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The dreaded “V” word… VIBRATO!

The dreaded “V” word… VIBRATO!

Should we use vibrato when singing lute song? This question plagued me for quite some time. There seem to be so many sources that are strongly opposed to it, and some that even suggest using it for the full duration of every note. However, a deeper dive into the literature reveals that sources are not quite so contradictory as they first appear; rather, our understanding of the word has changed dramatically over the course of centuries! We also find, the more we dig, that the question isn’t so much whether or not to use vibrato, but how much, and when? 

There are numerous sources that give specific instructions for how instruments should use vibrato, though it is often called by other names. “The Interpretation of Early Music,”  by Robert Donington1 (1907–1990), includes a helpful section on vibrato, which not only features excellent quotes, but also lists the various terms used to describe vibrato. This is one of the reasons the literature gets so confusing; many terms are used, and some carry very different meanings today. Vibrato’s many names included: Close Shake, Sting, Tremor Pressus, Aspiration, Balancement, Battement, Flattement… the list goes on! Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) refers to a gentle vibrato in his Syntagma III (Wolfenbüttel, 1619), which reminds me of the oscillating wave forms we studied back in vocal pedagogy during my undergraduate days:

A singer must have a fine, pleasing, trembling and shaking (zittern und bebende) voice, yet not used as in some schools, but with especial moderation.

He also believed “a spontaneous vibrato to be an innate component of the human voice and a requisite for artistic singing.” Both of these quotes seem to refer to the type of vibrato that naturally occurs when a singer is singing on the breath. Marin Marsenne touches on vibrato in Harmonie Universelle (Paris, 1636–37, tr. R. E. Chapman, 1957, Book II, section of Lute ornaments): “The tone of the violin is the most ravishing [when the players] sweeten it… by certain tremblings [here meaning vibrato] which delight the mind.”

The following quote from Thomas’ Mace’s Musick’s Monument (London, 1676) shows that lutenists were using vibrato and provides us with some indication that YES, singers may have used vibrato as well:

The Sting, is another very Neat, and Pritty Grace; (But not Modish in These Days)... first strike your Note, and so soon as It is struck, hold your Finger (but not too Hard) stopt upon the Place, (letting your Thumb loose) and wave your Hand (Exactly) downwards, and upwards, several Times, from the Nut, to the Bridge; by which Motion, your Finger will draw, or stretch the String a little upwards, and downwards, so, as to make the Sound seem to Swell.

This type of vibrato would create a slight fluctuation in pitch, and as Mace describes with the Sting, should be used for effect, or as ornamentation.

Other practical evidence for vibrato exists, too: for example, consider the performing forces for lute song, and where lute song was performed. Today, lute songs are heard in “intimate” public spaces, such as small recital halls or sacred spaces, but lute songs were often played and sung in private homes for personal recreation and enjoyment. They were sung sometimes by the lute player, and sometimes by small groups, for their own entertainment. Laudon discusses this in more detail in his article, “The Context of Lute Song and How it Affects Modern Performance.” With this in mind, we can deduce that lute song probably wasn’t vibrato-heavy, but was likely sung with vibrato, since vibrato is a naturally-occurring phenomenon when the voice is free and relaxed!

Perhaps some of the strongest evidence for at least some vibrato in lute song stems from the documentation of early sixteenth-century organs, which included stops designed to imitate the human voice… and which produced a trembling effect! This could be achieved in a couple of ways: one, by having two pipes sound simultaneously that were slightly detuned from one another, resulting in a “beating” effect (anyone who has heard the term “ghost” tone or “ghost” note knows what I’m talking about!), or two: by tremulant, which is a mechanical way of making a pitch oscillate. Neither of these sounds would create so much vibrato that a pitch would be out of tune, but would create a gentle wavering effect. A full article by Lisandro Abadie, “Vocal Undulations and the Vox Humana Organ Stop,” can be found on Vox Humana’s website for a more in-depth look at these sources.

In my own experience, singers are usually taught to either leave out vibrato when singing early music, or “not to worry about it” and “just sing” however that singer is being taught to sing. Many times, a singer might sing “straight tone” without singing on the breath, and allow too much air to escape, resulting in a breathy, ‘white’ tone. This color choice can be appropriate when the text calls for it (any time I see the words “die” or “sigh,” I’m tempted to use a breathy tone!), but could become boring if used throughout a song. Likewise, singing fortissimo with a wide vibrato throughout a song doesn’t do anything to tell a story. I love Donington’s commentary on vibrato:

In truth a continuous vibrato is musically justifiable provided it is adapted to the degree of intensity which the music momentarily requires. Totally vibrato-less string tone sounds dead in any music. It is just as much an illusion to think that early performers preferred it as to think that early singers preferred a ‘white’ tone. Sensitive vibrato not only can but should be a normal ingredient in performing early music.

So… the question becomes not so much about vibrato, but about communicating a story through song. With every phrase, we have choices to make: How much vibrato? What dynamic? What articulation? What ornaments? Which syllable is most important? What is the emotion we are trying to convey? When these things are considered, the question of whether or not to use vibrato is no longer an issue. Let the music speak for itself, and the rest will fall into place.

  1. Donington, Robert. The Interpretation of Early Music, New Revised Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1989.


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