When to vibrato?

February 24, 2018, 2:45 AM · Recently, I started practicing and learning music theory and found out that there's "Vibr" written in the sheet when the piece--or any aspect of it-- needs to be played with vibrato but then I looked up this beginner piece called "Au Claire de la Lune" (which is a sort of french lullaby I think) that's played with vibrato. That's not what's bothering me. What's bothering me is that the sheet music doesn't state that it needs to be played with vibrato. So, how do you know if something needs to be played with vibrato if it's not stated in the sheet music but professionals are using vibrato?
Or is vibrato used as something extra sometimes to add flair?

Replies (19)

Edited: February 24, 2018, 5:22 AM · A Historically Informed player, and a traditional "fiddler", will only use vibrato to "prettify" certain notes or phrases; the very necessary variations in tone come almost entirely from the bow: sharp, but not violent, attacks, and caressing sustained notes.

However, for loud playing (or singing), with modern heavier bows and bowinng, and violins with a stiffer setup, the tone would seem dead or whining without vibrato to "dettch" it from its surroundings and help it "carry".

Edited: February 24, 2018, 5:28 AM · You just opened a huge subject which has been controversial at least since the book on violin playing by Leopold Mozart, the composer's father. You will probably get conflicting replies.

The replies might also point out that there are many styles of vibrato, using various mixtures of movement which players perceive to be started in the arm and /or hand and / or finger; with vibrato varying in speed, in the amount of pitch variation, and the extent to which the change should be mainly in pitch, or if it is more pleasing if the vibrato is to a great extent a change in timbre or sound quality with comparatively little change in pitch. There are even contradictory statements about whether a pitch change is only below the note or is below and above the note (the former is the current orthodoxy).

The very purpose of vibrato may be disputed: whether it is an ornament, or a a constant way to make violin sound more pleasing, or primarily a device to allow more weight on the bow without scractching, and / or to allow a soloist's line to stand out for the listeners.

I say all that to suggest you have to think for yourself, and listen carefully to recordings including historical ones and to live players, to decide if and why you want to use vibrato, and if so, where and what kind. The music where the composer has given an indication of what he or she wants in this respect is rare, so it is your decision.

I can only think of one piece of advice which is probably not going to be controversial: not to get distracted with vibrato until more important skills of playing the notes in tune with a good bow technique are firmly in place.

Edited: February 24, 2018, 8:29 AM · My students start learning vibrato when they are comfortable in 3rd position. It's important to have someone help you so you don't develop the wrong motion.

"The very purpose of vibrato may be disputed: whether it is an ornament, or a a constant way to make violin sound more pleasing, or primarily a device to allow more weight on the bow without scractching, and / or to allow a soloist's line to stand out for the listeners."

I'd say all of the above.

We don't rely on the music to tell us when to vibrate. It is not notated. The only thing that is notated on sheet music is when we are to NOT use vibrato. In that case it would say "senza vibrato."

One can make various argument about vibrato throughout history, but modern style is one of continuous vibrato. We generally try to keep everything vibrated, even fast notes (depending on speed). The continuous vibrato has been in use since Kreisler. If you listen to very early historical recordings, even the most famous violinists of their time can sound what we'd describe today as "studentish" due to their spotty vibrato. And the better you are at vibrato, the more the non-vibrated notes really stick out as being dead.

Edited: February 24, 2018, 8:54 AM · What John said = good!

But professional cellists have long felt vibrato goes above AND below the indicated pitch.

Recent frequency measurements of violin vibrato played by top professionals (even Nate) who believed vibrato is executed below the pitch SHOW clearly that the actual measured frequencies went below and above. Even I now believe this! However, when attempting to vibrate above and below it always sounds horrible - like an aged-out soprano. I have always attempted to vibrate below the pitch (as Nate does) I guess we just don't quite get it that way when it sound right.

What I have never heard or read is what characteristics of human hearing integrate vibrato into the kind of harmonious enhancement of the note we want to hear.

I was taught to NOT VIBRATE on pianissimo ("pp") passages - although one might want to in some solo situations. Heifetz pretty well established vibrating on at least everything else - to the chagrin of some of those who had already purchased some of his Mozart and Bach recordings.

Vibrato engages harmonics that surround the harmonics of the "target pitch" and this can enhance the apparent amplitude of the sound from the instrument - even to an "extreme" degree. This effect is very dependent on the characteristics of the instrument (i.e., closeness of the amplitude peaks in the 2 - 4KHz frequency range = natural resonances of the instrument) as well as the technique of the player. A talented and experienced player will tend to adapt to a different instrument's responses in this area rather quickly, but I think complete familiarity may take quite a while. I sense this latter from reading articles about great violinists' responses to questions about their more recently acquired Strads, Guads and del Gesus - definitely not from my own experiences.

Edited: February 24, 2018, 9:20 AM · In addition to continuous vibrato (which Scott said started in the Kreisler era and that sounds right to me), what you will hear in some recordings is that the vibrato is always the same. An example of a violinist who used this kind of "motorized" vibrato is Arthur Grumiaux but there are many others, especially within Grumiaux's generation. I too was taught that continuous vibrato was to be considered "part of your tone" that is to be used always (as if we play everything with the same tone).

Nowadays I think vibrato has come to be recognized as another dimension of actual expression and there are some players that I really admire for taking that dimension and testing its extremes. An example is Anne-Sophie Mutter. Listen to her recording of any kind of slower piece and you'll hear it too. I've heard pro violinists say they don't like what she's doing, but I do.

As far as whether vibrato goes "above and below" or "just below" I think that's a matter of actual professional practice vs. pedagogy. I think if you are taught that it just goes below, then you can learn a really good wrist-vibrato technique that embodies both pitch and timbre variation for a very rich sound, even if, in reality, in the heat of the moment, your pitch actually wanders significantly above the chosen pitch. The fact that we hear such playing as being "in tune" suggests to me that our minds make allowances for variations in the "centering" of vibrato, probably as a matter of musical context.

If you're going to teach your self vibrato, be prepared for the eventuality that, when you get a teacher, (s)he will tell you stop doing vibrato for an entire month so that (s)he can rebuild it from scratch. That is what happened to me. My childhood teacher let me figure it out on my own, and my current teacher had to fix it. But of course my childhood teacher also forbade the shoulder rest, and when you can't hold your violin properly (which indeed, I couldn't), then vibrato becomes pretty hard.

February 24, 2018, 9:37 AM · Almost all professional players use vibrato throughout. At your stage, forget it until you can at least comfortably play all notes in tune in 1st position and can get a big, full and lovely sound.
February 24, 2018, 10:14 AM · Continuous vibrato in good hands, (Kreisler, Heifetz, Hahn etc) is certainly not monotonous! It is there in readiness, and its speed and intensity can vary independently of the dynamics (e.g. slower and wider in forte, faster and tighter in piano) if so desired. Or vice versa...

February 24, 2018, 11:04 AM · I've just been re-listening to recordings by that eminent cellist the late Janos Starker of Bach's solo cello suites and the Schumann concerto. A characteristic of Starker's playing is a virtually continuous vibrato, with a vibration frequency mostly 7 - 8 vibrations per second, which I measured from a WAV recording on Audacity. A spectrographic image on Audacity of the same performance also revealed how rich his tone is in upper frequencies, and how projective - both of which are a function of vibrato. Another characteristic of his playing is the superlative precision of his intonation.

Vibrato is an alternation of frequency about a core frequency (the pitch of the plain note without vibrato) and this cyclic change of frequency generates what are known as "side-band frequencies", a band of higher frequencies which go out to the audience as part of the overall acoustic energy and thus enhance projection (this can be proved mathematically using Fourier Analysis). Similarly, top opera singers all need this generation of the band of upper frequencies to help projection in the theatre.

Unlike someone playing the violin/viola, the cellist's left arm and wrist are pretty well at right angles to the neck of the cello, and this affects how the vibrato is generated (easier to learn than on the violin - says he, who has done both) and this position on the cello naturally brings about a vibrato either side of the core note.

February 24, 2018, 11:30 AM · There's really no rule for vibrato - just conventions.

I find the history of recording and how it affected vibrato very interesting. I've listened to early cylinder recordings of violinists and they were not using too much vibrato in very early recordings whearas later do. What I heard is that the Edison company actually sent people around to sell the cylinder recording equipment and made the claim that the recording was truer to sound than your actual ears. They would send around a performer who would perform next to the recording to show there was no difference! To do this they would have had to imitate the pitch variation inherent in these recordings (even pianos sounded like they had vibrato!) and perhaps this had an influence on the early twentieth century vibrato - it certainly sounds like it across the board - singers and instrumentalists. Maybe it was an effort to cover up the flutter or an effort to differentiate instruments which otherwise sound very similar. Perhaps if you were a student musician hearing other musicians on recordings you would somewhat imitate the sound you were hearing - flutter and all.

Edited: February 24, 2018, 2:53 PM · That's an original theory!
I have another: the early recordings had sufficient surface noise to mask the higher frequencyies of the violin tone; then the horn gramophone did not radiate either the scratch or the finer sounds. So vibrato became means of making this rather sweet sound more vigorous.

Modern recording catches the "bloom" of the tone, and allows more delicate, transparent playing.

My two pence!

February 24, 2018, 3:17 PM · I attended a masterclass by Joshua Bell years ago where he said he doesn’t really like it when people “turn off” vibrato and much prefers a continuous, even one. He used the analogy of “I don’t like having mayonnaise-y clump of a dressing in my salad and would rather have a beautiful vinaigrette.”

There are violinists that minimise uses of vibrato when playing baroque pieces (Ray Chen, Rachel Podger, and Midori) because it is believed they didn’t use vibrato back then and is sometimes (I can’t accurarely qualify this because of my limited knowledge) regarded “stylistically correct.”

The opposition to the theory above often assert we have different violins and bows than back then and argue that the method to best produce the most ideal sound out of the instrument has also changed—for instance, modern bows have camber while baroque ones don’t, and Podger explains in one of her masterclasses that the technique she uses is different than on a modern bow. And then there’s the group of people that just says there is no way of knowing whether they used vibrato in baroque times, but I feel like that just becomes a Yeah-huh-nuh-uh battle.

So you know—whatever floats your boat.

February 24, 2018, 3:43 PM · It is a fashion. I remember reading "Unfinished Journey" where Menuhin, late in his career, lamented in not considering a chamber group that played without vibrato. He commented that they he could have learned something playing without vibrato.

Back when I started playing, vibrato was usually reserved for longer noted and not constant. Today a constantly vibrating arm (no more finger or hand vibrato) is the standard. The only guarantee is that, over time, it will change.

February 25, 2018, 2:24 PM · When not to vibrato? When you are an Indian violinist!!
Check out L.Shankar playing extremely expressively without any vibrato :


Edited: February 25, 2018, 2:31 PM · Another nice one:




February 25, 2018, 4:54 PM · It's interesting about string quartets because I often hear some quartets playing some notes or passages with no vibrato. They do that "for effect" but isn't everything "for effect" in some way? In fact I think I hear this among quartets more often than I hear it among soloists.
Edited: February 26, 2018, 6:50 AM · No, vibrato should not be continuous and it is not the modern standard to do so.

Continuous vibrato was the style of the times with Heifetz though. Partially, this was done to protect the bow from bottoming out the tone on the gut strings -- modulating the string allows it to accept more pressure. I recall an interview with Erick Friedman where he talked about this in detail -- I will attempt to locate it.

Modern vibrato technique, for great soloists and orchestral violinists alike, is to modulate the intensity of the vibrato to support the musical line. This means sometimes not using vibrato -- for instance on a fast passage of notes to promote clarity.

Here is Hilary Hahn, placing vibrato appropriately to support the musical line. Notice how many notes are not vibrated. Note that her 4th finger vibrato is executed beautifully by enabling wide motion in both joints of the finger.


Josh Bell was mentioned and quoted above as saying “I don’t like having mayonnaise-y clump of a dressing in my salad and would rather have a beautiful vinaigrette.” Well, clearly in his Tchaikovsky concerto below, many notes don't have vibrato. He also does a pet-peeve of mine -- often starting a note without vibrato and then suddenly adding it, though not as part of the phrase but out of habit.


Edited: February 26, 2018, 7:31 PM · It might be better to ask when not to vibrato, My number 1 rule is when the conductor says so!
February 26, 2018, 9:41 PM · Oh dear...I think Violetta !, this is something best to have a teacher to guide you through.

Vibrato for tone, vibrato for relaxation, vibrato for ornament, vibrato as part of the messa di voce, what kind of vibrato constitutes as "good taste"...these are stylistic things all of us strive to figure out and debate about till we die.

Aesthetic of vibrato changes: you would find "con vibrato" in Romantic repertoire — and as a modern player one would think, "Ummmm but I've been vibrating every note already...what do I do now." Clearly style and expectation have changed and we all need the technique to perform in a way to suit the context.

February 26, 2018, 10:41 PM · As I remember, Auer wrote about vibrato, that most of the students, when learn it, can not stop doing it and apply it everywhere. He saw the problem as a mental problem and called "the finger desease".

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