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Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch. It is used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music. Vibrato is typically characterised in terms of two factors: the amount of pitch variation ("extent of vibrato") and the speed with which the pitch is varied ("rate of vibrato").[1]

In Tremolo or Tremulant.

Vibrato and tremolo

Spectrogram illustrating the difference between tremolo and vibrato.

The terms vibrato and tremolo are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably, although they are properly defined as separate effects with vibrato defined as a periodic variation in the pitch (frequency) of a musical note, and tremolo a periodic variation in volume (amplitude) of a musical note. In practice, it is difficult for a singer or musical instrument player to achieve a pure vibrato or tremolo (where only the pitch or only the volume is varied), and variations in both pitch and volume will often be achieved at the same time. Electronic manipulation or generation of signals makes it easier to achieve or demonstrate pure tremolo and/or vibrato.

Leslie speaker

A varies directly with distance (P = k2d), such that amplitude also varies directly with distance (A = k1(k2d) = k1k2d), the amplitude of the sound as perceived by the listener will be greatest when the speaker is at the point in its rotation closest to the listener and least when the speaker is farthest away. Because the speaker is constantly moving either toward or away from the listener, however, the mechanism's rotation is constantly affecting the listener-perceived sound's wavelength by either "stretching" the wave (increasing wavelength) or "squeezing" it (decreasing wavelength) -- and because frequency, i.e., pitch, is inversely proportional to wavelength, such that increasing wavelength decreases frequency and vice versa, any listener for whom the speaker's motion changes the sound's perceived amplitude (i.e., any listener whose distance from the speaker is changing) must also perceive a change in frequency. However, the size of this effect is likely to be tiny compared against the tremolo effect since the distance oscillation is very small.

Acoustic basis

The use of vibrato is intended to add warmth to a note. In the case of many string instruments the sound emitted is strongly directional, particularly at high frequencies, and the slight variations in pitch typical of vibrato playing can cause large changes in the directional patterns of the radiated sound.[2] This can add a shimmer to the sound; with a well-made instrument it may also help a solo player to be heard more clearly when playing with a large orchestra.[3]

This directional effect is intended to interact with the room acoustics to add interest to the sound, in much the same way as an acoustic guitarist may swing the box around on a final sustain, or the rotating baffle of a Leslie speaker will spin the sound around the room.

Typical rate and extent of vibrato

The rate and extent of the variation in pitch during vibrato is controlled by the performer. The extent of vibrato for solo singers is usually less than a semitone (100 cents) either side of the note, while singers in a choir typically use narrower vibrato with an extent of less than +/- a tenth of a semitone (+/- 10 cents).[1] Wind and bowed instruments generally use vibratos with an extent of less than +/- half a semitone.[1]

Vibrato's use in various musical genres

Vibrato is sometimes thought of as an effect added onto the note itself, but in some cases it is so fully a part of the style of the music that it can be very difficult for some performers to play without it. The jazz tenor sax player Coleman Hawkins found he had this difficulty when requested to play a passage both with and without vibrato by Leonard Bernstein when producing his record album "What is Jazz" to demonstrate the difference between the two. Despite his technique, he was unable to play without vibrato. The featured saxophonist in Benny Goodman's Orch, George Auld, was brought in to play the part.

Many classical musicians, especially singers and string players, have a similar problem. The violinist and teacher Leopold Auer, writing in his book Violin Playing as I Teach It (1920), advised violinists to practise playing completely without vibrato, and to stop playing for a few minutes as soon as they noticed themselves playing with vibrato in order for them to gain complete control over their technique.

In classical music

The use of vibrato in classical music is a matter of some dispute. For much of the 20th century it was used almost continuously in the performance of pieces from all eras from the Baroque onwards, especially by singers and string players. A drastic change in approach cannot be understood wholly without regarding the rise of notionally historically informed ("period") performance from the 1970s onwards. However, there is no actual proof that singers performed without vibrato in the baroque era. Vocal music of the renaissance is almost never sung with vibrato as a rule, and it seems unlikely it ever was. There are only a few texts from the period on vocal production, but they all condemn excessive use of vibrato. However, it should be understood that "vibrato" occurs over a wide range of intensities: slow, fast, wide, and narrow. Most sources in condemning the practice seem to be referring to a wide, slow, perceptible oscillation in pitch, usually associated with intense emotion, whereas the ideal for modern vibrato, and possibly in earlier times as well, was to imitate the natural timbre of the adult singing voice, from which a measure of vibrato (it has since been shown) is rarely absent.

Leopold Mozart’s Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756), for example, provides an indication of the state of vibrato in string playing at the end of the baroque period. In it, he concedes that “there are performers who tremble consistently on each note as if they had the permanent fever”, condemning the practice, and suggesting instead that vibrato should be used only on sustained notes and at the ends of phrases when used as an ornament.[4] This however, does not give anything more than an indication of Mozart's own personal taste, based on the fact that he was an educated late Rococo/Classical composer. Mozart acknowledges the difference between the heavy, ornamental vibrato that he finds objectionable, and a more continuous application of the technique less obtrusively for purposes of improving tone quality (in which case he does not refer to it as "vibrato" or "tremolo" at all; describing it merely an aspect of correct fingering). In this respect he resembles his contemporary, Francesco Geminiani, who advocated using vibrato "as frequently as possible" on short notes for this purpose. Although there is no aural proof, as audio recordings were not around for more than 150 years, that string players in Europe did not use vibrato, its overuse was almost universally condemned by the leading musical authorities of the day.

Certain types of vibrato, then, were seen as an ornament, but this does not mean that it was used sparingly. In wind playing too, it seems that vibrato in music up to the 20th century was seen as an ornament to be used selectively. Martin Agricola writing in his Musica instrumentalis deudsch (1529) writes of vibrato in this way. Occasionally, composers up to the baroque period indicated vibrato with a wavy line in the sheet music. Again, this does not suggest that it was not desired for the rest of the piece any more than the infrequent use of the term in 20th-century works suggests that it is not used elsewhere.

Vibrato wars

Music by late-Romantic composers such as Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms is now played with a fairly continuous vibrato. However, some musicians specialising in historically informed performances, such as the conductor Roger Norrington, argue that it is unlikely that Brahms, Wagner, and their contemporaries would have expected it to be played in this way. This view has caused considerable controversy. The view that continuous vibrato was invented by Fritz Kreisler and some of his colleagues is held to be shown by early sound recordings, which allegedly demonstrate that vibrato appeared only in the 20th century. Against this are cited sources which are said to prove that early-19th-century Viennese string players like Franz Clement and Joseph Mayseder were noted for their tasteful use of vibrato. These musicians (and the two Hellmesbergers) are said to represent the school on which Fritz Kreisler based his stylistic approach. There are also numerous references to vibrato in instrumental performance dating back through the early Baroque period, as detailed in Robert Donington's Baroque Music: Style and Performance.

The alleged growth of vibrato in 20th-century orchestral playing has been traced by Norrington by studying early audio recordings but his opponents contend that his interpretations are not supported by the actual samples. Norrington claims that vibrato in the earliest recordings is used only selectively, as an expressive device; the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra were not recorded using vibrato comparable to modern vibrato until 1935, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra not until 1940. French orchestras seem to have played with continuous vibrato somewhat earlier, from the 1920s.

Defenders of vibrato claim that the sonic limitations of 78-rpm recordings, particularly with respect to

Despite this, the use of vibrato in late Romantic music is still common, though challenged by Roger Norrington and others of the historically informed performance movement. Performances of composers from Beethoven to Arnold Schoenberg with limited vibrato are now not uncommon. Norrington caused controversy during the 2008 Proms season by conducting Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations, and the Last Night of the Proms, in non-vibrato style, which he calls pure tone. Some take the view that even though it may not be what the composer envisioned, vibrato adds an emotional depth which improves the sound of the music. Others feel that the leaner sound of vibratoless playing is preferable. In 20th-century classical music, written at a time when the use of vibrato was widespread, there is sometimes a specific instruction not to use it (in some of the string quartets of Béla Bartók for example). Furthermore, some modern classical composers, especially minimalist composers, are against the use of vibrato at all times.

In opera

All human voices possess the capacity to produce a vibrato. This vibrato can be varied in width (and rapidity) through training. In opera, as opposed to pop, vibrato begins at the start of the note and continues to the end of the note with slight variations in width during the note.

Traditionally, however, the deliberate cultivation of a particularly wide, pervasive vibrato by opera singers from the Latin countries has been denounced by English-speaking music critics and pedagogues as a technical fault and a stylistic blot (see Scott, cited below, Volume 1, pp. 123–127). They have expected vocalists to emit a pure, steady stream of clear sound — irrespective of whether they were singing in church, on the concert platform, or on the operatic stage.

During the 19th century, for instance, New York and London based critics, including tenors for resorting to an excessive, constantly pulsating vibrato during their performances. Shaw called the worst offenders "goat bleaters" in his book Music in London 1890-1894 (Constable, London, 1932). Among those censured for this failing were such celebrated figures as Enrico Tamberlik, Julián Gayarre, Roberto Stagno, Italo Campanini and Ernesto Nicolini—not to mention Fernando Valero and Fernando De Lucia, whose tremulous tones are preserved on the 78-rpm discs that they made at the beginning of the 20th century.

The popularity of an exaggerated vibrato among many (but by no means all) Mediterranean tenors and singing teachers of this era has been traced back by musicologists to the influential example set by the early-19th-century virtuoso vocalist Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794–1854). Rubini had employed it with great success as an affecting device in the new Romantic operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. A host of young Italian tenors—including the renowned Giovanni Matteo Mario (1810–1883) — copied Rubini's trend-setting innovation in order to heighten the emotional impact of the music that they were singing, and to facilitate the delivery of fioritura "by, as it were, running up and down the vibrato" (to quote Scott; see p. 126).

Prior to the advent of the charismatic Rubini, every well-schooled opera singer had avoided using a conspicuous and continuous vibrato because, according to Scott, it varied the pitch of the note being sung to an unacceptable degree and it was considered to be an artificial contrivance arising from inadequate breath control. British and North American press commentators and singing teachers continued to subscribe to this view long after Rubini had come and gone.

Accordingly, when Giovanni Zenatello, while the phenomenon was rare among French, German, Russian and Anglo-Saxon tenors of the same period—see Scott.)

The intentional use of a pronounced vibrato by Mediterranean tenors is a practice that has died out over the course of the past 100 years, owing in no small measure to Caruso's example. The last really important practitioners of this style and method of singing were Alessandro Bonci (in the 1900-1925 period) and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (in the 1920-1950 period). Both of them featured bel canto works, dating from Rubini's day, in their operatic repertoires, and both of them can be heard on recordings which faithfully capture the distinct shimmer inherent in their timbre.

Italian or Spanish-trained operatic sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and baritones exhibiting a pronounced vibrato did not escape censure, either, by British and North American arbiters of good singing. Indeed, Adelina Patti and Luisa Tetrazzini were the only Italian sopranos to enjoy star status in London and New York in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, while such well-known compatriots and coevals of theirs as Gemma Bellincioni and Eugenia Burzio (among several others) failed to please Anglo-Saxon ears because, unlike Patti and Tetrazzini, they possessed unsteady, vibrato-laden voices—see Scott for evaluations of their respective techniques. To give an additional female example from a later date, whenever the vivacious mezzo-soprano of the 1920s and '30s, Conchita Supervia, performed in London, she was admonished in print for her exceedingly vibrant and fluttery tone, which was unkindly likened by her detractors to the chatter of a machine-gun or the rattle of dice in a cup.

In 1883, Giuseppe Kaschmann (né Josip Kašman) — a principal baritone at La Scala, Milan—was criticised for his strong vibrato when he sang at the Met, and the theatre's management did not re-engage him for the following season, even though other aspects of his singing were admired. (Kaschmann never performed in Great Britain but he remained a popular artist in the Latin countries for several decades; in 1903, he made a few recordings which exhibit only too well his perpetual flutter.) Similarly, another one of Italy's leading baritones, Riccardo Stracciari, was unable to turn his pre-World War I London and New York operatic engagements into unambiguous triumphs due to an intrusive quiver in his tone. He subsequently moderated his vibrato, as the discs that he made for Columbia Records in 1917-1925 show, and this enabled him to pursue a significant career not only in his homeland but also at the Chicago opera.

There is another kind of vibrato-linked fault that can afflict the voices of operatic artists, especially aging ones—namely the slow, often irregular wobble produced when the singer's vibrato has loosened from the effects of forcing, over-parting, or the sheer wear and tear on the body caused by the stresses of a long stage career.

References: For more information about the historical employment of vibrato by classical vocalists, see Michael Scott's two-volume survey The Record of Singing (published by Duckworth, London, in 1977 and 1979); John Potter's Tenor: History of a Voice (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2009); and Herman Klein's 30 Years of Music in London (Century, New York, 1903).

In jazz

Most jazz players for the first half of the 20th century used vibrato more or less continuously. Since around the 1950s and the rise of bebop, continuous use of vibrato has largely fallen out of style in favor of more selective use.

In folk

Folk music singers and instrumentalists up to the present day rarely or never use vibrato. It tends only to be used by performers of transcriptions or reworkings of folk music that have been made by composers from a classical, music-school background such as Benjamin Britten or Percy Grainger.

The use of vibrato in some folk music is rare, or at least less pronounced than in other forms of music, although in Eastern European, Balkan, Middle Eastern, or Indian musics, for example, it can be very wide.

In pop

In pop (as opposed to opera), the vibrato usually starts somewhere in the latter part of the note. In the case of some pop balladists, the vibrato can be so wide as to constitute a pronounced wobble, although not as pronounced as that present in operatic voices. Many singers use pitch correction software in which the effect can be reduced or eliminated as a result of pitch quantization.

Techniques for producing vibrato

Not all instruments can produce vibrato, as some have fixed pitches which cannot be varied by sufficiently small degrees. Most percussion instruments are examples of this, for instance the xylophone.


In the apparatus there are three different voice vibrato processes that occur in different parts of the vocal tract. Peter-Michael Fischer vibrato types defined by place of production:

  • The vocalis muscle vibrates at a frequency of 6.5 to 8 Hz.
  • The diaphragm vibrates at a frequency below 5 Hz vibrato'
  • A combination of the two, resulting in a vibrato whose frequency is between 5 and 6.5 Hz vibrato. Fischer writes:
«This combination is relatively stable in the most beautiful voices. An important feature is that the partial functions can appear during the song as "accents": In the context of the presentation expressive wave dominates respirativa, lyrical character, but in an accelerated, or glottis wave, hard feature heroic, but in a slow way.»
—Peter-Michael Fischer.[5]

Keyboard instruments

Some types of clavichord, though technically a fixed-pitch keyboard instrument, is capable of producing a type of vibrato known as Bebung by varying the pressure on the key as the note sounds. Some digital keyboards can produce an electronic vibrato effect, either by pressure on the keys, or by using a joystick or other MIDI controller.

String instruments

Petrowitsch Bissing was an instructor of vibrato method on the violin[6] and published a book titled Cultivation of the Violin Vibrato Tone.[7]

The method of producing vibrato on other instruments varies. On string instruments, for example, the finger used to stop the string can be wobbled on the fingerboard, or actually moved up and down the string for a wider vibrato.

Many contemporary string players vary the pitch from below, only up to the nominal note and not above it,[8] although great violin pedagogues of the past such as Carl Flesch and Joseph Joachim explicitly referred to vibrato as a movement towards the bridge, meaning upwards in pitch,[9]—and the cellist Diran Alexanian, in his 1922 treatise Traité théorique et pratique du Violoncelle, shows how one should practice vibrato as starting from the note and then moving upwards in a rhythmic motion.[10] In a 1996 acoustic study by the Acoustical Society of America, along with Wellesley College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the perceived pitch of a note with vibrato "is that of its mean", or the middle of the fluctuating pitch.[11]

The guqin, a Chinese bridgeless zither, has documents describing over 25 different types of vibrato that can be executed. Most peculiar is the vibrato ting yin (literally "still vibrato"); ancient manuals state that the finger on the left hand that is pressing the string should only move or rock ever so slightly so as to alter the pitch minutely, and some manuals say that the finger should not move at all but let the pulse of the finger do the vibrato.

Wide vibrato, as wide as a whole-tone, is commonly used among electric guitar players and adds the signature vocal-like expressiveness to the sound. This effect can be achieved both by the movement of fingers on the fretboard and by the use of a vibrato tailpiece, a lever that adjusts the tension of the strings.


Players of woodwind instruments generally create vibrato by modulating their air flow into the instrument. This may be accomplished either through stomach vibrato, the pulsing of the diaphragm slightly up and down, or throat vibrato, a variation of vocal chord tension to manipulate air pressure as singers do. Players of other instruments may employ less common techniques. Saxophonists tend to create vibrato by repeatedly moving their jaw up and down slightly. Clarinet players rarely play with vibrato, but if they do, the saxophone method is common because of the similarity of the saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces and reeds.


Brass instrument players may produce vibrato by gently shaking the horn which varies the pressure of the mouthpiece against the lip. This is referred to as hand vibrato, and is more favored in higher brass, however this method does not possess the same sound quality as lip-vibrato and at upper levels can be viewed as a technical mistake; most notable in military style brass training. Alternatively, the embouchure can be rapidly altered, essentially repeatedly "bending" the note. This is called lip-vibrato, and is probably the most commonly used technique of vibrato on a lower brass instrument.,[12] but is also known to give the best sound and timbre on a brass instrument and encouraged in upper-level or militaristic style brass ensembles. On a trombone, a player may provide a slightly more pronounced vibrato by gently moving the slide back and forth, centering on one note to give a lyrical effect. Often, this is more of a jazz technique. This is called slide vibrato. In brass playing, diaphragmatic vibrato is possible, but is viewed as an immature technique by collegiate or professional brass players as this technique interferes with proper airflow from the lungs to the instrument. The use of diaphragmatic vibrato in a brass setting is detrimental to the sound and stamina that a brass player can produce, and so is strongly discouraged at any level of musical training.


Some instruments can only be played with constant, mechanical vibrato (or none at all). This effect is notable in electric organists using a Leslie speaker, the most popular of which use a two-speed vibrato; a degree of expression is gained from the acceleration between speeds. Vibrato on the theremin, which is a continuously variable-pitch instrument with no "stops", can range from delicate to extravagant, and often serves to mask the small pitch adjustments that instrument requires.

Sound examples


See also


  1. ^ a b c Sundberg, Johan. "Acoustic and psychoacoustic aspects of vocal vibrato". Retrieved 4 October 2010. 
  2. ^ Curtin, Joseph (April 2000). "Weinreich and Directional Tone Colour". Strad Magazine. Retrieved 2009-05-23. In the case of string instruments, however, not only are they strongly directional, but the pattern of their directionality changes very rapidly with frequency. If you think of that pattern at a given frequency as beacons of sound, like the quills of a porcupine, then even the slight changes in pitch created by vibrato can cause those quills to be continually undulating. 
  3. ^ Schleske, Martin. "The psychoacoustic secret of vibrato". Retrieved 11 February 2010. The “fiery tone” that likely results from this phenomenon is an essential characteristic of good violins. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Fischer, Peter-Michael: Die Stimme des Sängers. Wiesbaden: Metzler, 1993, p. 163.
  6. ^ Eaton, Louis (1919). The Violin. Jacobs' Band Monthly, Volume 4. p. 52. Retrieved November 16, 2012. 
  7. ^ Bissing, Petrowitsch. Cultivation of the Violin Vibrato Tone. Central States Music Publishing Company. Retrieved November 16, 2012. 
  8. ^ Fischer, Simon: Basics ISBN 978-1-901507-00-3, page 221.
  9. ^ Eberhardt, S.: Violin Vibrato: Its Mastery and Artistic Uses, pages 12 and 21. Carl Fischer, Inc.
  10. ^ Alexanian, D.: "Traité théorique et pratique du Violoncelle", pages 96 and 97. Dover.
  11. ^
  12. ^

External links

  • Vibrato or tremolo? - technical treatment, but accessible to laypersons
  • The Vibrato Page - collection of opinions and quotes against vibrato.
  • Roger Norrington writing on vibrato - from a conductor's perspective
  • David Montgomery: The Vibrato Thing - from a musician's perspective, debunking Norrington and Moens-Haenen
  • Punctuating your Lead Guitar with String Vibratos
  • Use of Vibrato in Baroque Vocal Music - Historical documentation, brief but clear scientific explanation, and a short bibliography
  • David Hurwitz: Vibrato in the Classical Orchestra - latest of three-part essay refuting Norrington and his school; covers the Classical Period
  • A riddle over vibrato of clarinet
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