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Tremolo Overview & Effect

Laura Lohman, Alisha Nypaver
  • Author
    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman has taught university arts and humanities courses for over 10 years. She has a PhD in the history of music (University of Pennsylvania), MS in Human Resources and Organization Development (the University of Louisville), and BM in music performance (Indiana University). She holds senior human resources, affirmative action, and project management certifications.

  • Instructor
    Alisha Nypaver

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

Learn the definition of tremolo in music, discover the tremolo strings and notation, understand the tremolo effect, and examine its difference from vibrato. Updated: 12/09/2021

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What Is Tremolo?

Tremolo is a music performance technique in which a performer plays an individual note or two alternating notes as fast as possible. Tremolo is an Italian term that means "trembling," and it captures the trembling and quivering sound created by the fast repetition of one or two notes.

History of Tremolo

The tremolo technique was used in European music from the 17th century. It was used by vocalists, string players, and composers such as Claudio Monteverdi. It was commonly notated and performed as a measured tremolo. In a measured tremolo, the performer repeated the note in a rhythmically precise way based on the subdivision of the beat. For example, the performer could play the note 4, 8, or 16 times per beat. Sometimes, the intended subdivision of the measured tremolo would be written precisely in the music notation.

By the late 19th century, the unmeasured tremolo had emerged as the typical way to perform a tremolo. The performer simply repeated the note as quickly as possible. The performer did not need to keep the rhythm even as a precise subdivision of the beat. The duration of the entire tremolo was indicated in the music notation, but the individual repetitions themselves were usually not written out in a precise subdivision.

Tremolo Effect

There are two main ways that a performer can produce the tremolo effect. First, the performer can rapidly repeat one note. Second, the performer can alternate between two notes as fast as possible.

Tremolos can create a subtle, shimmering sound or intense drama. The effect depends on the volume, or the softness or loudness, of the tremolo. The effect also depends on the number of musicians playing the tremolo at one time. For example, an entire section of violinists playing a tremolo loudly can create tension that foreshadows a disastrous event in music for an opera or film.

Tremolo Strings

Tremolo is most commonly performed on string instruments. More specifically, the bowed-string instruments like the violin, viola, cello, and double bass most often perform tremolos. These are the easiest instruments for performing the unmeasured tremolo that became common in the 19th century.

For a single-note tremolo, the player simply moves the bow rapidly back and forth on one string. To do this, only a small portion of the bow is used in each direction. To play a two-note tremolo, the player draws the bow steadily across the string while rapidly changing the pitch of the string with the left hand.

Other string instruments can also play tremolos. Harp and guitar players, for example, can rapidly repeat pitches. On the classical guitar, one note can be rapidly repeated by striking a string with several fingers in alternation. On a harp, two strings are played in rapid alternation to create a tremolo.

Keyboard and wind instruments can also play tremolos. On a piano, with one hand a performer can alternate rapidly between two different notes on the keyboard. On a flute, the performer can alternate between two notes. The ease of performing a tremolo on a woodwind instrument such as the flute depends on how many fingers must be lifted and lowered to alternate between the two notes.

Tremolo Notation

The notation of tremolo has changed over time. In the 17th century, tremolo was often notated with a wavy line above or below the notes. Later, dots were also used to indicate the intended subdivision of the beat that should be used to perform a measured tremolo.


Tremolos were sometimes notated with wavy lines and dots indicating how many times each note should be repeated.

Tremolos notated with dots and wavy lines

In some compositions, such as teaching or study compositions called etudes, the tremolo was written out and the exact subdivision was notated.


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  • 0:04 What Is Tremolo?
  • 0:24 Tremolo: A Brief History
  • 1:30 Notating Tremolo
  • 2:01 Instruments That Use Tremolo
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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In some music notation, the exact rhythm of a measured tremolo is written.

Piano etude with measured tremolo rhythms written out

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does a tremolo work?

A tremolo requires a performer to play an individual note or two alternating notes as fast as possible. A tremolo can be performed as a measured tremolo or an unmeasured tremolo. In a measured tremolo, the performer repeats the note in a rhythmically precise way based on the subdivision of the beat. In an unmeasured tremolo, the performer simply repeats the note as quickly as possible.

What does tremolo mean in music?

Tremolo is an Italian term that means "trembling," which captures the trembling and quivering sounds created by the fast repetition of one or two notes.

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