Jack Taylor

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

August 14, 2012 04:51


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.

7 replies


Difficulty tuning violin

August 6, 2012 13:02

Friction between the groves of the nut and my strings is causing tuning to be jerky. As I pull a string up to pitch it is not a continuous curve. It comes up in small jerks. I have used graphite with a pencil each time I change strings to lubricate the grove. I have had this problem with different sets of strings. My violin is an old Johann Gottfried HAMM with ebony finger board and nut. I have Knelling pegs with one fine tuner on the E String. I have the same problem with all 4 strings.

To overcome this problem I have tried to equilibrate the tension of the string between the section of the peg to nut with the section from the nut to the bridge. The method I use is pulling the string up to slightly flat pitch tension with the peg and then gradually putting finger tension on the section above the nut. This helps, but I'm looking for a better solution. I am using a Peterson strobe tuner in and untempered setting

The following has come to mind as a solution. 1. Polish the grooves, 2. Replace the nut 3. Change from an ebony nut to a material that is inherently slicker, such as glass. I don't know if such a nut exists. ( I have methods of producing such though in various metals or glass.)

Is this just the nature of violins in general? Or, are there violins out there that don't have this problem?

2 replies


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