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Syllabic Music: Definition, Analysis & Structure

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  • 0:01 Syllabic Music
  • 0:32 How Does Syllabic Music Work?
  • 1:13 Melismatic Music
  • 2:14 Improvising on…
  • 3:16 Why Use Syllabic Text Setting?
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

The term syllabic music may be new to you, but chances are that you've been listening to syllabic music your entire life! Learn how to recognize syllabic music and why composers like using it.

Syllabic Music

What kind of music do you like? R&B? Metal? Ska? Maybe you're more of a rock and roll fan, or a country music lover. No matter what kind of music you listen to, you've almost certainly heard syllabic music!

You may notice that the word syllabic has a lot of the same letters as the word syllable in it. That is because syllabic music sets one syllable of text per musical note. Therefore, syllabic music must have lyrics.

How Does Syllabic Music Work?

Syllabic music is music that uses syllabic text setting for the lyrics. In syllabic text setting, each syllable of a word is broken up and assigned to an individual note. As an example, let's look at the song ''Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.''

Sheet music of

The word star is a one-syllable word, and is under one musical note. That means that the word star is sung on the one note indicated. One syllable, one note.

The word twinkle has two syllables: twink and le. If you take a look at the lyrics, you'll notice that the two syllables of this word are separated by a dash and each syllable is under its own note. Two syllables, two notes.

Melismatic Music

Syllabic text setting is the opposite of melismatic text setting. A melisma occurs when a single syllable of text is stretched over several different pitches. Here's an example of Ding Dong Merrily on High; notice the melisma on the first syllable of the word 'Gloria.' Notice how the syllable is stretched over 16 different pitches.

A melisma on the first syllable of the word
Image of melismatic text setting

If you listen to the music of singers who are known for their exceptional vocal skills (like Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, or the late Whitney Houston), you'll notice that they often use melismas to decorate their melodies -- especially at the ends of words. For example, Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's song ''I Will Always Love You'' is bursting with melismas!

Melismatic singer Whitney Houston.
Photo of Whitney Houston

Whether or not a piece is considered to be syllabic or melismatic depends on the frequency with which each type of text setting occurs. Many pieces are mostly syllabic with a few decorative melismas, whereas a few pieces are almost entirely melismatic.

Improvising On Syllabic Settings

Sometimes performers decide to ''decorate'' a plain syllabic text setting by adding extra notes to transform it into a melismatic setting. A great example of this is ''The Star-Spangled Banner''. In its original form, Francis Scott Key used an almost entirely syllabic text when he set his poem to the now-famous tune by John Stafford Smith. Notice how it is all syllabic except for a small melisma on the first word.

Sheet music of

However, if you've ever been to a professional sports game or watched one on television, you may have noticed that the person who sings the National Anthem often embellishes the syllabic setting with decorative melismas -- especially at the ends of musical phrases, as is illustrated in the example below.

One possible melismatic embellishement of the original syllabic tune. The original notes are indicated in red, all other notes are embellished melismas.
Embellished version of Star-Spangled Banner.

This style of embellishment is not a new phenomenon. In fact, embellishing syllabic music was a very common practice during periods in music history, such as the Baroque era.

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