Handling Melisma in Lyric Notation

I have a copy of 1982 to hand. It reads “e-ther-eal” and each 4-bar phrase with pickup neatly occupies a system (so there are 8 systems, 2 full pages).

After reading from this volume occasionally for 30 years, I am noticing some very interesting editorial details for the first time:

  • This hymn (#409) does not use extension lines. Hyphens are as normal within words, but the final syllable of a word is centered under the first note of a melisma, which is indicated with a slur only. Unambiguous and uncluttered, I suppose.
  • There are extension lines elsewhere in the volume. The rule appears to be: Where the prosody differs between verses, extension lines and dashed slurs are used, otherwise not.
  • Slurs point to noteheads where possible without crossing a stem or being too curved. Otherwise they point to the tips of stems; nowhere in between.

My hymnal typesetting has been significantly influenced by the 1982. I tend to agree about extension lines, no matter what anyone says… they are usually just visual noise on the page! I only use them where, as in the 1982, stanzas differ.

But do you left-align melismatic syllables? They didn’t even do that, which I found surprising (though not difficult to read, because the space is generous).

I don’t. Always center-aligned. I do split the difference if there are some longer words atop some shorter ones, so they won’t be perfectly centered.

Hymnals with multiple verses under the staff are a particular case, certainly.

But I’d suggest that word extension lines do have useful purposes – consider a semibreve (whole note) with one syllable before a page turn. The extension line gives you ‘warning’ that the syllable continues on the next page.

Right, I’m all for lyric extensions in choral music, where the music is more complex and there’s only one line of lyrics.

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