The 'Ahhs' Have It: Wordless Melismas and the Ineffable in Popular Music

Martin Blessinger, Texas Christian University and Christopher Endrinal, Florida Gulf Coast University

This paper explores extended passages of nonverbal singing in popular music. These "wordless melismas" (WMs) help the voice transcend the expressive limits of the verbal and assume the apparently ineffable qualities of the instrumental. WMs are monosyllabic passages found in their own musically distinct section, usually bridges or concluding sections. Although recurring WMs are rare, songs with multiple different WMs are not uncommon. WMs are not background elements, nor are they repeated (and often nonsensical) syllables like "na na" or "sha-la-la." From these criteria, we have extrapolated four narrative functions WMs fulfill within a song's narrative, the details and examples of which we expound upon in greater detail in the paper: introductory ("Welcome to the Jungle," Guns N' Roses), conclusive ("Criminal," Fiona Apple), transformative ("You Oughta Know," Alanis Morissette), and climactic ("With Or Without You," U2).