Combined Tremolo-vibrato

Most modern methods for wind instruments recommend the production of vibrato by rhythmical muscular contraction which intercepts the regular flow of air. Rowland-Jones (2003) describes its production on the recorder as “from the back of the throat, or, when a throbbing cantabile effect is desired, from the source of airflow, that is to say, the diaphragm.”

He represents the action by the syllables “hu-hu-hu …” aspirated deep in the throat without ceasing the actual flow of air. Similar accounts are given by Charlton (1981)Kottick (1975)Linde (1991)Vetter (1969)Waitzman (1978)Weisber (1975) and Wollitz (1982)  who variously suggest the syllables “ah-ah-ah…”, “uh-uh-uh”, or “hu-hu-hu” for its production.

Brown (1976) has demonstrated a method of using cine fluorography to study the throat while vibrato tones are produced on flute and oboe. His experiments indicate that the air column is modulated by movements of the vocal folds, the result of which is a fluctuation in intensity.

By far the most cogent instruction on the production of such an aspirated vibrato on the recorder is by Waitzman who notes that a pure throat vibrato is unacceptable on account of its extreme rapidity, jagged profile, and essentially uncontrollable nature. Contrariwise, a diaphragmatic vibrato alone is unsuitable due to its inherent slowness. Thus, he argues that on the recorder and flute vibrato is normally generated by the action of the throat assisted by and coupled to the pressure and muscular action of the diaphragm. The throat serves as a valve, the player causing the throat musculature to assume the proper degrees and attitudes of tension, relaxation, and constriction so that the flow of air impelled by the diaphragm causes the effective diameter of the trachea alternatively to expand and contract many times in succession thus causing a regular variation in the strength of the air-stream. A useful analogy is that of an inflated balloon when the neck is stretched to make a squealing noise. The diaphragm serves mainly to cushion and smooth out the oscillation produced in the throat and is free to move in sympathy with them. Thus, acting in conjunction with one another the throat and diaphragm control the frequency, amplitude, regularity, and contour of vibrato. As Waitzman wryly remarks: The techniques for this control are more easily learned than analyzed.”

Now, this process when applied to the recorder certainly does produce an undulating intensity not unlike that of a pipe-organ’s “tremulant” stop, but when played at any but the slowest speed it affects pitch hardly at all, approaching a tremolo in Donington’s sense.

Some considerable light on the tremolo/vibrato controversy is thrown by Winckel (1967) from which it is evident that we must distinguish between acoustical phenomena and the psychology of their perception (psycho-acoustics). Winckel discusses experiments which demonstrate that the human ear is most sensitive to a vibrato of 4 pitch changes per second. Beyond 6 per second one notices only the unequivocal pitch of the initial tone with intensity fluctuations of the period of the vibrato. Measurements of good professional voices show that the vibrato rate of 7 per second is considered to produce the most aesthetically pleasing tone. This same periodic change of 7 per second holds for the violin. At this periodicity only a single pitch is heard, therefore no gliding of the pitch, but an oscillation of loudness, i.e. a tremolo in Donington’s sense. All this means that for the violin and the voice a vibrato with a period change greater than 6 per second is in fact perceived as a tremolo and is actually more aesthetically pleasing than a slower vibrato! this auditory impression has led singing teachers (and Donington) to the erroneous conclusion that it is a fluctuation in volume that singers use to bring their tone to life.

As we have seen, on the recorder whilst response to aspiration remains much the same as its frequency is increased the extent of pitch change decreases dramatically. This acoustical phenomenon is complemented by the human perception of a rapid vibrato as a tremolo (Winckel) Significantly, Weisber recommends a vibrato from 4-6 or 7 oscillations per second for wind instruments, suggesting that it should be faster for higher instruments than for lower. Toff (1996), writing of vibrato on the flute, recommends from 4-6 oscillations per second. Similarly, Waitzman suggests 4 oscillations per beat at a metronome setting of 76-80 (ie, about 5 oscillations per second).

In general, contemporary recorder-players appear to utilise an aspirated tremolo/vibrato as described above rather than true vibrato to maintain a live and vibrant tone. Whilst a small, constant undulation of this kind certainly does much to add life and character to recorder tone its use should never become unconscious, and indiscriminate or nervous tremolo is to be avoided at all costs. In particular, a tremolo/vibrato should be made conspicuous only to some definite purpose such as:

  • to allow the tone to be heard above a loud accompaniment of strings or voices
  • to avoid anticlimax in a series of repeated notes
  • to draw attention to a fugal entry
  • to highlight an expressive passage
  • to take away some of the harshness from loud or certain high notes
  • to emphasize notes dissonant with the bass, e.g. appoggiaturas
  • to create the illusion of dynamic inflection

Waitzman cautions that tremolo/vibrato should be used to enhance a beautiful tone rather than mask a poor one. He also notes that sustained tones require a low amplitude of tremolo/vibrato, short tones a fast amplitude. Weisber notes that a faster tremolo/vibrato should be used for higher instruments than for lower ones.

References cited on this page

  • Brown, Andrew F.D. 1976. “A Cineflurographic Pilot Study of the Throat While Vibrato Tones Are Played on Flute and Oboe.” Journal of The International Double Reed Society 4: 39–57.
  • Charlton, Andrew. 1981. The Charlton Method for the Recorder: A Manual for the Advanced Recorder Player. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
  • Kottick, Edward L. 1975. Tone and Intonation on the Recorder. New York: McGinnis & Marx.
  • Linde, Hans-Martin. 1991. The Recorder Player’s Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Schott ED12322.
  • Rowland-Jones, Anthony. 2003. Recorder Technique, Intermediate to Advanced. 3rd ed. Hebden Bridge: Ruxbury Publications.
  • Vetter, Michael. 1969. Il flauto dolce ed acerbo [The Sweet and Bitter Flute]. Celle: Edition Moeck 4009.
  • Waitzman, Daniel. 1978. The Art of Playing the Recorder. New York: AMS Press.
  • Winckel, Fritz. 1967. Music, Sound and Sensation – a Modern Exposition. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Wollitz, Ken. 1982. The Recorder Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2022. Recorder Home Page: Tremolo & Vibrato: Combined Tremolo-vibrato. Last accessed 20 May 2022.