How do we perceive vibrato?

Edited: June 29, 2017, 3:41 PM · How do we perceive vibrato?

In an on-line thread started yesterday at CELLO CHAT the headline was “Does anyone really vibrato below pitch?
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The OP includes a link to the following STRAD magazine URL
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The URL shows data from a study of frequency measurements of the actual pitch variation of vibrato for the 4 different fingers of many actual violinists and cellists. Actually it is summarized in 8 separate curves (or traces) of these variations – so we don’t know what any individual player actually did. Simultaneous with finding this on line, my July issue of the STRAD magazine arrived in the mail and I read the article – lots of words, but there is actually more information (more meat) in curves of the URL, which do not all appear in the magazine.

I have been interested in this because I suffered neurological damage in 1990 that destroyed my violin vibrato and I have sought some recovery over the many years since then.

Galamian and Simon Fischer have written (and taught) that violinists vibrato below the target pitch up to the target pitch. Previous writers 100 and more years ago wrote that violinists vibrato around the pitch (above and below) – have you ever tried that? What did that sound like to you?

(I find it troublesome that the greatest pedagogues may have been wrong about this.)

Years ago I argued this issue at Cello Chat and learned that professional cellists believe they vibrato around the pitch, not below it. The URL shows that not only does this seem to be true for cellists, but it also seems true to a lesser degree for violinists as well.

I know that my ears cannot tolerate female singers who vibrate above pitch to any degree I can detect and when I have attempted to vibrate even slightly above the pitch on violin I get the same feeling.

I also know that vibrating for expressive intonation can enhance violin sound in some situations. I also know that cellists tend to do this even more to add brilliance to their sound and “projection.” I have also experienced how my own vibrato has gotten more “wild” when it helped bring out more (of “my”) sound from an instrument, especially one I was not familiar with (back in the days I could do that).
So – I raise this question here to see what input others might have.

Among the associated references I have looked at just now in addition to Galamian and Fischer (I have more but haven’t looked at the again recently) are:
-Violin Left Hand Technique by Frederick Neumann
-A New History of Violin Playing (The Vibrato and Lambert Massart’s Revolutionary Discovery): Kreisler & Wieniawski were among Massart’s students.

EDIT (another reference):

Replies (30)

Edited: June 28, 2017, 7:27 PM · It might just be my newbishness, but when I vibrate I don't go above or below the pitch, but go to the pitch as normal and go back and forth from there.

I suspect this is a hold-over from guitar, as other people seem to keep describing this 'starting below the pitch' thing you reference.

So I guess I go 'around the pitch'. It seems natural and is what makes sense to me. Going under might make sense if you want a very wide vibrato. I have enough trouble playing in tune, I'd rather not add the trouble of intentionally playing flat so I can have magical perfect vibrato. At least not yet ;)

June 28, 2017, 7:46 PM · "I don't go above or below the pitch, but go to the pitch as normal and go back and forth from there."

This needs some explaining. It is my understanding that there is only up or down from the pitch, no "around"...or "back and forth."
Maybe this is something I should learn?

Edited: June 28, 2017, 7:59 PM · Erin,

From what I've read on here some people start flat for their vibrato. I just land on the pitch as I would if I were playing it without vibrato and go lower and higher from there, instead of starting lowing and going higher.

Back and forth is just a reference to the motion - under and over the pitch, back and forth, etc. Around is the same thing, 'around the pitch', over and under.

Nothing to learn, just my poor descriptive skills!

Edit: Maybe I should describe it as a rocking motion? Using the wrist/forearm to rock the finger back and forth, using the pitch as the center point. So one motion will make the tone slightly sharp, the other slightly flat, using the 'correct pitch' as the auditory fulcrum.

June 28, 2017, 9:25 PM · This is a frequent question. The majority, conventional opinion is that vibrato is below the pitch. Anyone can check this for themselves by standing sideways to a mirror and watching the last digit of a finger, without and with vibrato. I learned and teach vibrato with a rotation on both sides of the pitch. What would be interesting would be to use those pitch analyzers with a good singer. A singer's good vibrato happens naturally, without mechanical training or impediments. Definitely start the vibrato on the low side. Then there is synchronizing the vibrato with a change of fingers to get the continuous vibrato--another topic. jq
Edited: June 28, 2017, 9:35 PM · I target the desired pitch and oscillate downwards from that pitch. This fits with having the hand frame being in tune, then the vibrato motion (however one accomplishes it, there are many ways) rolls the finger downwards. The more vibrato is applied, the greater the distance away from the target pitch.

I think that on a cello, the target for a note in the middle of the range is large enough, relative to the size of an average human's fingers, that oscillating over the target pitch is not perceived as "out of tune." There's a video of David Finckel demonstrating exactly this; his motion carries him from the target pitch to below it then above it, but if you listen carefully, he's still right in the desirable pitch range.

However, oscillating over the target pitch in the middle to upper end of the range on a violin will give you vibrato that makes you sound sharp. And don't take my word for it...go and conduct your own experiment with the actual instruments, and actual players besides yourself if you can! It was difficult for me and my colleagues to perceive this difference until we experimented with it at a teacher round-table, at the suggestion of one of our mentors. What I noticed from all of this was that I could use extremely wild vibrato around the pitch on the intro to Zigunerweisen or Czardas (on the G string) and have it sound just fine, whereas doing that with the beginning of the Barber or Sibelius concertos (on the A string) is cringe-inducing.

On the flip side, one person who had a significantly more-involved solo career than the rest of us actually insisted on vibrating ever-so-slightly over the pitch in order to make his sound brighter and project better over the orchestra. It seemed to work for him, as the guy had incredible pitch accuracy and a vibrato motion he could control to a very fine degree.

June 29, 2017, 3:40 AM · Gene, was that Ricci, or am I getting confused from his assertion that he tuned slightly above pitch in order to get more projection over the orchestra?
June 29, 2017, 4:27 AM · Sassmannshaus says you should "tune to the highest A that you hear in the orchestra" because it will make you sound "more brilliant."
Edited: June 29, 2017, 9:58 AM · I just saw this a day or two ago. I haven't seen the study, but it made sense to me.
Edited: July 4, 2017, 3:01 AM · Vibrato is not only a variation of pitch, but also of intensity and timbre as the fingertip contact changes from nearer or farther from the nail. In many case the clearest sound is produced near the nail, which will usually be the "crest" of the pitch variation, and will be percieved as the main pitch of the note.
June 29, 2017, 2:45 PM · I've read that when pitch varies (as in vibrato), the human ear picks up on the highest pitch. This explains why going above the note sounds sharp, and why it's considered good practice to dip below the pitch and back up again. (Check out some of the many videos on YouTube; you'll see a number of slow-motion examples showing this.)

The one group that seems to ignore this rule is opera singers - and like Andrew, I hate this to the point that it turns me off opera. I have a pretty good sense of pitch, and this sounds jarringly discordant to me.

Edited: June 29, 2017, 4:08 PM · My point in addressing this has been to point out that the way modern violinists think about this seems to be disputed by measurements (the facts?). What we see on the strings, what we thing we feel on the strings is imprecise at best (as imprecise as the tapes some teachers paste on student violins).

Another reference:

June 30, 2017, 2:31 AM · Thinking of Micheal's guitar vibrato, which I imagine will tend to be above the note as the finger goes over the fret and back. The clearest part of the "wave" will be when it rurns behind the fret.

Hence my theory of percieved pitch depending partly on intensity and timbre.

June 30, 2017, 4:37 AM · Hi Adrian,

We don't actually move over the fret - in higher positions vibrator is done by moving back and forth within the fret length wise along the string, never going over it. In lower positions the string is moved side to side to allow for a stronger vibrato.

My viola vib is close to the upper position style.

June 30, 2017, 4:50 AM · Thanks. Never too late to learn!
June 30, 2017, 5:13 AM · For sure! Frets offer some different mechanics. It's always fun to see the difference between instruments.
June 30, 2017, 9:22 AM · Andrew I see your point entirely. It's a bit like waxing on about how certain violinists taught "flat hair" to their students but then you look at videos of their playing and their bows are clearly, significantly tilted. I'll be interested in the outcome of this because I think there are a great many issues where it is not clear where the facts end and the voodoo starts.
June 30, 2017, 3:01 PM · I always taught vibrato going up to the pitch and never above. Then what happened? I saw my own vibrato plotted on a graph and it went on both sides. Same for the famous soloists. The funny thing is that I still like the way I teach it and conceptualize it, for the result it produces... but I no longer tell my students that it will always stay below the pitch!
June 30, 2017, 3:23 PM · Thank you Nathan. I would take your experience as authoritative. I've been "vibrating"for 70 of the 78 years I've been playing the violin and had the same impression you did, but never the advantage of an actual measurement.
June 30, 2017, 4:48 PM · I discovered that the pitch goes above and below when using intone software several years ago. I also discovered that Joseph Joachim used a pretty much consistent vibrato in his playing, unlike what other people believe.
June 30, 2017, 5:04 PM · What would be interesting is to determine what the threshold might be, that specific interval boundary one can vibrate above a pitch where it still sounds "in tune."
July 1, 2017, 1:00 AM · I have mentioned the intensity and timbre components, but what about the waveshape? How long does the "crest" oF each wave last compared to the "dip"?
July 1, 2017, 6:00 AM · I think this holds true to a tiny extent, but only as a very subtle rais of a few cents above the pitch at the very peak of the motion, as a result of the released energy of the hand when it is about to curl back below pitch. :)
July 1, 2017, 3:20 PM · There is a video floating around the internet of the modern pedagogue, Kurt Sassmannshaus, teaching teachers how to teach vibrato. In it he demonstrates the pros and cons of various frequency shifts of the vibrato.

My main take-aways from that video was 1. when playing a melody, high, low and centered vibrato can all sound good, so which you play is more of an artistic decision, and 2. when vibrating double stops, a high vibrato can sound quite awful.

So if you were to learn or teach only one type of vibrato, a low vibrato is "safest".

Edited: July 1, 2017, 5:05 PM · When vibrating double stops you have to be aware that the two different fingers would need a different spread distance (more for the lower finger) to have the same tonal effect (i.e. number of "cents" to tonal range). Also - finger placement for different keys can be different for the "same" note. This can be a real problem for beginning (and not so beginning) string quartets trying to play with decent harmonic intonation. It's what makes Mozart so difficult to get "good."
Edited: July 1, 2017, 8:16 PM · What Nathan Cole's post tells me is that maybe we can all stop worrying about it quite so much. That's not to say it's not a compelling discussion topic though.
July 1, 2017, 11:51 PM · Nothing like the opinion of the best player on the boards to settle a matter:)
Edited: July 2, 2017, 4:26 AM · I think that may be a case of differing opinion amongst some. (No disrespect to Nathan, just too general a statement).

AND this has been a fascinating thread, full of interesting and important insights.

Edited: July 4, 2017, 4:05 AM · I have found some interesting accounts in Fritz Winkel's "Music, Sound & Sensation" (Dover NY 1967) pp. 108-111. The perception of pitch-only vibrato is studied with pure sine tone modulate above and below the desired pitch.

In my own words, with a vibrato rate of 4Hz we have a easily perceptible ageing singer's wobble. At 6Hz+, we perceive a single, but "enriched" note of pulsating intensity.
However, he does not say if the perceived pitch is that of the original note, or nearer the peak of the wave, as we fiddlers tend to believe.
Violinists tend to prefer a faster, less extreme vibrato than singers (thank goodness).
He insists on the need to vary the vibrato.
He also observes that vibrato is extremely common, even amongst those who say they don't like it...

May I insist on the fact that in reality, pitch vibrato is usually accompanied by intensity and timbre vibrato.

July 4, 2017, 7:12 PM · What about flute players? What's the frequency of their vibrato? Maybe 5 Hz or so?
Edited: July 5, 2017, 1:56 PM · My flautist son says that flute vibrato comes from the diaphragm, and so it is basically an intensity vibrato, with slight pitch and timbre side-effects.
I imagine one can also modulate the air flow from the throat, or even the embouchure and tongue, but I didn't dare ask him!
Speed? An intensity vibrato at only 5Hz may not have the same uneasy quality as a 5Hz pitch vibrato.

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