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Vibrato: Definition, Effect & Technique

Instructor: Sharon Rhinesmith
Vibrato is a type of undulation of musical sound that is used by musicians to create an expressive and full musical tone. In this lesson we will explore how it is produced and the varying opinions surrounding its use.

Definition:

Vibrato comes from the Italian word vibrare, which means to vibrate. It is a pulsating tone that wavers from slightly above to slightly below the actual musical pitch and has a rich, emotional quality. Most musicians use vibrato in varying degrees for different situations.

Singers and Vibrato

We have all heard the sounds of kids trying to mimic an opera singer. This imitation is obviously not a form of flattery! For children who do not naturally possess a vibrato, the sound of someone 'shaking ' his voice seems foreign or even contrived, but in reality it is very much a part of the mature adult voice. It gets its bad reputation from singers who use it incorrectly due to faulty technique. This can be in the form of a vibrato that is too slow (a wobble) or too fast (a quiver). Both types of vibrato are the result of singing with too much pressure. Once the singer learns the proper breath support and placement of the voice, the vibrato problem should resolve itself.

Singers can change their vibrato depending on the situation, but it is not healthy to sing without vibrato completely, which is known as 'straight tone.' In order to produce a straight tone, the singer must hold back the sound causing pressure on the glottis, which is the opening between the vocal cords and the voice box. Eventually this kind of singing can cause vocal nodes, which are tissues that grow on the vocal cords from improper use.

Instead of a straight tone, a singer can learn to use a lighter vibrato for certain styles of music that require it, such as for music of the Renaissance or Baroque periods, then use a fuller vibrato when singing music that suits it, like the Romantic period. She also can make adjustments depending on whether she is a soloist or ensemble singer.

String Players and Vibrato

A string player can choose to play with or without vibrato. In the 17th and 18th centuries, vibrato was used more for effect or expression and to imitate the voice. Beginning in the 19th century, when music became more romantic and demanded a fuller sound, vibrato started to be used all the time. To play with vibrato, the musician moves her left wrist and hand back and forth, causing the finger that is pressed down on the string to vibrate.

For a string player, vibrato creates a warm and lush sound and aids in intonation, or playing in tune. When a string player puts her finger on the string to produce a pitch, she must be extremely accurate because any slight movement one way or the other will cause the pitch to sound sharp or flat. This is why beginning violinists struggle so much with playing in tune and it can be difficult to listen to! But when she gets to the point where she is ready to learn vibrato, it is much easier to play since the vibrating note naturally fluctuates around the pitch a little bit. The tone is warmer and more pleasant as well.

Wind and Brass Players

Wind and brass players primarily use vibrato on longer, sustained notes or for more expression, but they do not use it all the time. Wind players create vibrato by pulsating air with their stomach muscles. Brass players manipulate their lips and sometimes their jaw. Like singers, brass and wind players change the amount of vibrato depending on whether they are playing in a section or as a solo instrument.

The Controversy about Vibrato

There are many schools of thought about when to use vibrato. Those who specialize in the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music believe that singers should use little or no vibrato when performing this music because the instruments of the period were not played with vibrato. They feel no vibrato produces a purer tone and better intonation when singing with period instruments, and a wide vibrato makes this task more difficult.

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