Agricola (1529) characterised the wind-player’s vibrato as “trembling breath” describing it as “a special grace”. He writes: “If you want to have a fundament, learn to pipe with trembling breath, for it greatly embellishes the melody.”

However, it is not clear if he is referring to the use of aspirated tremolo/vibrato or diaphragmatic vibrato, as opposed to finger vibrato:

"Auch sey im Pfeiffen darauff gsind
Das du blest mit zitterdem wind
Dann gleich wie hernach wird gelart
Von der Polischen Geigen art
Das zittern den gesang zirt
Also wirds auch alhie gespürt."
When playing remember that you know
Into the flute with trembling breath to blow
As shortly we shall learn awhile
Of Polish violins and their style
That trembling ornaments the song
Thus must we sense it all along.

Praetorius (1619) described a vibrato produced by the action of the diaphragm, and Mersenne (1636) referred to “certain tremolos which intoxicate the soul”.

Nowadays, vibrato is considered as being on both sides of a note or on the sharp side. This can be produced on reed instruments by manipulating the muscles of the lips and jaw as well as the diaphragm, but on the recorder only by allowing breath pressure to fluctuate in a regular manner controlled by the diaphragm. The production of vibrato in this way on the recorder is the subject of an article by Davis (1974) who recommends its application to music of the baroque period. Played slowly this gives a wide vibrato but, as we have seen, as its frequency is increased the extent of the pitch change automatically decreases until it becomes an aspirated tremolo. Since it involves a very noticable oscillation in volume as well as pitch, a slow diaphragmatic vibrato on both sides of the note tends in practice to become a distressing warble. Thus its use on the recorder is probably best avoided, despite historical evidence in support of its use on the baroque flute Sterne (1977).

A vibrato performed by finger movements alone on a wind instrument is always on the flat side. Although this was possible on baroque flutes and oboes it is not, for the most part, on their modern descendants. The recorder is one of the few wind-instruments on which this style is still feasible, and it should be used wherever stylistically appropriate, and not just in the performance of French baroque music and its derivatives in other countries. Indeed, it is called for in treatises by Ganassi (Venice 1535), Blanckenburgh (Amsterdam 1654), Hudgebut (London 1679), Salter (London 1683), Loulié (Paris 1694), Hotteterre (Paris 1707), Corrette (Paris 1740), Mahaut (Paris & Lyon 1759), Quantz (Berlin 1752) and Tromlitz (Leipzig 1791). See Brüggen (1996), Dickey (1978), Haynes (1997), Lasocki in Hotteterre (1968: 66, footnote), Mather (1972: 65-66), Mather (1972: 65-66), Neumann (1978: 511-522), Neumann & Stevens (1993), Veilhan (1979: 36-37) and Zimmermann (1994).

The table of fingerings for these flattements, as they are called, which I have adapted from Hotteterre (1707) to suit modern (neo-baroque) recorders, may be of interest; it will certainly convey some idea of the complexity of this style of playing. Note Hotteterre’s indication that a flattement is done with the technique of the trill, but that only the edge of the hole is struck.

These notes concern both alto and soprano recorders with modern (‘English’) fingering systems. For a given fingering the note produced on an alto will be indicated first followed in parenthesis by that produced on a soprano (or tenor, although it will sound an octave lower).

Fingerings will be indicated as follows:

O 123 4567thumb and all fingers on
- -2- ----second finger of left hand on alone
/ 123 ----thumb-hole pinched
O 1-3 45/-finger 6 half-holed
O 1/3 4567finger 2 partially closed
4*trill with this finger
(5)optional fingering
/ 1-3 4-6/ Xbell hole closed against one's knee

Thus / 123 45/*- indicates the fingering for a flattement on a” on an alto and e”’ on a soprano, made by striking the edge of half-hole 6 with the finger.

f’c”Not feasible. See below.
g’d”O 123 456/*
g♯’/a♭’d♯''/e♭''O 123 45//*
a’e”O 123 45/*-
a♯’/b♭’f”O 123 4/*67
b’f♯''/g♭''O 123 /*56-
c”g”O 123 /*---
O 123 -/*--
c♯''/d♭''g♯''/a♭''O 12/* 45/-
d''a''O 12- 4*---
d♯''/e♭''a♯''/b♭''O 1-3 4/*--
e''b''O 1-/* ----
f''c'''O -2- 4*---
f♯''/g♭''c♯'''/d♭'''- 12- 4*---
g''d'''- -2/* ----
g♯''/a♭''d♯”’/e♭”’- 123 456/*
a''e'''/ 123 45/*-
a♯''/b♭''f'''/ 123 45*6-
b''f♯'''/g♭'''/ 123 /*5--
c'''g'''/ 123 /*---
/ 123 -/*--
c♯'''/d♭'''g♯'''/a♭'''/ 12- 4/*--
/ 12/* 4---
d'''a'''/ 12- /*---
d♯'''/e♭'''a♯'''/b♭'''/ 12/* 456/
e'''b'''/ 12- 45/*-
f'''c''''/ 1-- 45/*-
g'''d''''/ 1-3 4/*6/

For f’ (c”) and f#’/g♭’ (c#”/d♭”) Hotteterre recommends shaking the instrument. It is hard to see what this could achieve in itself other than what might be termed “visual vibrato”, a cue to the audience that a vibrato is intended. But perhaps here is an authentic use for the so-called “lip vibrato” described by Brüggen (1996) in which the fluctuation of breath pressure is generated by arm movement, “by pressing the mouthpiece (ie windway entrance) slightly to the side or toward the upper lip, temporarily decreasing the amount of air going through the instrument.” One could, of course, use aspirated tremolo/vibrato instead.

Feldon (1997), presents evidence to the effect that the placement of flattement in French baroque music was deployed to articulate key rhetorical elements in a musical structure in a flexible manner. Thus it was applied to heighten the expression by signalling a change, high point, instability, or ambiguity or used to lend emphasis to contrasting or shifting movements of rhythmic stress.

Contemporary composers for recorder have sometimes made use of a vibrato effected by shading the window of the recorder with the palm of the lower hand. This is termed “labium vibrato” by O’Kelly (1995: 96-97), Bowman (1997) and Brüggen (1996).  By this means the fluctuations of pitch can be over a very wide range, though one is limited to the notes available to the upper hand alone (unless one enlists the aid of an assistant, perhaps). If the air flow remains constant then the overall pitch is lowered. Thus the effect of labium vibrato can be very dramatic since it tends to be combined with a powerful tone. Examples of its use include Hans Martin Linde’s Music for a Bird and Marcus  Zahnhaussen’s Viva Vivaldi.

Thus for the recorder player there are four kinds of vibrato, each with its own particular character:

  • labium vibrato
  • finger vibrato
  • diaphragmatic vibrato
  • aspirated tremolo/vibrato

From the Introduction to this article it can be seen that there remains the possibility of a fifth kind of vibrato not mentioned elsewhere in the literature on the recorder, namely that involving phase shift. This is known as the Doppler Effect. The so-called “Leslie” of a Hammond organ (much-loved by Blues musicians) creates a phase shift in the sound by means of a rotating drum speaker system. The result is a vibrato on each side of the note, rising in pitch as the speaker travels towards the listener, and dropping in pitch as it travels away from the listener. Note that the effect is not the result of an actual change in the frequency of the source. It is simply the case that each consecutive disturbance has a longer or shorter distance to travel before reaching the listener and thus occurs more or less frequently for that observer. On a non-amplified recorder such phase shifts could only be achieved by gross movement of the player and their instrument with respect to the audience, perhaps by seating the player on a swing or roundabout.

Vibrato effected by periodic fluctuation of timbre seems to have attracted no particular name. It has been given little more than passing mention in the literature on the recorder, e.g. by Brüggen (1996) who nowhere states quite how such an effect might be achieved. As the quote from Donington at the head of this article hints, and as Brüggen himself concedes, it is inevitable that slight changes of timbre are coupled with vibrato or tremolo however these are achieved. Indeed Toff (1996), writing about vibrato on the flute, equates timbral vibrato explicitly to fluctuations in pitch + fluctuations in intensity. Bania (2008) refers to timbral vibrato on the flute as component in flattement, particularly when fingerings are used in which there is little or no pitch change. But since such “timbral vibrato” can hardly be independently controlled, it need not concern us further, though it is important to be aware of its co-existence with other forms of vibrato and tremolo. Greater possibilities for timbral vibrato might be offered by the manipulation of tonal colour possible with innovative instruments such as Michael Barker’s “MIDIfied recorder”, Cesar Villavicencio’s “Bird Cage”, Philippe Bolton’s electro-acoustic recorder, or Mollenhauer’s Elody recorder.

References cited on this page

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