Handling Melisma in Lyric Notation

I’m going to swallow my pride and ask here. I searched a bit but I’d rather get your take. Please see attached. When a word stretches out melismatically over several notes, is it proper to give the last syllable at the last note and put dashes between? Or is it better to put the whole word under the first note and let Dorico show a solid line which last the length of the melisma?

Also - does it matter if the word has a consonant-type sound at the end? For example in 2a & 2b, would it matter of the word was ‘Go’ and not 'Breathe?

I asked a few pros with whom I gig and I got different answers. One singer said she wants to know the information right off the top so use a solid line. The guy who plays in theatre shows said the opposite.

Thanks for any guidance on this.

Lyrics 1a
Lyrics 1b

Definitely 1b and 2b. “Breathe” is only one syllable, and cannot be split.

Splitting a single syllable into parts is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

The division of words helps to indicate what the word is: it does NOT show where a consonant is ‘sounded’.

While I have my strength, I will fight anyone who says otherwise. :grinning:

The only possible exception would be to convey something contrary to standard expectations or if you’re doing avant garde noises. Say you wanted the “th” of “breath” to start on the C. Then I would write something like:



@benwiggy is totally right. This is about as hard-and-fast an engraving rule as there is.

By that I’m not implying it was a bad question, just that it’s a very definitive black-and-white answer!


Haha, I’m going to use that one!

Excellent, thanks Ben and Dan for the quick responses. I suspected as much but needed you all to confirm.

Love this place.

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Aside from how its presented, does the singer or conductor not decide how the line should be sung, where the emphasis lies etc? I was at an I Fagiolini concert a couple of weeks ago, and the way they sang was highly coloured, from a deep study and appreciation of the score. I’m sure they’ll sing differently next time too. Of course, they were brilliant!

There are many good reasons for contemporary music for precise notation and I find this dismissive tone rather inappropriate. Nobody is calling the music you enjoy “dull”, “overplayed” or “kitschy”.

How is that dismissive? He immediately followed by giving a totally valid example of when it might be needed.

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I read the following example as referring to the first part of this sentence, since he also referred to the pictures above (which are surely not “avant garde noises”).
The slanted “avante garde” in combination with “noises” is a common but faulty pleonasm and often used cynically (each by itself as well as in combination) by people who don’t value contemporary music. It reads as a clear statement of opinion to me, at least.

(In other words: if the words could’ve been “other contemporary practices”, “avant garde noises” is hard not to be seen as opinionated.)

It’s not just contemporary music though. I am not an English speaker or singer, but I have heard very good singers finish words like “Lord” with a pronounced closing “d”.
So corresponding to Ben’s example one could write the lyrics as Lord___(d)

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This is where performance practice meets notation. It’s entirely expected that you will sound the final consonant(s) when the note finishes, so in the first example, on the 3rd beat. There’s generally no need to indicate it.
Singers don’t forget to finish the word they’re singing mid-vowel.

Apologies if my terminology caused offence. My words were written in haste, as I was on my way to a rehearsal of some filthy Vegetarian Medieval nonsense.


With all due respect, I didn’t read Ben’s comment as dismissive at all. I read it as a mere statement of fact, and then he even provided a legitimate example…

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However certain words such as the first example’s use of “come” can certainly need clarification – in 1a it’s clear that the ending word’s ending sound “mmm” should be sung on the half-note C. In 1b, however it’s not clear – is the singer supposed to sing the single syllable “come” on the E and B 8th-notes and then hum continuation of the “mmm” ending sound through the half-note C. Or is the singer supposed to sing the full word “come” on the E, and then hum the “mmm” ending sound through the B and the C?
Obviously this will be decided by the performers involved but if the composer prefers it to be sung one way over another way shouldn’t the composer notate it as accurately as possible?
Equally obvious is that there really is no absolutely agreed up on convention since the random sample mset questioned gave opposing answers.

I don’t know any singer who would sing “commmmmmmmmmme” unless explicitly told to, since it makes no sense musically. (Mind you, this is English, not French where the “me” would be treated a bit differently.) Everyone by intuition (and because it is a more beautiful vowel sound!) will sing “coooooooooome”. So I really doubt any clarification is needed, unless, as I said, the throw away “me” was supposed to have a particular placement for some odd reason, and even then, that would be hammered out in rehearsal.

Honestly, you’re more likely to get a poor result when you hyphenate single-syllable words, than when you don’t. People aren’t used to reading single-syllable words cut up, so they will—at least during sight reading sessions—very likely make a mistake by assuming something other than the correct word.

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But that’s not what “those surveyed” understood – they thought it represented a “normal” melisma, with the final consonant at the end of the final note, and an alternative choice to the notation in 1b.

I would expect that any singer who has ever seen a page of music would understand a single syllable with a word extension and know exactly what to do.

The OP is NOT asking how to represent an ‘early MM’. But I’ve illustrated the standard notation for achieving that above: e.g. come________(m)______

It’s certainly true that there are as many standards as options, but common practice of pretty much every publisher I’ve ever seen – Baerenreiter, Boosey & Hawkes, Breitkopf, Ricordi, Hal Leonard, Alfred, Schirmer, Peters, Schott, Chester Novello, OUP, etc, etc – is agreed on this.


Which is precisely why it is important to only break the mold when there is a specific effect desired. Breaking from standard practice forces the singer to one of two conclusions:
a.) the word is supposed to be sung differently from normal (which should be clear from the score) or
b.) the engraver doesn’t know what they are doing.

And it should be noted (as we’ve discussed in other threads) that breaking the mold when it comes to hyphenation leads to mistakes, especially when the latter portion of the word is far away from the first syllable and the eye is incapable of scanning both portions of the word at once. This is why Ben’s suggestion of

is far superior to
“co - - - - me”

The former is very clear what the word is AND what you are supposed to do with the placement of the m consonant. The latter, while it may tell you where the m should begin, doesn’t make it clear at the beginning what the word even is, nor how it is to be pronounced in this atypical case. Is it just an m sound or more of a ‘meh’ similar to French? The lesson being: even when one does indeed intend to break the mold, there are better and worse ways to go about that, too.

Coincidentally, Elaine Gould’s Behind Bars uses exactly this word as an example:




Schirmer’s Style Guide (p.88) says “It is incorrect to place the final consonant at the end of a note even though some people think this is correct.” !! :rofl:


As a student, I had enough trouble remembering to sing the word ethereal properly when (virtually) sight-reading through “The Spacious Firmament” in our hymnals. Even though it was divided properly, the combination of a system break after the first syllable, two notes on the middle syllable, and an elision of the last syllable, threw me for a loop almost every time. ( I guess morning chapel was too early in the morning.)



@benwiggy @Romanos

Sincerely appreciate all your input along with the others who have responded. I agree 100% with you two and I don’t think the solid line creates a need for clarification. This is a gospel-style tune and as James pointed out, 99 out of 100 would sing the open syllable through all those melismatic notes and have the soft ‘mm’ land at the end of the ‘C’ half-note.

I understand that every reader doesn’t understand what ‘Gospel style’ means and that we need to convey full information. But it can’t be wrong to use that notation to represent what 99 out of 100 singers would do and show something different if we want the early 'mm as ben suggested

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English is weird. There are, inevitably, some ambiguities in how you might pronounce individual syllables. If you can see more of the word on the same line, that can help. You can’t even pronounce the word ‘the’ until you’ve seen whether the next word is angels or unicorns.

Short of using IPA or writing eth – thee – ree -al (which makes sense individually, but not holistically), there’s not much that can be done.

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I do not recall how the Hymnal 1982 (which replaced the Hymnal 1940) cast off the systems of “The Spacious Firmament,” but I think better system breaks would have helped if they allowed one to see all the syllables on the same line.