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Jeruba's avatar

Why do we want to hear vibrato?

Asked by Jeruba (51083points) February 23rd, 2010

Branching off this question about vibrato, can you musicians and vocalists tell me what, exactly, vibrato adds to music?

As a listener I recognize and appreciate the effect. I listen to classical music—instrumental, orchestral, and especially opera—so there is plenty of well-delivered vibrato in my life. I don’t need an explanation in terms of what I hear. What I’d like to know is why it enhances a note. Oscillating approximation is not pleasing in other art forms: you want your line to be clear and sure, whether in art, dance, or poetry. Why is that pulsing alternation in pitch part of the beauty in music?

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15 Answers

MissAnthrope's avatar

I was classically-trained to play the flute and vibrato is something they teach once the basics are learned. It’s the difference between a regular potato chip and a crinkly potato chip, it adds dimension and texture to the sound. One long note may be lovely, but it is kind of flat and boring after a while. When you add vibrato to that note, it opens it up, makes it more interesting to listen to, it’s like adding texture to the sound.

For me, having gone through the music training, it is also the mark of a more experienced musician, one who has at the very least begun to master their instrument. It’s an easy enough concept, but it takes practice to make it sound really good.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

It’s basically about how we hear… and how we’ve learned to hear. People naturally speak with vibrato unless they’re pretending to talk like a robot. We like that to be reflected in our music… so the vibrato is sort of the “voicing” of the music.

wundayatta's avatar

Have you ever heard a tone from a tuning box or a whistle? It is flat and stays the same all the time. It is really annoying.

Have you ever heard two flat pitches that are just slightly out of tune? Also annoying as shit.

Vibrato takes care of both those problems.

Just a side note about my meds—I used to have to work to get a vibrato. Now my hold on the horn and my lips are both shaky—leading to one hell of a mean vibrato! Too much so, in some cases.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Oh, that depends. I don’t like very much of it in my pop music, myself, Night of a Thousand Stevies and any Natalie Merchant love out there notwithstanding.

dpworkin's avatar

Psychoacoustically speaking harmonics are rewarding to humans.

nikipedia's avatar

My brilliant and talented opera singer friend says:

I’m not sure exactly why we crave vibrato to make a note shimmery and exciting. I imagine its something related to what JeanPaulSartre said. A tension free voice naturally has vibrato, its something that is completely uncontrolled and not muscularly manufactured. I guess our ears over thousands of years have learned to love that sound.

Also, just to clarify, vibrato is not an oscillation in pitch, its more of an oscillation in dynamic. When I learned vibrato on the flute, I practiced by alternating loud and soft and gradually sped it up.

Trillian's avatar

@Jeruba I agree with everyone up to a point. I think that some can give me an OD of vibrato. It’s somewhat akin to wearing all your jewelry. I’m not going to start slamming singers here, I just think that there is a fine line one doesn’t want to cross when it comes to vibrato.
I say this having been brought up in a musically oriented home; choir, piano and my dad was in Barbershop my whole life. I was forced to learn all the tags for the tenor and lead. ;-) Maybe it’s just me. That is always a possibility.

Jeruba's avatar

I find all the comments illuminating. @nikipedia, your friend’s explanation hits the mark for me in offering an explanation rather than a description. Thank you.

I agree with you, @Trillian, on two counts. Some operatic voices have so much vibrato that I feel like they lose the sound of the actual note. The melody drowns in it. I don’t like that—it’s too much. Also excessive vibrato is just not right for certain kinds of music. For example, no matter how much I love the voices of my favorite opera singers, I don’t want to hear them sing traditional Christmas carols. It’s like using a shovel for a job that requires a teaspoon.

Trillian's avatar

@Jeruba You just reminded me of a girlfriend from many years ago. She had a great voice and could sing a Barbara Streisand song that would make you weep.
She didn’t translate well to rock though, and I had to shake her until her teeth rattled once to make her stop. She tried on a Led Zeppelin – “Been a looong tiiiiime since I rockand Rooooollled!” I screamed at her ”STOP!” She really didn’t understand what had upset me! Then she started in on Aerosmith, and when she actually sang “doooo meeeee, dooooo meeeeee.” I wigged out.
Leslie honey, you just can’t do that.
I can laugh now, it is pretty funny, but at the time I could not shut her up fast enough.

Strauss's avatar

My use of vibrato with my singing depends on the style. If I’m doing a song that has long, sustained notes, I use vibrato, to make it interesting. Not all at first, but the vibrato builds up as the note sustains. However, when I’m harmonizing or singing in unison with other singers, as in a choir or chorus, I hold off on the vibrato, in order to blend in with the other voices.

@Jeruba, when someone in my vocals class would get that way my voice prof would refer to it as a warble.

Trillian's avatar

@Yetanotheruser years of listening to my dads quartets and choruses have taught me the value of a good blend, and when it is attained it can be electric!

andrew's avatar

@nikipedia I’m not sure I’d agree with that—straight tone is often more “natural”—since most untrained voices do not have vibrato (especially younger voices). Most renaissance music, for example, is sung with a straight tone.

From years of choral and classical vocal training, I’d say in terms of voice, it’s much, much, much easier to tune with a bit of vibrato, since your ear tends to average the pitch a bit. This applies to strings as well.

Why is it more appealing? It’s more pleasurable to listen to something in-tune—and it’s much easier to produce and process (listen to) a tone that “in-tune” with vibrato.

I don’t think that’s the whole story, though—and I think it ties in to what @nikipedia‘s friend was talking about—even though I think vibrato is ultimately an affectation (especially if you’re talking about strings)—there’s something that feels organic about listening to a tone with vibrato.

Maybe it’s ultimately mimicry of the natural variance in tone that happens in our voice when we get excited—or the muscle fatigue that forces a singer to use vibrato to keep a note in tune on a long note—that gets codified (to the extreme in opera) as vibrato.

Note, also, that vibrato is primarily a feature of western music—so I wouldn’t jump to say that it’s “natural”.

liminal's avatar

I considered this all day today (piggybacking liminal’s account once again). Thanks for the question.

“Oscillating approximation”... I understand the comparison you are drawing. Good vibrato though does not result in what I would call an approximation (even when it is delivered as pitch variation… @nikipedia thanks for the comments about dynamic variation as another form of delivery). Correctly used it will actually clarify and emphasize the tonal center of a note. Maybe the question (unintentionally) improperly leads the answer?

I have often suspected that the various forms of vibrato actually physically cause the sound wave to penetrate a large hall or a complex musical texture. As evidence I notice that even in Western music it did not become fashionable until the Romantic period when halls got larger and musical textures became more complex. A performer will tone it down in a smaller hall or smaller ensemble where it starts to sounds a little weird. And it never sounds the same up close as it does several or many feet away. I do have a hunch there is a physical acoustic phenomenon going on.

Then from another angle altogether, maybe there actually is more room for approximation in art than it might seem. Think pointillism… Those masterpieces are pretty “clear and sure.”

Jeruba's avatar

What do you mean by “piggybacking liminal’s account once again”? Aren’t you (the poster directly above ^ ^ ^) @liminal?

liminal's avatar

It is my partner answering here, she is also the one who answered the question you referenced about achieving vibrato on the cello (which I asked her to do to help out troubleinharlem). I read your question, asked her about it, and she really liked it. I asked that she point out that she was answering under my name again.

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