What’s the difference between melismatic, syllabic, and pneumatic singing?

This guide answers the following questions:

What does the music terms syllabic or melismatic mean?

Here are some more details:

What is the variation between syllabic, neumatic, and melismatic singing?

Let’s start by saying that syllabic is a type of singing style that characterizes sacred and profane musical styles all over the globe.

These terms were introduced to Western music theory to describe various types of melodies. They are called syllabic and melismatic, depending upon how the text is set into music.

This article will examine examples of melismatic, neumatic, and syllabic singing.

It is helpful to start by looking at melodies from Vedic and Gregorian chants when explaining melismatic and syllabic text settings.

Listening to medieval Christian music or ancient Vedic chanting will help you recognize syllabic and melodic phrasing.

Remember that although the words syllabic and melismatic are derived primarily from Medieval sacred repertories, we can also find a trace of these concepts in other musical traditions.

Let’s get started!

Definition and examples of Syllabic singing

Syllabic singing is one note per syllable. It refers to a melody style that can be found across many genres of music, including Indian Vedic recitation and Medieval Gregorian plainchant.

Because each note has its syllable, the text is easily identified when put into music (see article on Parallel Organum).

Let’s take a look at the syllabic song.

The melody I chose for you is a Gregorian chant called Condit0r Alme Siderum.

This article will help you to understand how I derived the notes from Medieval’s 4-line staff.

You can see that each Latin hymn syllable has one note. This suffices to show that the song is syllabic.

This Conditor Alme Siderum performance will give you a better understanding of the sound of a syllabic Chant. Also, notice how the singer only uses one note per syllable.

Syllabic chanting is a characteristic of India. It can be seen in the recitations of the Yajur Veda. These chants follow a one-to-1 correspondence between syllables (svara) and notes (svara).

Definition and examples of melismatic singing

Melismatic singing differs from syllabic. You take one syllable and start moving your voice around it. Then, you sing different notes on the vowel in the same syllable.

Melismatic is a Latin word that refers to a series of notes sung on one vowel.

Melismatic singing is a musical style that includes more than four notes sung to one syllable.

Although melismatic phrasing is found in many cultures, the first written references were made in medieval European vocal music.

This Alleluia is an excellent example of melismatic singing.

You can see many notes sung on the last vowel of the word “alleluia,” as shown in the score below.

Definition and examples of neumatic singing

Neumatic singing is a specific type of melismatic singing developed in the Middle Ages and based upon groups of notes ranging between 2 and 4. It is also known as neuma.

Gregorian chants contain many neumatic passages that enrich the rigid melodic structure derived from syllabic vocal singing.

Ave Maris Stella begins with a mixture of neumatic and synlabic singing. You can easily see this score by clicking the link below.

The neumatic passages can be found in words “ave,” “Stella,” “mater,” and “alma.”

The 2-note neuma is present in the words “ave,” mater, and “alma,” while “Stella,” the last syllable, has a 4-note neuma.

Last remarks

Let me now briefly explain the differences between syllabic and melismatic singing.

Singing is syllabic, meaning you have one note per syllable. Melismatic singing can have several messages per syllable.

Neumatic singing is a unique way that Christian monks called groups of 2-4 notes sung on a single syllable in a liturgical text.

Using a syllabic style, it is easy to set a text into music. This is why it is so common in world musical traditions.

Syllabic singing has been a part of the history of western civilization. It was adopted by religious traditions and artistic movements that wanted to keep their followers focused on the meaning of words rather than getting lost in the beautiful ornamentation of melismatic passages.

There are religious traditions. However, they deliberately use melismatic passages to enhance the spiritual power of prayers and sacred texts.

This includes Quranic and Samavedic Recitation and the melismatic organum (or Hallelujatic jubilations) belonging to Christian sacred Music. Note to the Islamic call to prayer [History, meaning, and soundscapes].

Pop-rock is a vastly different genre than soul, gospel, and R&B. They prefer syllabic singing. In contrast, pop-rock artists are more comfortable singing melismatic passages or other vocal ornamentation.