Violin Technique: Centering and Simplifying Vibrato

October 11, 2022, 9:37 PM · A popular discussion about vibrato’s direction has always confused me. It’s the debate as to whether you vibrate up to the pitch from below, or starting at the pitch and vibrating below it. I heard this first in college, and I bought into it because it had an air of logic and erudition around it. (I don’t remember which direction was "correct," but it’s not important.) Many years later I found a more logical way of understanding vibrato, without worrying about which direction I was using.

Vibrato in Its Purist Form

The explanation that makes sense to me is that it’s an even oscillation around the pitch, not below it or above it. In essence, make sure the note is in tune, then vibrate around it. The center of the oscillation will ring with pure intonation. Parsing a pendulum, and over-analyzing which direction you’re going in, will dig a deep hole that’s hard to get out of.

In the scenario of vibrating around the pitch, the purity of the intonation is always heard, helped along by the fact that the distance from the pitch is consistent. In other words, the center of the movement is always the dead center of the pitch. However, if I split hairs and let things get too complicated, while concentrating on vibrating up to the pitch, I’m more likely to play out of tune.

If you alter the basic area or equilibrium in which vibrato resides, the pitch will start migrating. If you change the principle of vibrato having an evenly spaced area above and below the pitch, you’re complicating a simple process.

The Hummingbird Principle

Vibrato presents an interesting paradox: the pitch changes, but the underlying, dominant pitch doesn’t. A hummingbird’s speed of flapping its wings shows how vibrato can be mirrored in nature: though the wings are in constant motion, the hummingbird can hover in one place.

hummingbird vibrato

The success of vibrato depends on:

  1. A propulsive pendulum being activated instantaneously.
  2. The inner workings being free of encumbrance - with the change of direction happening freely in the finger, with joints of the elbow and wrist not fighting with each other, etc.
  3. A natural pendulum moving equidistant from its axis, or center of the movement. A fly swatter is a good example of such symmetry. Altering the equal distance from the center makes it difficult to return to normal. Have a firm connection between the fingertip and the fingerboard to insure there’s no slippage.
  4. How the Ear and the Fingertip Work Together

    Vibrato reminds us of the role that the ear plays in finding the right intonation target. Not only does the ear teach you to play well in tune, but it directs you to play sharper or flatter, depending on the context of your ensemble’s playing. What effect does this have on vibrato?

    The ear serves two functions when it comes to vibrato. First, it lets you know the moment that the pitch is slightly off, so that you can keep it centered. Second, the ear both begins and ends the cycle of vibrating. That is, it starts the process by telling you the quality and richness of sound you’re trying to produce. Vibrato begins during the moment of silence before playing, and then it starts suddenly, instantly blooming with full movement. It ends the cycle with affirmation, letting you know you got the results you hoped for.


    October 12, 2022 at 02:14 PM · Sorry, but I must disagree. It has clearly been shown that the vibrato oscillates below and up to the perceived pitch. Vibrato above the desired pitch will result in the listener perceiving a note that is sharp.

    October 12, 2022 at 03:23 PM · I have read even advocates of your viewpoint admit yielding to reality when faced with recorded graphs of their own playing that showed they vibrated above the desired pitch up to 40% of the time. Just because we aim (and claim) to vibrate up to the pitch does not mean we actually do.

    Professional cellists seem to admit that they actually do vibrate above and below pitch.

    I have not read of how our ears work to interpret the spread of pitch including the effect of engaged overtones on the entire process. But I have heard the effect of a fine vibrato to at least double to apparent sound volume - and Meyer** confirms vibrato can result in sound volume increases as great as 15 DB, which would be more than triple.

    ** Meyer, J. Acustica 76, 283-291 (1992) as noted by Fletcher & Rossing, "The Physics of Musical Instruments," section 10.12.2, Vibrato, pg.317, Springer Verlag, 1999.

    October 12, 2022 at 09:27 PM · I've noticed that often, I go about 80% below, and 20% above, the target pitch. Going slightly above pitch adds a degree of "punch" to the vibrato, whereas staying exclusively below is more of a "sweetness." But sometimes I do this differently.

    So I feel the answer to this age-old question is that our vibrato changes depending on the mood we're trying to convey, as well as the context of the vibrato.

    For example:

    If we do a wide vibrato that is 30% above and 70% below pitch, it has a "yearning" feel. It also carries well when being accompanied, since playing perfectly in tune will make you blend a little too much.

    October 12, 2022 at 09:31 PM · Michael; I agree with you that if you vibrate above the desired pitch it will be perceived as sharp. This is why it’s so important to listen for when the pitch changes.

    Where things get complicated is the issue of vibrating above and below the pitch’s “absolute center” (let’s use A=440 for example.) Violinists regularly play within 339-442 to keep up with the pitch of the ensemble, and it’s not an issue. This phenomenon is called “expressive intonation” by Pablo Casals, and it explains the rather large margin in which perceived pitch lies.

    Therefore, the oscillation will certainly be equidistant around 440 itself, but that doesn’t mean it will sound out of tune.

    October 13, 2022 at 12:28 AM · One of the biggest problems with these kinds of violin-related issues is that the arguments become very dogmatic. Only below the pitch, never above! Equal amount above and below! The problem with starting from a canonical assumption like these two is that when it's time to test them in practice, bias will convince you that you're reproducing them faithfully, when achieving that kind of control would be hard even for an extremely skilled player, and verifying it would require technology that most violinists don't have.

    I do tend to agree with Paul Stein's unwritten meta-premise, which is that the location of the pitch-center within a note played with vibrato should affect our perception of its intonation. But it's not obvious to me where that pitch-center should be, for the listener's ear (mind) to perceive the note as being in tune.

    Fortunately, as Andy Victor has again reminded us (these discussions occur with some regularity), there is empirical evidence. People have analyzed recordings of players whose work is considered "well in tune" and found that the vibrato goes both above and below the pitch. How much it goes in each direction -- this I do not recall. If it's a little above and mostly below, then where's the center? Mathematically, it's not the pitch we intended -- it's lower.

    It could well be that the old-time insistence to only vibrate from the note downward in pitch -- that this is a mnemonic tool in the same general toolbox as "arm weight, not pressure". That is, by thinking about vibrating only below the pitch, we're actually vibrating mostly below and a little above the pitch, which turns out to create the right pitch balance ("centering") for the ear of the listener.

    And then there is the assumption that the loudness of the sound is the same throughout all portions of a note played with vibrato. But the flesh of the finger might be more focused on the string at the high end (for example) and less focused on the low end, such that the higher end of the vibrato pitch-wise is also higher amplitude-wise. The distribution might be something else but the point is that we should not assume that it is uniform. If the amplitude is higher at higher pitches, then the amplitude-weighted average pitch might draw closer to the intended pitch, for instance. I'm curious to know what Andy thinks of that idea.

    I conclude that the issue calls for more science and less dogma. I reject the idea that subjecting a question to scientific experimentation and analysis is the same as over-thinking it.

    October 13, 2022 at 06:24 AM · I under-think I'll just carry on doing whatever it is I'm doing.

    October 13, 2022 at 06:43 AM · I have to admit, I've never thought about vibrato in such a scientific way. Fine for the theory, I guess, but if you've got good ears, that's all that matters - vibrato is meant to add quality to the sound when appropriate. Surely that's the measure. If it's not adding quality, and worse, detracts, then keep listening and adjusting.

    Also, for this reason, i.e. adding sound quality, there are many different types of vibrato. Klezmer music often needs you to start sharp, or at least bend it sharp.

    If you can't hear it, sure, analyse and work through it by theory, but it's not really interesting as an exercise for me - although useful for teaching, I guess. But if one never develops the ear for it, I'd argue that awareness of theory alone will never be enough to adapt your vibrato to the situation.

    October 13, 2022 at 01:27 PM · On YouTube you can slow down videos to 25% which allows you to hear the vibrato fluctuation very clearly, is it mainly above, or mainly below, etc. It's fun to do this exercise with various soloists. The results vary wildly. Hilary Hahn is almost entirely below the note, for example, and to the other extreme, Tasmin Little almost entirely above the note.

    October 13, 2022 at 03:59 PM · Anyone can answer the question for themselves by observing their vibrato in a mirror; back to the mirror, second or third finger on the g string, straight tone, then vibrato. Observe the angle that the last digit makes to the fingerboard.

    My pseudo-scientific theory is that the brain hears what it wants to hear. The vibrato is wider than the margin of error of the listeners pitch discernment, (the comma, 25 cents), so that at some point during the vibrato we hit "perfect" intonation.

    Soloists and some orchestra 1st violins will unintentionally use the vibrato to push the pitch sharp, to hear themselves, project over the background.

    I think Casals's "expressive intonation" was melodic/Pythagorean intonation: tight half-steps, wide major thirds, narrow minor thirds. Cellists are much more aware of those small pitch differences because the physical vibrating string length is about three times longer than that of the violin.

    October 13, 2022 at 06:52 PM · The "crest" of the wave can be brighter and louder than the "dip" (I checked with Intonia) presumably because the tip near the nail is harder than the fleshier pad.

    But in the heat of the moment, we overshoot..

    October 14, 2022 at 02:02 AM · The big issue here is the difference in how it works from a physics standpoint, and what we actually have to do to teach students to vibrate in a way that works musically in context.

    If one measures it with an electronic device, it's pretty clear that vibrato is an oscillation AROUND the desired pitch.

    When I teach students to vibrate on violin and viola, we start in position AT the note, and initiate an oscillation movement DOWNWARDS away from the pitch. That it "bounces" back up above the target pitch isn't really part of the discussion, it "just is." This achieves a consistently reliable result with regards to an acceptable perceived pitch with vibrato without having to unload an entire research paper on the student.

    Interestingly enough, the jaw vibrato for clarinet or saxophone is generally a downwards oscillation, because the release of embouchure tension causes the pitch to drop, and trying to get above the target pitch is not realistic without excessive force in the mouth that is unhealthy for the player in the long-term.

    October 14, 2022 at 10:45 AM · I feel that I vibrate into the note, and that the backward motion is like preparing a throw.

    October 16, 2022 at 03:50 PM · It's our brains!

    I recall experiences in the mid 1960s, experiences with strobe lights. I noticed that at about 0.2 second and faster flash rate my mind connected what my eyes saw, but at slower rates I perceived what I saw as separated events and found it disconcerting. I also recall it seems to take about that amount of time to perceive painful events - that's why we get as burned as we do by hot kitchen utensils.

    So it seams reasonable to me that perhaps our "sense" of hearing also works in a related way. I suspect that a 3D graph of amplitude and frequency vs. time of a vibrated string tone will probably not show the loudness change (on the amplitude axis) that our ears hear from a great vibrato, but our brains probably integrate the sound to produce a sense of significantly increased loudness.

    October 17, 2022 at 04:44 AM · --Andrew V.,-- That threshold for hearing a pitch is about 16 Hz (cps), which is the low C on the 5-string bass, the lowest C organ pipe, and the low C drone at the beginning of R. Strauss Zarathustra. Slower than 16 cps sounds like rapid thumping. You hear that sometimes from those annoying car sub-woofers. The lowest notes on the contra-bassoon sound like a buzz to me. Scales that run faster than 16 notes per second sound like blurs, and when I have to play them in orchestra parts I can never tell if I played them correctly, (and don't care).

    October 18, 2022 at 06:21 PM · The story I've heard (can't remember where, sorry) is that given a number of pitches, the human ear will tend to focus on the highest one. Thus a vibrato that goes above the desired note will sound sharp. Indeed, many operatic sopranos sound jarringly discordant to me because they vibrate so far above the note.

    Just my $0.02 (Canadian, apply applicable exchange rate)...

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