Singing For Dummies
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Vibrato, the variation of a sustained tone or pitch, is one of the differences between singers and styles of music — how much vibrato they use and whether they use it all the time. A normal vibrato rate is five to eight pulses or fluctuations in the tone per second.

Vibrato can be fast or slow, depending on the singer. A really slow vibrato is sometimes called a wobble, which is often created by a lack of breath coordination. Vibrato that’s too fast is called a tremolo and usually results from too much tension somewhere in the throat or neck area.

When you sing, one option is to use straight tone, with no vibrato or variation in the tone. You can use straight tone when you sing various styles of music, but you want the straight tone to be a choice, because it’s a different sound.

Knowing how to move from straight tone to a tone with vibrato is important in adding variety to your singing tone. Young male singers (before they hit puberty) don’t have vibrato, but almost everyone else has it or can acquire it.

One way to understand vibrato is to listen to other singers, especially classical singers. Almost every classical singer has vibrato. Listen to the pitches as the singer holds them out, to hear the variation of the tone. After you spend some time listening to others, record yourself singing a song that has sustained pitches. Listen to the recording of you singing.

Notice the variations of your tone as you hold out the pitches. You may find that the vibrato was there all along, and you just didn’t know it or didn’t know what it was called.

Common vibrato patterns

  • Classical singers use vibrato on sustained tones except in some contemporary or modern music and early classical music. For this material, they use straight tone and vibrato.

  • Musical theater singers use both vibrato and straight tone. Vibrato is commonly used in earlier musical theater and straight tone is often used in contemporary material. Musical theater singers often start the note with straight tone and then allow the vibrato to come in.

  • Folk singers tend to use straight tone and some vibrato. The rate or variations in pitch during vibrato are not as drastic in the folk singer compared to the classical singer. If you think of vibrato as an ornament to the sound, then the classical singer uses lots of vibrato to ornament the material and the folk singer uses only some vibrato.

  • Rock, pop, country, and R&B singers often use straight tone and some vibrato on sustained tones. Because these styles of music have fewer sustained tones than classical music, the singers have fewer opportunities to use vibrato; therefore, it isn’t considered a characteristic of the style.

    That doesn’t mean the artists don’t use it, but they use it more sparingly than a classical singer. The artist singing the style of music may have to adjust the use of vibrato when singing different styles of material because some artists cross over between styles of music.

About This Article

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Pamelia S. Phillips is a professional singer with over 35 years of teaching experience. She has designed curriculum for high school students, college BFA programs, and professional training programs, helping thousands of singers refine their singing technique.

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