The weird and wonderful world of riffs, licks, runs, melisma, scats, trills, and then some.
Here comes the “Riff-a-Maniac”. This was the name I was given back in the day when all I did was just riff out every song.
It didn’t matter what genre the song was: classical, musical theatre, soul, or plain pop, for me it was an opportunity to indulge myself in the art of copying my vocal idols, singers like Stevie Wonder’, Boyz 2 Men, Mariah Carey, and many more.
If they could riff, run, or sing melismatically (the posh word for riffs and runs) then they had my complete attention. If they couldn’t sing melismatic embellishments, then for me, they weren’t worth listening to.
This is how I used to think when I was younger and it’s surprising to me how much of that vein of thought still exists today, particularly with the younger singers.
Where Does It Come From?
It took a much older singer to point out to me, “Joshua, it’s not all about riffing, it’s about tones and dynamics as well.”
When he then demonstrated what he meant, I was completely sold on the idea and understood for the first time what singing was really all about: communicating ideas, feelings, and emotions. Not necessarily “vocal gymnastics”. However, it’s still a very much important and expressive way to perform and sing.
Historians believe that the origins of melismatic singing date back as early as 1600 BC. It seems to have made its way to the mainstream through worship songs, as well as work songs meant to pass the time.
There were also cultures that had different styles or systems of improvisatory singing, each belonging to different families or “houses”. These houses handed down a tradition of musical and vocal ideologies that subsequent generations had to learn and uphold in order to maintain the family reputation.
It was taken very seriously and taught from an early age with very strict and disciplined methodology. The result today is the incredible vocal flexibility and precision in the application of melismatic singing, especially when combined with pop music in a commercial way: check out Sid Sriram’s cover of James Blake’s “Life Round Here” for a cool example of this:
Ultimately, we do it because it feels great when we sing like that. It feels as if we are really expressing ourselves in a way that words alone fail to achieve. It’s also one of those things about music that people will either love or hate.
There’s no way I can wrap this up without mentioning the popularisation of melismatic singing in music today. Despite it’s origins (which seem to be from all over the map), melismatic singing was mostly popularised in the United States by singers from African-American gospel churches that portrayed a very charismatic approach to worship.
When these singers realised that there was money to be made singing what was then labeled as worldly music, they carried their expressive and melismatic style to singing into the mainstream music scene inspiring singers like Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Karen Clark Sheard, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Joe, Tank, Beyonce, and many more.
Let’s have some fun. Have a go.
The key to being a good “Riff-a-Maniac”, is to do it with musical creativity and intelligence. It’s so nice when a singer has done their “musical homework” and has taken the time to study music and ground themselves in the foundations of scales, modes, intervals, and so forth. This musical understanding opens up a whole world of vocal expression that is extensive, varied, and unpredictable as opposed to cliché.
I’d like you to try learning the Mixolydian scale (in whatever key suits you) and the Hexatonic blues scale (in whatever key suits you). Now once you have locked those scales into your musical system, try and see if you can mix the two scales together coming out of the Mixolydian and weaving into the blues scale and visa versa. Take things slowly at first and once you are gaining more of a feel for it, then try and see if you can mess around with the rhythms, phrasings, and timings.
Then when you are confident with all that, try throwing what you have learned into a suitable song lyric and see how you get on.
THE BLUES SCALE
THE MIXOLYDIAN SCALE
Check out some of my favorite Riff-a-Maniacs out there… Enjoy!
Terrell Carter: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lT3oo-raOw
Jasmine Sullivan: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TB1d4r2n3M
Keke Wyatt: www.youtube.com/watch?v=THg_0wsyF0s
Joshua Ladet: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIWjPf145H8
Kim Burrell & Whitney: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPzt3wM9XIU