Tremolo: Definition & Effect

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Before there were synthesizers, guitar pedals, and microphone filters, composers found cool ways to change how music sounded by using different performance techniques to create special effects. This lesson explores one of these effects: tremolo.

What is Tremolo?

The term tremolo refers to a musical effect that resembles quivering or trembling. In fact, word 'tremolo' is an Italian word that actually means 'trembling.' In notation, a tremolo indicates that a musician should repeat a specific note or notes as rapidly as possible to produce the quivering effect.

Figure 1: Tremolo note
Tremolo note

Tremolo: A Brief History

An early form of the tremolo technique first appeared in the 17th century. At this time, tremolo was a measured and precise way to produce a quivering effect - measured tremolo involves a calculated subdivision of notes per musical beat. For example, the performer might be asked to play exactly 16 notes per musical beat, with each note lasting for the same duration of time.

An example of measured tremolo. For each musical beat (represented by the quarter notes in the top line), musicians would be asked to play a set number of rapid notes, which would be written out in the music as seen on the bottom line.
Sheet music notation.

By the late 19th century, unmeasured tremolo, sometimes called tremolando, had become the standard way to execute this type of ornament. Unmeasured tremolo involves playing a note or set of notes as rapidly as possible, without worrying about keeping the notes perfectly even or restricted to a certain number per beat. In unmeasured tremolo, the notes are not typically written out individually as they are in measured tremolo.

The unmeasured type is the most common way to perform tremolo today.

Notating Tremolo

There are two ways to indicate that a tremolo effect is desired. If a composer wants a tremolo effect on a single note, three slightly diagonal strokes are added across the stem of the note, such as in Figure 1 above. If the note does not normally have a stem, as is the case with whole notes, the three strokes float above the note.

Tremolo notation for notes of different rhythmic values.
Image of sheet music.

Sometimes, the composer wants the musician to use tremolo on two alternating pitches. In this case, the stems of alternating pitches will typically be connected with three bars, or the three bars will float between the pitches.

Tremolo notation for alternating pitches.
Image of sheet music.

Instruments That Use Tremolo

Tremolo is most commonly performed on bowed string instruments, specifically members of the violin family including the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The reason for this is that true unmeasured tremolo is easier to execute on bowed string instruments than it is on wind instruments or brass instruments. To perform single-note tremolo technique on a bowed string instrument, the musician uses a small section of the bow to play the string while moving the bow hand up and down as fast as possible.

To perform single-note tremolo, the bow hand moves up and down as rapidly as possible.
Representation of single-note tremolo.

Two-note fingered tremolo is usually played by dragging the full length of the bow across the string while the fingers of the left hand rapidly alternate between two pitches, creating the tremolo effect.

To perform two-note tremolo, the musician may move the entire length of the bow up and down the string, creating the quivering effect by rapidly alternating between pitches using the fingers of the left hand.
Representation of two-note tremolo.

When played softly, tremolo creates a shimmery effect that can be used to provide a backdrop for other melodies or set the mood for the rest of the piece. When played loudly, tremolo can create feelings of tension and drama.

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