Vibrato, received vs acquired wisdom?

Edited: July 17, 2021, 3:27 AM · May I re-cycle an earlier post, with additions..

I think we practice below the note, but in fact the forward swing overshoots a little in the heat of the moment (I checked).

But in rolling below the note, the fingertip is on its softer part and the timbre is less bright (I checked) leaving a less clear imprint on our perception (I imagine).
While when we roll nearer the nail, the tone is clearer and a fraction louder (I checked). Hence the illusions of an intensity tremolo as well as a pitch vibrato (I imagine).

Side-bands? A mathematical trick, useful in analysis (I have read).
But I do know the violin frequency response is a mass of peaks and troughs, so than pitch vibrato will also induce modulation of timbre (I checked), doubtless enriching the perceived tone quality (I suppose).

But how about our aural perception of vibrato width and speed?

Width: Carl Seashore, in The Psychology of Music, found that most singers vibrate half a semitone either side of the note, most violinists only a quarter of a semitone. Our pitch recognition is only slightly reduced.

Speed: Fritz Winkel, in Music,Sound and Sensation, relates that at 4Hz we clearly hear the ondulation, but towards 7Hz were hear the core note with variations of intensity. At 12Hz we hear a trill-like cluster. Here we touch on the speed of our pitch recognition.

Replies (44)

Edited: July 17, 2021, 3:50 AM · Toffee popcorn ready, check. Feet up, check.
July 17, 2021, 4:34 AM · As a player who professes zero intellectual wisdom, received or acquired, on this topic but threescore years of practice at making his tone as good as he can get it, I wonder if Adrian is slightly overthinking this?
July 17, 2021, 5:05 AM · "most singers vibrate half a semitone either side of the note, most violinists only a quarter of a semitone"

I was taught to not vibrate above the pitch. And I would say that many violinists vibrate more than a quarter of a semitone below the pitch.

July 17, 2021, 5:11 AM · Whatever sounds good
July 17, 2021, 5:31 AM · Thankyou, Ron.

When it sounds good to you, a spectrum analyser *may* indicate that the note tends towards flatness, but if you play it to sound flat to you, a spectrum analyser will indicate that the end result is flatter still. Don't go there!

Edited: July 17, 2021, 5:41 AM · To add on to what Gordon said:
In the future, all conservatory students should get locked up in a lab, and they can develop their skills with the help of scientific tools that can analyze every single insignificant thing until their interpretation is suited to the tastes of a spectrum analyzer.

edit: This is meant to be comedic and not for the purposes of hurting another.

Edited: July 18, 2021, 6:47 AM · Steve, amongst enthusastic overthinkers I may be one of the most succinct?

"I checked" means on analytical software.
"I imagine/suppose" are my own guesswork.
Seashore used recordings of real singers and violinists, while Winkel used synthetic sounds. Both compared many samples.

Bo, I covered that in the 2nd & 3rd lines: we play under, but overshoot.

Mike nothing is insignificant..

Another finding was that our ears underestimate the degree of vibrato. (I'm surprised.)

July 17, 2021, 7:42 AM · There are no sidebands because there is no carrier frequency. Sidebands are for EM radiation.
July 17, 2021, 9:37 AM · Ann, I was looking for that when I read to original post! thanks!

Edited: July 17, 2021, 10:53 AM · You cannot discuss string-instrument vibrato without discussing the influence of overtones in the context of "violin frequency response is a mass of peaks and troughs" (as mentioned by Adrian). It is all important to what we perceive (of what we hear).

Violin maker, Joseph Curtin, had a fantastic article on this subject in The STRAD magazine (something like) 10 - 20 years ago. It was brought back to me in the past decade when I heard the difference between playing sans vibrato and with vibrato by the former concertmaster of our chamber orchestra. She has the most impressive vibrato I have ever heard (and I've been in the room to hear Heifetz, Elman, Perlman, Zuckerman, Midori, Chang, Hahn, St. John, Meyers, Bell, Koh among others). The volume peaks in the overtone spectrum are added to the total sound we hear and we perceive them as increased loudness and "brightness". The player's vibrato must be adjusted to the physical characteristics ("closeness and height") of the overtone peaks to optimize.

Our CM was clearly a champion at this. My own violin skills were never that good, but I think I may have approached it on cello. Even now, I check out my violins and violas for these characteristics by playing them in cello position and I can hear the effect of added overtones on apparent volume and the effect of different violins and different strings (over the years).

My first experience of this (before I knew anything about it) occurred on cello almost 60 years ago during a concert. I was principal cellist and my own cello had broken and I had to play the concert on a really lousy (plywood-topped) instrument. During a solo passage I noticed that in that hall my sound was not coming out the way I wanted and I kept increasing the speed and width of my vibrato to bring it out (and I did) until the momentum of my hand and arm threw my hand off the fingerboard. But I did hear the effect on sound and vibrato "technique" of too-widely spaced overtone peaks.

I understand what Adrian has written and what he means. I have been unable to measure those thing with the spectrum analyzers available to my smartphone - but I did give it a try.

By the way, I find little resemblance between the wobble of most singers' vibratos and that of well-played string instruments, and can tolerate very few such singers - at least as transmitted to my ears by electronic media. There are exceptions.

July 17, 2021, 10:01 AM · In Adrian's defense, having clearly defined ideas and terms, and additionally, technology, would probably make the learning process much faster. Everyone should rely on their ears, but what happens when some player has relied on their ears and I still don't like their vibrato? What is the balance between someone subjectively expressing themself and a lack of taste?

While this idea sort of goes against my conception of learning holistically and not getting lost in technical minutiae, I don't doubt that some kind of system that gave students direct feedback in a visual sense, based on whatever particular aspects of vibrato were being trained, wouldn't be able to ingrain good vibrato technique so much faster than traditional methods, mostly because the feedback is really specific and instant, and because by training a student on the naturally developed visual sense, that itself can then train the auditory sense to be able to hear it, which is somewhat backwards, but I suspect would be much quicker. While someone might say I'm making an analog to finger tapes, I would tend to disagree.

So then if you are designing some kind of system to train "good" vibrato, what are the markers to the system of a what a good vibrato consists of? Will there be some machine learning that you can throw some Heifetz or Oistrakh or Kogan or Anne Sophie Mutter in?

Edited: July 17, 2021, 12:50 PM · Nathan Cole famously reversed himself on this issue. He was a dyed-in-the-wool below-the-noter until the stark evidence from slowed-down performances of many many great violinists proved otherwise. I respect his ability to supplant "pros know" with actual data.

We can all testify to what we were taught to do. But that doesn't mean it's what we actually do. My teacher says that vibrato is as much about varying timber as tone, but I believe that's partly wrapped up in the harmonics issue that Andy Victor mentioned, and partly in the variations in the fleshyness of the stop as you rotate your finger backward (and, as it were, forward) of the note.

A good discussion with well-defined terms and objectives is quite welcome in my view.

July 17, 2021, 1:03 PM · When there isn't an objectively "right" answer as to how vibrato should sound, just a wide range of opinion and a wide range of circumstances in which it's used, I can't really see the point in analysing it. The best analogy I can think of is a search for the "right" or the "best" way to apply paint to a canvas.
Edited: July 17, 2021, 2:15 PM · At the recommendation of a few teachers, I went and did the analyzer experiment as well, as I was also taught by multiple instructors to move downwards in the physical motion, and it's clear that the pitch does go above and below the intended note in vibrato.

The tricky thing here is that in the pedagogy of how we get students to vibrate, the hand and fingers have an orientation that doesn't lend itself to an equal movement above and below the desired pitch. I and many other instructors have had more success asking students to imagine rolling downwards from the desired pitch to *initiate* the vibrato motion. There's also a threshold beyond which rolling the finger upwards will make the note sound too sharp. So while the idea presented in the lesson may not reflect the physical reality, it is in effect a "trick" to get players to generate a usable motion.

I'd say this is kind of similar to the idea sometimes presented to trumpet students to "think about blowing faster air," when the entire concept of "faster air" is not necessarily grounded in the physics of how the instrument works (and this is one of those also heavily-debated topics in the trumpet forums). In the clarinet world, it is the topic of "support vs. blowing" and the manner in which the diaphragm is engaged that also sparks pages and pages of heated discussion. The idea itself can generate the desired physical behavior in the player, even if it isn't what is actually happening.

I forget who said this to me, but they summarized it as "catch phrases like this can be helpful mentally even if they have little basis in physics."

July 17, 2021, 2:20 PM · You can analyze all you like and dictate on how it is done but at the end we play a note with vibrato that sounds in tune to the ear, just as we do without it. Thus, the (our) ear balances differences in actual tone and all the other effects mentioned above to an 'acceptable in tune' outcome. What that is no doubt varies depending on many factors including which particular note we are playing on that particular instrument.

Thus, while the analysis is fun and instructive I don't think its actually resolveable.

Edited: July 18, 2021, 4:16 AM · Steve, I just like to distinguish impressions from facts.
Much music teaching misuses scientific terms.
And there are many ways to apply paint to canvas! If one is interested...

Andrew, I believe in those overtones. At one time I had to alternate 440Hz in a classical ensemble, and 445Hz in a tango quintet. The 2 A's are only about a comma apart, but I could tune and retune without my 2 tuning forks. I do not have absolute pitch, but I just remembered the sound the 2 A's by their timbre (but only on my own violin, not in the pure tones of the tuning forks).

Ann, my maths ceased to improve after high school, but it seems to me that our target note is a carrier, and the vibrato is a modulator.
I have a difficult book by Zwicker and Feldtkeller: The Ear as a Communication Receiver (in a French translation: Psychoacoustique) comparing intensity modulation and frequency modulation, where both carrier and modulator are sine waves. Both can produce similar spectra with the carrier and sidebands. Perhaps this accounts to some extent for our aural confusion beween tremolo and vibrato (at certain vibrato rates)?

Of course our violin tone is far from a pure sine wave, and I doubt if our vibrato is one either.

Elise, it is just fun, and I don't think about all this when I am playing.
I "just do it"!

Edited: July 17, 2021, 3:03 PM · Gene wrote, "So while the idea presented in the lesson may not reflect the physical reality, it is in effect a 'trick' to get players to generate a usable motion."

There are many such things, for example "arm weight" vs "pressure."

Elise wrote, "at the end we play a note with vibrato that sounds in tune to the ear."

Of course that's true, but as amateurs we should acknowledge that our ear could bear improvement too. People want to learn in a way that maximizes their efficiency toward a desired outcome. That's why we hire teachers to tell us the "best" way. Even if it's a trick.

It would be interesting to know if there are any masterclass videos where the master is showing an advanced student how their *apparent* intonation is being distorted by having the wrong pitch distribution in their vibrato. One would need a great deal of control to explore that systematically.

I'm looking forward to Ann's reply about the carrier frequency :)

July 17, 2021, 3:25 PM · Ann's may just tell you that with vibrato you're not modulating a carrier frequency, just changing the basic frequencies rapidly. I looked a summary of the Winkler guys work, and Wow! Seems like a very wordy academician who is looking in the wrong places with very complex sounding nonsense for answers to simple questions. Or mainly for grants?
Edited: July 17, 2021, 3:53 PM · About working "mainly for grants," some fields are very expensive, and personnel (including assistantships, tuition, and fringes for graduate students) can be a significant part of one's costs. That is especially true in engineering. That means you can't work on what you can't fund -- which is to say that "academic freedom" in those fields is greatly constrained. Those fortunate enough to have funding beyond a certain critical level can divert small portions to exploratory ventures,. discreetly. Funding that is entirely unfettered is rare (for example the MacArthur Fellowships, or accounts that might accompany special chaired positions). If you are a hermit who sits in his office writing poetry, then you can do whatever you want once you have tenure. But if you need a lab, then you need to show the right kind of productivity to claim furnished space from your institution, and the right kind of productivity generally includes overhead-bearing grants.
Edited: July 17, 2021, 5:27 PM · Tom Bop understands. I seem to recall in the previous discussion that there was one person who understood and it may also have been he. And no, the target frequency is not a carrier.
July 17, 2021, 5:42 PM · Yes, Ann, I commented before that you understood radio to one of your posts, and you mentioned like the Zenith Transoceanic. My fav here is an old tube Telefunken with a nice teak cabinet. I really like the old air capacitor tuning that you adjust a little as it drifts...I also made my own stereo/speakers, using 2A3 power tubes, just like the movie theaters in the 1930s.
Edited: July 18, 2021, 9:27 AM · Tom, my dad added a knob to vary the bandwidth on our AM radio (not teak, only Bakelite I'm afraid) to get more high audible frequencies, but at the cost of overlapping other stations.

Ann, would I be allowed to humbly suggest that FM of audible tones is analogous to FM of EM signals? The maths look similar (to me..)

July 18, 2021, 11:22 AM · I remember my dad's Keathkit "hi-fi" set having knobs for rolloff and so on, on the preamp, from before those things were standardized.
July 19, 2021, 6:38 PM · This is my acquired "wisdom" (or just plain opinion...):

There's a lot of talk about change in pitch, and whether to go flat or sharp. My opinion is that for a good-sounding vibrato, the listener should not actually perceive a change in pitch. So what's happening--or supposed to happen? The listener should be hearing what sounds like a change in intensity instead.

If you've every heard the vibrato setting on an electronic instrument like an organ or an electric guitar amp, you're hearing a change in intensity--the sound drops out for a split second. I've come to believe that string players are actually trying to imitate that sound. However, we have limited ways of doing that. There is indeed a way of vibrating with the bow with a succession of quick changes in speed in one direction, and some baroque singers like Emma Kirkby can be heard to do this as well as a decoration. However, it's not a realistic method for most of our repertoire, so we do the next best thing--actually, the ONLY thing we can do to modulate the intensity, which is move our fingers back and forth (I learned back from the pitch) with the intention of fooling the listener's ear. Yes, the pitch is technically changing. But get the right motion, which is an uneven one, and we do indeed produce something that masks the change in pitch. Go for an even change of pitch, and yes, that change of pitch will be perceived and the tone will sound wobbly.

I'm not 100% sure, but I think flutists produce a vibrato by varying the intensity instead of pitch, right?
Guitarists do it too, but either by bending the string upwards in pitch, or by lowering the pitch by a whammy bar. I suppose some guitarists can actually bend the entire neck to lower the pitch but i'm not sure how widespread that practice is.

Those are the methods available to those instruments, so that's the best they can do.

If you listen to the wide intervals of the piano, say F3-A3, you'll hear a quite pleasant vibrato-like sound due to the small pitch differences (about 7 hz) in a pair of coinciding partials that both strings are producing. If it weren't pleasant, our system of equal temperament would be in serious trouble and no one would wish to hear the piano.

But in effect, that sound of the wide piano intervals, could be called a truer vibrato, and what we are hearing is a beating arising from a small pitch discrepancy. We're not hearing a change in pitch, just a change in intensity. I think that's the kind of sound that is a successful vibrato on a string instrument as well. Professional string players and singers are able to emulate this intensity change; amateurs not so much.

Edited: July 20, 2021, 3:04 AM · Scott, you describe what Fritz Winckler relates, (see my OP) i.e. at a typical vibrato rate of around 7Hz, we perceive the pitch changes as intensity changes.
Edited: July 20, 2021, 8:30 PM · There must be something about 7Hz, actually 5Hz - i.e., 0.2 second response time and the human nervous system. I remember the good-old strobe-light days of the 1960s. Played around with those and what they did to our perceptions of motion and continuity of motion (dancing, etc.).

I still think Joseph Curtin was right about why we perceive the sound as louder with vibrato. It's the other side of it that I don't know anything about - how our ears integrate the small spread of frequency so that we perceive that.

July 20, 2021, 4:06 PM · Menuhin mentioned vibrato in his book, Violin & Viola: he thought it should be as varied as the English weather.

I have been taught that a faster vibrato is generally more desirable on the higher strings and that a wider/slower vibrato works better on the lower strings.

I am a bit envious of the vibratos I've seen and heard from cellists. I wonder if their vibrato motion feels more natural. When playing chamber music with a cellist, should a violinist adopt more of an arm-centered vibrato?

July 20, 2021, 6:06 PM · Tremolo is amplitude modulation, vibrato is frequency modulation.

And yes, Scott, some good guitarists can bend the neck. The effect is subtle, but wonderful when used properly. I've even heard one or two people do it on a mandolin - now that's skill.

The vibrato I have trouble with is from those operatic sopranos who go way above the pitch - one or even two semitones - which to me sounds jarringly discordant.

July 21, 2021, 9:25 AM · English universal weather forecast: "sunny periods and scattered showers".
Edited: July 21, 2021, 9:41 AM · Auer:

(To be read out loud in a Hungarian accent by Mel Brooks and crescendoing from mp at the beginning to fff at the end.)

"those who are convinced that an eternal vibrato is the secret of soulful playing, of piquancy in performance - are pitifully misguided in their belief. In some cases, no doubt, they are, perhaps against their own better instincts, conscientiously carrying out the instructions of unmusical teachers. But their own appreciation of musical values ought to tell them how false is the notion that vibration, whether in good or bad taste, adds spice and flavour to their playing. If they attempted to eat a meal in which the soup were too salt, the entrée deluged with garlic-sauce, the roast too highly peppered with cayenne, the salad-dressing all mustard, and the dessert over-sweet, their palates would not fail to let them know that the entire dinner was over-spiced. But their musical taste (or what does service for them in place of it) does not tell them that they can reduce a programme of most dissimilar pieces to the same dead level of monotony by peppering them all with the tabasco of a continuous vibrato."

July 21, 2021, 10:00 AM · How he must have hated his student Jascha Heifetz!
Edited: July 21, 2021, 10:16 AM · Touche, Adrian. But I wonder if Heifetz was more subtle and varied in his vibrato than is often alleged. Remember that the prevailing view of Heifetz today is based on his recordings, not live performances, and his recordings were perhaps "state of the art" for the time, but not by today's standards, and some of the tonal subtleties are just harder to hear. Still, I believe many of today's violinists take much broader parametric advantage of vibrato, such as Mutter and Hadelich, and I believe this trend represents an improvement in violin-playing as a whole (yes, I really wrote that). But of course the soloists of today were able to study the recordings of Heifetz and the other violinists of the motorized-vibrato generation (Grumiaux, Stern, Oistrakh, Menuhin, etc.), and not the other way around. Those who venture too far from the standards of their time struggle getting gigs.

Guitar vibrato doesn't require a whammy bar or neck-bending. The finger can apply slightly greater and lesser pressure on the string behind the fret. Try playing an open string and pushing down on the string in your pegbox in an pulsating fashion, and you'll get some really wild open-string vibrato. Maybe this could be used in the opening of the Bruch Concerto for example! LOL Except that there's precious little G-string length to push on in a violin pegbox. Also guitarists can push the string horizontally on the neck which increases its overall tension and raises the pitch. Raises only! Imagine that.

Edited: July 21, 2021, 1:56 PM · I find Heifetz's vibrato on disc subtly varied, as is that of his legatee Hilary Hahn.
July 29, 2021, 4:30 PM · @ Steve Jones
I've just discovered your Bedroom Band, and I like your vibrato!
And your viola playing in Elgar's Op63 is neater than mine.
Edited: August 1, 2021, 11:27 PM · My 4-7 cents worth. Part of question of preferred vibrato is cultural/fashion. The vibrato on early recordings for both violins and singers was, as a group, faster and tighter than now. I can't stand the extra wide vibrato of the solo singers in Bollywood movies.
I believe the lowest audio frequency that we hear as a pitch would be 16 Hz. That is the low open C on the 5-string bass, contra-bassoon, or lowest organ pipe. It is also that rumble at the beginning of Strauss' Zarathustra. Below 16 we hear the individual thumps/peaks, like on that annoying car sub-woofer that just drove by
July 30, 2021, 12:16 AM · That's kind of you Adrian! But Elgar's Op63..?
July 30, 2021, 12:58 AM · Oops! Wrong glasses?

And Joel, not just Bollywood: most opera productions I have seen have at least half the cast with appallingly wide on/off vibratos Which destroy the melodic line.
In one performance of Hândel's Messiah the baritone soloist had an on/off vibrato slower than the semiquavers (16ths?) he was singing...

July 30, 2021, 4:10 AM · I think everyone should know by now that a good vibrato goes over the pitch to a certain extent, with 50% being not at all unreasonable. All that is required in the execution is to start the note with a flat enough finger so that it can actually have the opportunity to curl up and receive those juicy 'over' tones. Very simple and not much science behind that. What I think now is the real killer which separates the plebs from the pros is how to make the vibrato even in amplitude speed. I personally have the problem that the upper most note of my oscillation lingers slightly longer than the lowest note, thereby creating a vibrato which instead of a smooth wave, sounds more like an uneven dotted rhythm. Quick fix should obviously be to consciously reverse the rhythm habit in controlled fashion, but somehow still struggling to get the perfect wave when letting loose...
Edited: July 30, 2021, 6:48 AM · The slower the vibrato, the harder, and the more need for practice.

Since the OP is "received vs acquired wisdom": -

My received wisdom is that there's finger, wrist and arm vibrato.
My acquired wisdom is that, like the bow, the left arm, from fingertip-epidermis to shoulder, is a flexible system consisting of components, the individual flexibilities of which differ and which are to some extent independently adjustable.

Edited: July 30, 2021, 10:58 AM · -Adrian,-- Agree, a lot of Opera soloists have a too slow, too wide vibrato. It is one reason why they are usually not successful in non-classical genres. At one time that was considered a sign of the physical weakness that comes with age-- time to retire. I have had vocal lessons. I refused to do what some singers do; use the vibrato mechanism to articulate the fast scale-passages in coloratura spots, or do the non-legato "motor-boat" effect; glottal stops between the notes that should have a slur mark over them. Both string players and singers should turn off the vibrato when the the speed of the notes is faster than the speed of the vibrato-- about 6 cycles/sec.
July 31, 2021, 8:38 AM · Joel, this raises the question of "continuous" vibrato.
I find this does not usually disturb anticipated finger placing, unless it is very wide. In a sense, the finger-fall initiates the vibrato, hence the "overshoot" above the target pitch; and avoids that tiresome vibrato "bulge" on each note. I feel 16ths should not vibrate, but quarters should.
But even 16ths can be "ready to vibrate", vibrato.

And Gordon, I think you sum it up really well.

July 31, 2021, 11:42 AM · -- I would make a distinction between continuous vibrato and connected vibrato. Most students and a lot of good players have a stop-and-go vibrato; the vibrato stops for a short moment between the notes. Connected vibrato needs to be trained. Synchronize the motion so that a higher number finger drops into place when the vibrato motion is moving up. Then lift the higher number finger while the vibrato is moving down. The lower number finger should already be in place.
Continuous vibrato is so common, since Kreisler 100 years ago, that occasional non-vibrato becomes an expressive tool. 200 years ago vibrato was considered the expressive tool, a type of ornament.
If the notes are flying by faster than the vibrato speed, they sound "bent", they don't get a full cycle.
July 31, 2021, 1:43 PM · Joel,
I believe that opera singers have a vibrato that works for an unamplified, large concert hall, where wider and slower is better. It projects. I think vibrato evolved with the rise of larger and larger concert halls and orchestras.

The problem is that if they sing into a microphone or are in a small hall, they often fail to adjust their vibrato. If pop singers didn't have sound systems, they'd have to use the same vibrato to be heard. We perceive operatic vibrato as vulgar or over-the-top when we hear it in a context for which is not suited.

If you play a violin in a large hall, you also need a wider vibrato or it all mushes together.

August 1, 2021, 8:20 AM · Indeed, one "function" of vibrato is to "detach" the tones from their enveloping accompaniments, necessary in large venues.

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