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Vibrato is a musical effect, produced in singing and on musical instruments by a regular pulsating change of pitch, and is used to add expression and vocal-like qualities to instrumental music. Vibrato can be characterised by the amount of pitch variation ("depth of vibrato") and speed with which the pitch is varied ("speed of vibrato").

Vibrato and tremolo

The terms vibrato and tremolo are sometimes used interchangeably, although the strict definitions of each describe them as separate effects: vibrato is a periodic variation in the pitch (frequency) of a musical note, whereas tremolo usually refers to periodic variations in the 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.

There are some instances where one of the terms (vibrato, tremolo) is used to describe the effect normally associated with the other term. For example, vibrato is sometimes referred to as tremolo, notably in the context of a tremolo arm of an electric guitar, which produces variations of pitch. Conversely, the so-called vibrato unit built in to many guitar amplifiers produces what is known as tremolo in all other contexts. See vibrato unit for a detailed discussion of this terminology reversal.

Acoustic basis

The effect is intended to add warmth to a note, and in the case of bowed strings, adds a shimmer to the sound, as the sound pattern emitted by a well-made instrument virtually "points" in different directions with slight variations in pitch. This 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.

Instrumental technique

The extent of the variation in pitch in instrumental vibrato is usually decided by the performer, but does not usually exceed a semitone either way from the note itself . Many contemporary string players vary the pitch from below, only up to the nominal note and not above it , though 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, 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. In a 1996 acoustic study by the Acoustical Society of America, along with Wellesley Collegemarker and the Massachusetts Institute of Technologymarker, found that the perceived pitch of a note with vibrato "is that of its mean", or the middle of the fluctuating pitch.

Genre use

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 the producer of a children's jazz album to demonstrate the difference between the two. Despite his technique, he was unable to play without vibrato. A symphony saxophonist 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 accurate ("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 the use of vibrato.

Leopold Mozart’s Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756) 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”, but condemns the practice, suggesting instead that vibrato should be used only on sustained notes and at the ends of phrases. 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. 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.

Vibrato was seen as an ornament, to be used sparingly. In wind playing too, it seems that vibrato in music up to the 19th century was seen as an ornament to be used selectively. Martin Agricola writing in his Musica instrumentalis deudch (1529) writes of vibrato in this way. Occasionally, composers up to the baroque period indicated vibrato with a wavy line in the sheet music, which strongly suggests it was not desired for the rest of the piece.

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, although Arnold Schoenberg, a considerably later composer, seems to have disliked vibrato as well, likening it to the bleating of a goat. The view that continuous vibrato was invented by Fritz Kreisler and some of his colleagues is held to be shown by the development of sound recordings which allegedly proves that vibrato appeared only in the 20th century. Against this are cited sources which are said to unanimously prove that Viennese early 19th century 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 actually based his stylistic approach.

The alleged growth of vibrato in 20th century orchestral playing has been traced by Norrington by studying early recordings; critics say 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 object that the sonic limitations of older recordings, particularly with respect to overtones and high frequency information, make an uncontroversial assessment of earlier playing techniques very difficult. In addition, they point out a distinction needs to be made between the kind of vibrato used by a solo player, and the sectional vibrato of an entire string ensemble, which can't be heard as a uniform quantity as such. Rather, it manifests itself in terms of the warmth and amplitude of the sound produced, as opposed to a perceptible wavering of pitch. The fact that as early as the 1880s composers such as Richard Strauss (in his tone poems "Don Juan" and "Death and Transfiguration") as well as Camille Saint-Saëns (Symphony No. 3 "Organ") asked string players to perform certain passages "without expression" or "without nuance" strongly suggests the general use of vibrato within the orchestra as a matter of course. Although there is also a convincing argument to be made that since 'nuance' and 'expression' were affected using many other devices as well as vibrato, Strauss and Saint-Saëns could easily have been referring to any number of expressive devices that formed part of the late romantic palette.

Despite this, the use of indiscriminate 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 the 21st century some orchestras are now playing with noticeably less vibrato .


Most jazz players through the 20th century and up to the present day have used vibrato more or less continuously. From around the 1950s, however, some players in more avant garde styles, many following the example of Miles Davis, began to use it more selectively, playing without vibrato as a rule.


Folk music singers and instrumentalists up to the present day, such as Martin Carthy, rarely or never use vibrato. It tends only to be used by performers of transcriptions by musicians from a classically-trained, or music school, background such as Britten.


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

Keyboard instruments

Some types of organ however, can produce the effect by altering the pressure of the air passing through the pipes, or by various mechanical devices (see the Hammond or Wurlitzer Organs for example). The 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

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.

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.

In pop music, the effect is sometimes heard on the guitar e.g. the start of Dance Little Liar ( from Arctic Monkeys new album humbug)and some, but not all, singers use it (in some pop ballads, the vibrato can be so wide as to be a pronounced wobble, although not as pronounced as that present in some operatic voices). 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 gypsy music, for example, it can be very wide.

Wide vibrato, as wide as a whole-tone, is commonly used among electric guitar players and adds a vocal-like expressiveness to the sound.

Wind instruments

Players of wind 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. Stomach and throat vibrato are the only methods possible for flutists and oboists, but 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. Alternatively, the embouchure can be rapidly altered, essentially repeatedly "bending" the note. On a trombone, a player may move the slide back and forth gently (if the slide is well-oiled), centering on one note, providing a slightly more pronounced vibrato than embouchure or air-supply vibrato that provides a very lyrical effect, adding to the already lyrical sound of the trombone.


Some instruments can only be played with constant, mechanical vibrato (or none at all), notably the Leslie speaker used by many electric organists. 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. Eberhardt, S.: Violin Vibrato: Its Mastery and Artistic Uses, pages 12 and 21. Carl Fischer, Inc.
  2. Alexanian, D.: "Traité théorique et pratique du Violoncelle", pages 96 and 97. Dover.

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