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Vibrato? To vibrate or not to vibrate, that is the question.

August 14, 2012 at 11:51 AM


Do you like melody or harmony best? Can you have both without sacrificing the other?

In recent years I have played violin in many different styles of music. I routinely play in a church orchestra and a pops orchestra. I have noted players, particularly the younger ones, seemingly trying to outdo each other with vibrato, particularly with wideness of pitch.

How much vibrato did the early violin players use? Viols are fretted ancestors of violins popular during Renaissance & Baroque Music Periods. While watching and listening to a professional Viol Ensemble who had an association with a famous museum I noted that some of the players were using vibrato. In a discussion with the ensemble after the performance I asked them if viol players during their golden era used vibrato. One player spoke up: "Well we don't know, but I believe they were a wild and crazy bunch so I use vibrato."

Of course those frets do make it more difficult to produce vibrato.

When did vibrato become so popular on violins? It is difficult to know. Some authorities have said there was an increase in popularity during the 1920's.

The use of vibrato in voice is popular with certain styles of music. In opera it seems to be standard. Compare a quartet of opera singers and a barber shop quartet. For emphasizing the beauty of harmony I prefer the barber shop quartet that uses little or no vibrato. In solo work you might prefer vibrato.

It probably is inherent in the physics of harmony. About the time of Bach there were compromises in tuning made in order to be able to easily change keys. This was important for instruments with fixed pitches such as a piano. Overtime the compromises, temperaments, that have developed have become innumerable.

I asked a college band director if the band was playing in a tempered scale. His answer was most enlightening. He said: "Well they might start in equal temperament, but they tend to drift toward un tempered".

Ever wonder why string players tune in perfect fifths without beats and are told not to play open strings? One reason is when playing with instruments such as a piano which is tuned to a tempered scale the violin open G, D & E will not be in perfect tune with the piano.

I kid violin players that vibrato was invented by string players looking for pitch.

Bottom line, I believe that vibrato sounds fine for certain styles of solo work. But, for best harmony in string ensembles and orchestras it should be used sparingly. But, then beauty is in the mind of the beholder. Make up your own mind. Just don't use it because it looks cool.


From Angela Garwood
Posted on August 14, 2012 at 5:50 PM
I agree! There is something to be said for a quartet, a really great quartet, that uses hardly any vibrato. The sound is so pure and delicious. If you close your eyes, it sounds like one instrument...

Not to nmention, it is far more difficult to play with minimal vibrato! It can be very unforgiving too. There is no hiding, or covering up with vibrato. Each note has to match so perfectly in every sense. I have so much respect for a group of four people that can work together and achieve this purity I am talking about.

Some friends/colleagues of mine that do this well: The Silverbirch Quartet http://alexandralee.ca/silver-birching-quartet/ (Nominated for a Juno last year!!)

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 15, 2012 at 12:19 AM
In a previous life as a classical guitarist I had no problems in producing vibrato when required on that fretted instrument. Although I've never played a viol I imagine a similar technique would be used.

The most important point about vibrato is that it should be completely under control at all times in its aspects of pitch, amplitude, frequency and phase. That skill, including the ability to switch vibrato off on demand, takes a long time to acquire. Interestingly, in my time I've come across the occasional very experienced and proficient violinist who had great difficulty in turning off his vibrato when asked to do so by the conductor.

From steven su
Posted on August 15, 2012 at 3:21 AM
I too agree that harmony sounds much better without vibrato because it can be difficult to tune the intervals perfectly. Also, back in the old days, people used vibrato selective as opposed to now where we are taught to vibrate every note or at least I was taught this way.
From Michael Pijoan
Posted on August 15, 2012 at 6:11 AM
A perfect vibrato does not hide the pitch.
From Casey Jefferson
Posted on August 15, 2012 at 10:55 AM
I use vibrato because it sounds better, like a voice. Situations where no vibrato sounds better, then I don't.
From Paul Deck
Posted on August 15, 2012 at 1:20 PM
@Michael, a perfect vibrato might not hide the pitch, but if you have two violinists playing notes a perfect fifth apart, it requires a much better-trained ear to discern if that interval is being played in tune if both players are using vibrato. A better ear than 99% of a lay audience will have.

Vibrato gives a singing tone. There is no vibrato in traditional chant, but there is in baroque aria. There aren't many instruments (snare drum, perhaps) where teachers do not tell their students to make their instruments sing. Vibrato might be possible on fretted instruments like the guitar and gamba, but it's obviously much different and, I would argue, more limited in an everyday practical sense. Tone is different with frets too, but vibrato must have been among the reasons to remove the frets.

For a very nice example of "no vibrato" being used for compelling effect, listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter play the third movement of the Franck Sonata.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on August 18, 2012 at 7:12 PM
I agree with the author but not just about stringed instruments. I also much prefer voices that use vibrato sparingly. I read that singers started using the vibrato they do now in order to project their voices without amplification. This makes sense to me but I don't really understand why, now that we have better amplification, they still do it. To me, operatic sopranos sound like they are shrieking--it's really an unpleasant sound to my ear, and I'm quite resistant to trying to make my violin sound that way.

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