Vibrato tangent- Any cultures in which singers do NOT use vibrato?

September 29, 2018, 2:51 PM · As I am from Chicago, there is a great deal of emphasis on a singing tone and modeling one’s instrumental playing on the voice.
If this is also true for many other cultures and areas, then the opposite hypothesis would be that cultures in which singing without vibrato is the norm would also produce instrumentalists that would not use vibrato. Absolutely no data yet in support of, or rejecting this.

Replies (29)

Edited: September 29, 2018, 3:23 PM · Traditional Irish folk singers tended not to use vibrato, likewise the instrumentalists. But this is fading away now, perhaps because of the pervading influence of modern musical styles.

Modern exponents of Baroque music generally don't use it,or very sparingly when they do, keeping to the old tradition that instrumental vibrato was a specialised form of ornamentation. Having said that, there seems to be evidence that some violinists in the 18th c used a lot of vibrato, to the disgust of the traditionalists. Things haven't changed much, have they?

Performers of Renaissance ecclesiastical music (Palestrina, Lassus, Tallis, Byrd for example) are still vibrato-free today, in the UK at any rate. [edit added] These works are today still performed outside the concert hall in the very reverberant acoustics of large churches and cathedrals. In these circumstances vibrato would muddy the sound unacceptably.

September 29, 2018, 3:16 PM · Long time since I listened to les voix Bulgares.
Edited: September 29, 2018, 3:41 PM · That's an interesting question.

When I was teaching world music, I loved to raise with my students the issue of "universals" or "near-universals"--things that everyone (or almost everyone) does in music. So, a good example is that every human culture has singing. And when a human is in an intense emotional state--anger, pain, fear, sadness, etc.--their voice quivers. Hence, vibrato. So in one sense, all humans use vibrato. It's programmed into the equipment.

I once heard an amazing presentation from a musicologist, Bernard Mache, who has studied the communities of larks in France as if they were human communities, and besides noticing that they seem to sing for the pure pleasure of singing (i.e., they really do make music), he made the remarkable observation that they include alarm calls and other such information in their songs, but the other birds recognize that these aren't REAL alarm calls.

Similarly, humans take intense emotional vocal sounds and integrate them into their singing. This is universal, and though I have not heard every singing tradition, every tradition I have heard makes some use of that intensity, though usually as a momentary ornament or texture.

The other feature of vibrato is that the shifting pitch cuts through background instruments and ambient noise, and a variety of world music traditions--especially those such as Sichuan opera, that developed as public performance before crowds on the street--use this psychoacoustic device to make themselves heard in the days before electronic amplification. Not surprisingly, vibrato has been a part of traditional classical music in China for as long as anyone knows. Arguably, a similar function for vibrato is part of the European bel canto tradition, with singers filling a large hall, accompanied by orchestra. Jewish cantors, Muezzins, and other using their voice to reach a large audience have made use of this. There is some evidence that early opera singers were influenced by Mediterranean singing traditions that had developed this vocal technique.

I think there is a distinction to be made between most of the world, where vibrato is an effect/ornament/occasional texture (and many varieties of it--while Hindustani singers do not use it continuously, there is an incredibly wide, pulsing vibrato used occasionally--at the moment I am thinking of Dhrupad and Qawwalis--that is very intense) and the continuous sort, which is currently the standard in classical European music. In any case, you are correct that instrumentalists generally imitate singers.

In Irish traditional music, the dance music generally has no vibrato, but a gentle vibrato imitating the traditional style of a singer will be employed in a slow air. Still, not continuous, and not very wide. Wind players do it with their fingers more than their breath, usually, tapping on an open hole. Thinking of other examples... Among the jelis (professional musicians) of the Mande in West Africa, the singers use an incredible wide variety of ornamentation, including various vibrato effects, but not the instrumentalists. They play one-string fiddles (with the awesome name of "nyanyaur"--onamatopoeia!) that probably influences American traditional fiddling, using no vibrato whatsoever--at least that I have ever heard. Someone will probably prove me wrong though.

Anyway, some random thoughts on it.

September 30, 2018, 3:31 AM · Paul - At last, some real information about the origin and application of vibrato - thank you! Your first paragraph seems to encapsulate the essence, that vibrato in its original (vocal) manifestation is used to express emotion. I intend to keep that in mind while playing, and integrate it with discreet use of portamento...

However there do seem to be some musics in which vibrato is used sparingly, of course as Trevor says including western medieval and renaissance polyphony. In the "world music" category (I hate that term, which tends to regard everything that doesn't fit our mainstream western tradition as "miscellaneous") I particularly recall an experience on the island of Sardinia, when from a considerable distance we detected what sounded like unaccompanied medieval polyphony emanating from the doorway to a church hall. I don't have words to describe it, but the overall impression was a little like a frighteningly intense hurdy-gurdy, without a trace of vibrato. Someone just inside the door spotted us lurking outside and invited us in, where we were immediately offered a glass of wine. The singers were 4 men (not wearing peasant costume) standing in a close square and singing directly into one another's faces. This, it transpired, was the indigenous style of the so-called Tenores who are unique to Sardinia and hold competitions throughout the island. Their style seems to owe nothing to other present day western, African or middle eastern cultures (I very much stand to be corrected on that) and might even be a relic of the pre-Christian era, although now mainly used to express Christian texts. After half an hour of this "rehearsal" in which the singers were subtly coached by a fifth man we shook all of them gratefully by the hand and departed. One of my most memorable musical experiences.

September 30, 2018, 4:00 AM · How do you know it's information and not supposition?
September 30, 2018, 6:14 AM · Fair enough - in another thread I just wrote "nullius in verba". So I don't actually BELIEVE what Paul says, I just agree with it.
September 30, 2018, 6:34 AM · Interestingly, we are both involved in that other thread, and both involve similar ideas about whom to believe, not that I have any problem with paul. :-)
September 30, 2018, 6:49 AM ·
Keep in mind some don't do it because they can't or they can't do it very well.

September 30, 2018, 7:13 AM · Western classical choral
September 30, 2018, 8:38 AM · There's always one soprano in the choir who does and she stands out a mile. Co-modulation masking release!
September 30, 2018, 11:11 AM · Hi Steve Jones,

I think you're referring to this. Astonishingly arresting and beautiful! Reminds me of crumhorns.

September 30, 2018, 11:36 AM · That's it for sure. Great to be reminded of it
September 30, 2018, 11:57 AM · The solo has vibrato though
Edited: September 30, 2018, 12:50 PM · It's highly melismatic in the middle eastern manner but I'm not sure I'd call it vibrato. The drone of the lower voices could be in imitation of instruments. They've clearly discovered you can maximise combination tones by singing close together and absolutely senza vib
Edited: September 30, 2018, 2:49 PM · Jeewon- right about traditional western choral. I wonder to what extent that comes from the church tradition with reverberant spaces and non vibrato organ stops. That would also jibe with traditional sacred brass circa the renaissance that also does not use vibrato -are they linked?
September 30, 2018, 10:54 PM · I believe that Cajun singers sing without vibrato.
Edited: October 1, 2018, 2:25 AM · Boy sopranos don't.
I can't remember what the counter-tenor does.
(I've got a Klaus Nomi CD, but he's hardly your average counter-tenor)
Interestingly, clarinets don't, unless you are Acker Bilk, but his was more sheep-strangling than vibrato.
October 1, 2018, 3:12 PM · Edward, I don't know about sacred brass (though it's worth noting classical brass is also largely non-vib) but I think the non-vib choral tradition must originate from the church, going back to Gregorian chant. I'm no expert, but I think it must be related to the idea of pure intervals and just tuning.
October 1, 2018, 3:25 PM · Also, the many and varied throat singing traditions.
October 1, 2018, 5:43 PM · Not sure about that Jeewon. I listened to some Tuvan singing, but I thought I could detect vibrato. I've got a CD of it somewhere. I must find it.
October 1, 2018, 11:10 PM · Vibrato while *throat* singing, or just singing?
October 2, 2018, 8:56 AM ·

Astrud Gilberto - no vibrato. I can't imagine how much it would ruin her voice if she did use vibrato!

October 2, 2018, 10:33 AM · Gregorian chant?
October 2, 2018, 11:17 AM · I would go as far as to say most cultures of the world don't use vibrato vocally, at least not in the way Western classical music does as a constant ubiquitous effect. Even in the West, it varies with popular and folk musics. Never sounds right when a classical singer sings popular music!
October 2, 2018, 12:04 PM · A few thoughts:

I was thinking about Hindu and Karnatic singing.
Here vibrato is only an ornament, a temporary intensification.
But the singer is pitching his or her notes against a constant drone very rich in harmonics, giving sense to the minute "srutis".

I practiced the viola d'amore for a while with its 7 playing strings, tuned to a triad, and 7 fine metal sympathetic strings acting like a tuned echo chamber: if I played with vibrato, my shifting pitches failed to set off the 6+7 "open" strings, and I lost resonance.

If I play violin with a harpsichord, I spontaneously play with little or no vibrato, since the harpsichord, tuned with many pure intervals, has a richness similar to the tampura.

On the other hand the piano, with its oh-so-practical equal temperament, and its blurring triple strings on the high notes, encourages me play with a continuous (but varied!) vibrato to make the notes more vivid against its all-enveloping sound.

October 2, 2018, 8:27 PM · Okay, here is Bill Withers singing "Ain't No Sunshine", very soulfully without vibrato:

...and here is David Garrett murdering it with vibrato:

This is where classical violinists fall down when they try to cross over to other styles. They either cannot stop vibrato-ing or they are a bit arrogant about what they think is appropriate...
Bill Withers would sound rather ridiculous if he had that kind of vibrato in his voice.
So, there are plenty of cultures where the singers do not use vibrato. If classical violinists want to try and play other styles of music then they would be wise to listen to that and adjust accordingly if they truly want to blend in with that genre.

October 2, 2018, 10:25 PM · Mose Allison didnt sing with vib either.
Edited: October 4, 2018, 2:55 PM · Indian classical singing, both Hindustani and Carnatic is the basis of the raga musical systems. Vibrato is very rare, and is considered a defect in the voice. Singers are highly trained to project from a pianissimo to full volume. A firm, steady tone, and very accurate intonation are necessary to create the shades of feeling of the various ragas. There is a vibrato-like ornament, but I would call it a tremolo.
I heard an entire evening concert without one instance of our sort of vibrato, delivered by Uday Bhalwakar in a large chapel in Pasadena. He made the entire volume of air in the chapel resonate beautifully with his voice, without ampflication. He used an amazing range of color and dynamics. It ranked with the best singing I have ever heard, unforgettable.
It is possible to sing (and play violin) without vibrato, and also without heavy, supposedly "Baroque" mannerisms. To me, continuous vibrato is just that--a mannerism.
October 4, 2018, 6:59 PM · Indian violinist L.Shankar playing sans vibrato:

To my ears he is extremely expressive.

When I first heard this many years ago it made me realize that violin styles are really pretty arbitrary!

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