult not to class as coloratura. And classical composers' discomfort at sopranos who insisted in inserting such embellishments when NOT written is well documented! – Laurence Payne Oct 17 '17 at 15:15
  • Sorry, still not clear. I may not be understanding the original question, but several examples come to mind of what I imagine being asked by OP: Vien Con Nuova Orribil Guerra (La Statira, by Albinoni), and the voice play on "guerra" throughout. Also, Alleluia (from Exultate Jubilate motet K165 Mozart), the voice plays on some prolonged "a" syllables from "alleluia" which is sung throughout. Here, it is written in music with many notes, one syllable - so not coloratura by definition. Is this example of "melisma"? – Andrew Jennings Oct 30 '18 at 17:47
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I would like to expand on @jjmusicnotes' answer.

When a number of notes for one syllable are written out in the sheet music by the composer, the term used to describe this is melisma.

When the performer chooses to add additional notes in an improvisational manner (notes which are not written out by the composer), the usual term for this is ornamentation. Ornamentation is a common element of music from the Baroque period, such as that by Handel and Bach, and certain kinds of ornamentation are used by singers and solo instrumentalists alike.

The term coloratura is not often used in this context; rather, the term "coloratura" is usually used to describe a soprano singer with an unusually high range of notes who is often found singing music with a lot of melisma or ornamentation in it.

The adjective form of melisma is melismatic. From the academic standpoint, you often hear the term "melismatic" also used to describe the florid style of singing found in American R&B music by female singers such as Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, who are known to sing a lot of melodic notes on a syllable. So the melismatic style is found in other places besides Western classical music.

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    Thanks for the expansion Wheat, a couple things though: music does not need to be written down in order to be considered melismatic. If there's more than one pitch on a syllable, it's a melisma. Regarding "coloratura" you are actually mistaken, the textbook definition of "coloratura" is: florid vocal ornamentation. Sopranos were called thus because they were divas and always colored passages unnecessarily, preferring to hear themselves more than other people. They received the most attention, so people wanted to be like them, and the term was designated to the performer. – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '15 at 16:44
  • Thank you, @jjmusicnotes. I'm actually unfamiliar with the use of the term "coloratura" as you found in your textbook. I stand corrected. – user1044 Jan 18 '15 at 17:55
  • No worries, the text to which I referred is a recent text on the history of western music compiled by Music History professors from Indiana University, and is well-regarded in the field of music. – jjmusicnotes Jan 18 '15 at 22:49
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Those are called coloratura. There is even a voice category "coloratura soprano" named after them.

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