Tremolo & vibrato

‘Vibrato’ and ‘tremolo’ have both been used as collective terms covering oscillations of volume, pitch or timbre that singly or in combination serve to enrich the musical sound. In Early Music at least, Donington (1973: 229) suggests that we should reserve the word tremolo for fluctuation of volume (amplitude, intensity), often but not necessarily amounting to a reiteration of the note, and the word vibrato for a fluctuation in pitch (frequency) not amounting to a change of note. When two notes a tone or semitone apart alternate we speak of a ‘trill’. When the notes are more than a tone apart we speak of ‘tremolando’ (often abbreviated to tremolo, unfortunately). All of these were regarded as specific ornaments in the baroque period.

On an oscilloscope, tremolo will always show up as a periodic change in amplitude. Vibrato, on the other hand, will show up as a periodic change in either wavelength or phase. This can be visualised using the interactive Waves and Sound animation (Henderson 2016).

  • Amplitude is represented by the height of the wave
  • Phase shift is represented by how far to the left or right the wave is displaced
  • Wavelength is represented by the distance from one wave top, or crest, to the next

Move the sliders up and down in the animation and notice how changing their values affects these three variables.

According to Donington, it is mainly tremolo, not vibrato, with which good singers bring their tone to life, and it is vibrato with which string-players enhance their tone.

Donington (1982: 35) relates that there are good acoustic as well as historical reasons for including vibrato in proper moderation:

Recent researches put the time-span after which it is possible for our own faculties to perceive a new aural event as such, and not merely as an undifferentiated continuation, at about one-twentieth to one-eighteenth of a second. Any absolutely unvarying persistence of the same aural signal beyond this time-span rapidly fatigues that band of fibres in the basilar membrane of the ear which is involved in detecting it: there is then a subjective decline both in the volume and in the colorfulness of the sound perceived. It seems to go a little dead on us; and this is the acoustic consideration which makes vibrato a natural rather than an artificial recourse on melodic instruments. The vibrato just mitigates that deadening persistence.

Vibrato and tremolo are amongst the few expressive devices available to recorder players and are thus of fundamental importance.

References cited on this page

  • Donington, Robert. 1973. A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music. London: Faber & Faber.
  • Donington, Robert. 1982. Baroque Music: Style and Performance. London: Faber Music.
  • Henderson, Tom. (1996) 2016. “Physics Interactives.” The Physics Classroom.

Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2022. Recorder Home Page: Tremolo & Vibrato: Tremolo & vibrato. Last accessed 7 August 2022.