What Is Vibrato?
In technical terms, vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch, ideally between 5.5 and 8 hertz. In nontechnical terms, it’s that very slight wavering sound you hear singers do. To keep things simple, I’ll use the same clips I used in my straight-tone guide to illustrate the difference between vibrato and straight tone.
First, listen to a clip of this choir singing without vibrato (commonly called straight tone).
Hear how the notes don’t waver at all?
Next, listen to a clip of the Chapman University Choir singing with vibrato.
Notice the shimmering sound the notes have, as if there’s the tiniest oscillation back and forth in pitch on each note.
For you visual learners, it might help you to think of straight tone as a straight line and vibrato as a wavy line embedded over it, with the line representing pitch. The vibrato line should only have tiny waves, representing changes in micro-pitches. Too wide a variation in pitch, and you’ll have what is called a wobble.
Is All Vibrato the Same, and Do I Really Need It?
It’s wisdom passed down from voice teacher to voice teacher that if you’re singing “correctly,” with the perfect balance of diaphragmatic support and a relaxed throat and larynx that a shimmering vibrato will ensue. You’ll even hear this from some teachers in the Speech Level Singing (SLS) community who specialize in contemporary voice, although certainly not from all the SLS teachers.
But a quick survey of music, not just modern pop music, but also musical theatre, early music, jazz, and music across a vast array of cultures, all have different uses for vibrato. It’s rare that it’s eliminated altogether, but there’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach to it. In the Renaissance, documents suggest that it was thought of more as an ornament than as an integral part of singing, and its overuse was condemned. In the Baroque through early Romantic periods, conflicting documents suggest that there was no consensus on how much vibrato should be used, just as there is no consensus today. When you look at the number of different ways vibrato is used, the idea that good singing produces “perfect” vibrato seems ludicrous.
Vibrato Across the Genres
Vibrato in opera is fairly constant and regular. In opera, it feels more integral to the singing and less like an ornament.
Vibrato use in choral music depends on the choir. Sometimes choir directors will opt to use straight tone to help the singers blend with one another. Just as often though, the choir director will ask singers to just use a relaxed vibrato. To produce choral straight tone, you’ll likely use a brand of straight tone that allows a little more air to pass through the vocal cords than vibrato allows for but may also use a heavier type of straight tone, depending on the volume of a given section of music.
Musical theatre vibrato varies, but a common theme is the famous straight-tone-into-vibrato for big held notes. For this type of straight tone, you’ll want to put a little more compression on the note (think about putting a cry into it) at the beginning and then ease up on the cry to relax into your vibrato.
As in most genres, vibrato varies in commercial music. But you’ll often hear singers using mainly straight tone but ending their held notes in a light vibrato, often slower than one used for musical theatre and classical singing.
How To Do Vibrato
According to Richard Miller, vibrato is created by the rapid tension and relaxation each second in the voice box. While I won’t call it “singing correctly,” to produce vibrato, you will need to navigate a certain balance of breath support and laryngeal relaxation. If that sounds daunting to you, be cheered by the fact that you’ll likely figure it out by listening to it and imitating it, not by reading a technical manual.
Before doing vibrato exercises, you should make sure you develop a healthy, relaxed technique. Often, vibrato will come naturally when other things are in place. Just as often, it won’t! I’ve found that the single most important feature in helping a student achieve vibrato is that they like listening to singers with vibrato and are aware of the vibrato. Every student I’ve had who enjoys listening to vibrato has eventually ended up being able to find her own. Knowing what you’re aiming for is half the battle. I also have students who don’t like the sound of vibrato, and no matter how many exercises I put them through, no matter how many times I demonstrate vibrato, no matter how balanced their voices are otherwise, I can’t get them to do it. It’s a very conceptual thing, and if it’s not what you want your voice to sound like, it’s unlikely you’ll develop it.
The single best thing you can do to supplement your regular vocal exercises is to listen to singers in the genres you’re interested in who have vibrato and try to imitate the vibrato. Imitation plays a larger part in learning to sing than teachers often like to admit. Don’t get me wrong. “Finding your own voice” is important if you’re aiming for a singing career, but no one really entirely finds his own voice. Music is a communal affair, and we all build on what others have done before us.
Along with listening to vibrato, make sure your other fundamentals are well in place. You should work on cord closure and airflow if your sound is breathy, and you should make sure you know how to create space in the back of your mouth if your sound is pinched or tight. Once you have all of this down, if vibrato is not coming naturally, try these exercises!
Imitate a Car Starting.
You know that rr-rr-rr-rr sound it makes? See if you can make that sound. For this one, don’t worry about picking any particular pitch. The vibrato will be slower than you want, but at least it’ll give you some idea of what it should feel like.
Pretend You’re a Ghost.
Try picking any song lyric and speaking it as if you’re a cartoon ghost who’s in the process of haunting someone. Oo-oo-oo-oo! Again, this is not going to give you fine-tuned vibrato, but you can start to feel what it’s like to use vibrato in a song.
Try picking a pitch and singing “yah-yah-yah,” varying the pitch ever so slightly on each “yah” and getting faster and faster. Try holding the “AH” out at the end when you’ve reach full speed, and aim to hold the note with vibrato for a second or two, if possible.
After yah-yah-yah becomes easy for you, try dropping the “y” sound, and just use an “AH.”
Once you’re able to experience vibrato, it should become easier to tweak.
What To Do if Your Vibrato is Too Fast
You probably need to use more breath support to get it spinning. Try doing some breathing exercises to help you restrict your exhalation. Try exhaling on a “sssss” sound, as if you’re a very slowly deflating balloon. See how long you can continue your exhalation.
What To Do if Your Vibrato is Too Slow,
It’s likely that you’re carrying unnecessary tension somewhere. It could be from pulling your abdominal muscles in too abruptly or from jamming your belly out fast. It could also be from constriction in your throat. Try to take relaxed breaths, and revisit this blog post on how to sing louder without hurting your voice.
What To Do if Your Vibrato is Irregular
It’s likely that as you exhale through the note, your exhalation is irregular. Revisit the “ssss” exercise explained above, but this time, instead of just concentrating on restricting the air, concentrate on exhaling as steadily as you can.