Singing with Vibrato

In this edition of our blog series on singing technique, we look at singing with vibrato. Pop singers tend to use vibrato much less than classical singers, but by using a little vibrato, you can add some real flavour to your vocals – just as long as you do it the right way and at the right moment.


This blog was written by Alfons Verreijt, the developer of the VocalFeedback method and author of the book The Essentials of the Voice.



It is strongly recommended to combine the techniques explained in this blog with the guidance of singing lessons. Even just a couple of lessons is better than nothing and will help stop you from A) getting stuck and B) damaging your vocal cords.

What is Vibrato?

What’s vibrato? The term is closely related to the word ‘vibration’ and, in music, vibrations are everything, since sound itself is a vibration. However, very literally, you can look at vibration as something swinging back and forth between two extremes. The most obvious musical vibrato is the note vibrato, which is where the ‘extremes’ are the pitch of a note. So note vibrato isn’t about singing a pure note, but about oscillating around a certain pitch in a regular, pendulum-like movement.

Here, we’ll be talking about note vibrato and two other well-known forms of vibrato, which are referred to as pulse vibrato and twang vibrato. In classical bel canto singing, vibrato is used a lot. In fact, bel canto is like the Valhalla of vibrato, where it’s impossible to say whether vibrato owes its popular use to an artistic choice or a vocal technical cause. When singing bel canto, the larynx is constantly held as low as possible to create as much volume as possible. When the larynx is lowered, the tongue relaxes along with the surrounding muscles. As a result, the larynx suddenly has a lot of freedom to move around because the hyoid bone from which the larynx is suspended is relaxed and flexible. By allowing air to pass over the larynx at just the right speed, it starts to move back and forth, creating note vibrato.

The Meaning of an ‘Open Throat’

Because classical singers always hold their larynx low, relaxing the base of the tongue, they already create the perfect conditions for vibrato. Luckily, classical singers also use a lot of vibrato, since every long note must always be sung with vibrato, which is why it’s a standard figure of speech among bel canto singers. Relaxing the base of the tongue also gives the throat a more open feel which, in bel canto, is literally referred to as ‘singing with an open throat’. However, strictly speaking, this isn’t actually correct. The throat isn’t actually open, because the vocal cords are closed. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to make any sound. But the feeling of an open throat is there. Maintaining an open throat (so relaxing the base of your tongue) works well in any style of music. Even in pop music. It will help you sing better and help create a clear and open vocal sound. It’s also the most important thing to learn if you want to add vibrato.

There are two other factors involved in singing vibrato: the air (so the breath) needs to flow at just the right speed and, for a steady vibrato, the air needs to be controlled by breath support. In an earlier edition of this blog series, we covered breath support in more detail. It’s one of the most essential parts of singing. Put simply, breath support regulates your breathing from the diaphragm, which is controlled by your flanks. Breath support also plays an important role in vibrato control, because you use breath support to ensure constant airflow. A short burst of vibrato can also happen when the breath support is missing (more on this later).

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Vibrato in Pop Music

In pop vocals, vibrato is used far less than in classical singing. Some pop singers use very little vibrato, like Chris Martin from Coldplay and Michael Stipe from R.E.M, while some singers take advantage of the little touch of vibrato that happens when you let go of breath support, like Sting. While some pop singers regularly use vibrato, like George Michael and of course, Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey – to name a few.

The question is: is the sparse use of vibrato in most pop to do with artistic decisions or the limitations of the singer’s vocal technique? In reality, it doesn’t even matter. In pop, the larynx is usually held relatively high, putting more tension on the base of the tongue and making it harder to sing vibrato. Singing with a high or medium-high larynx is also a very natural state when singing in general, since it’s the same larynx position we use to speak. Singing with a low larynx (as you would in bel canto) is a cultivated or learned way of singing that requires a lot of training. However, that’s not to say that the higher-held larynx demanded by most pop vocal styles will stop you from singing vibrato. What’s important is that the base of your tongue is relaxed, so that the larynx has the room it needs to move back and forth.

When vibrato is used in pop vocals, it’s usually on the long notes. A lot of the time, the long notes will sound pure at first and then end with vibrato for effect, and to ease the ear of the listener. A long, tight and drawn out pure note can often sound less pleasant, because it builds up a lot of tension in the brain of the listener, which can become uncomfortable. Sometimes, you’ll also hear a little vibrato at the end of a lyric line in pop music, which is usually the result of the release of breath support, and some singers even add vibrato without even thinking about it, simply because it sounds more pleasing. It’s also worth noting that you can’t really add vibrato to short notes, because the note is simply too short – so short that the wavelength is actually shorter than one swing of the vibrato ‘pendulum’.

Note Vibrato

To achieve note vibrato, these three conditions need to be met: the base of the tongue must be relaxed, air needs to be released at just the right speed, and airflow control needs to be applied using breath support. From there, the best method for producing vibrato is as follows: at the end of a vocal line (so just before you need to take the next breath) vibrato can be applied by accelerating and controlling the airflow with breath support. But you need to remember not to let go of the breath support. While keeping your flanks tensed, pull the abdominal muscles (around the navel) inwards – as if in slow motion. This accelerates the airflow with control. With a little trial and error, you can find the point where vibrato is produced when slowly pulling your belly in. Once you’ve got that bit nailed and you’re able to apply vibrato at the end of each vocal line, then you can start using vibrato to sweeten the longer notes that occur in the middle of the vocal lines.

Vibrato Control

Some in the world of classical singing believe that there’s no need to practise vibrato too much. The reason for this is that you run the risk of your vocals getting ‘stuck’. This is why people train their ability to create the perfect conditions for vibrato instead. When it comes to pop vocals, singing coach Alfons Verreijt disagrees: “It’s too passive, so it stops you from developing vibrato control, and that control is a necessity. Take a backing choir as an example. It can sound beautiful when the singers in a backing choir use vibrato, but that vibrato needs to be synchronised exactly with the speed and amplitude of the other singers, otherwise, it’ll just sound like noise. For this reason, backing singers often avoid using vibrato. But vibrato control is something you can learn and train, so that, even when singing as part of a vocal ensemble, you can pull off smooth and tight vibratos, and when you have a group singing vibrato at the same time, it simply sounds fantastic.”

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Pulsing Vibrato

As well as note vibrato, there are two other sorts of vibrato that you can learn to use. The first is a pulsing vibrato, which is used by a few famous singers, including David Sylvian, Elvis Costello, the French singer Julien Clerc and, naturally, Bert of Bert & Ernie fame (when he laughs). In fact, a lot of French singers use this kind of vibrato, which in French is referred to as ‘chevroter’ or, in English it’s described as ‘quivering’. It’s no coincidence that ‘chevroter’ is related to ‘chèvre’, the French word for goat, since pulsing vibrato definitely could be compared to the bleating of a goat.

A pulsing vibrato is created when the larynx is tensed. Unlike note vibrato, the pitch doesn’t move back and forth but instead, compression is continuously switched on and off to create a quivering effect. Opinions vary on whether or not pulsing vibrato actually sounds nice or not, but in classical singing, it can be really useful for creating what’s termed ‘ornamentation’, which is regularly performed by coloratura sopranos. Coloratura is the name of a range of ornaments within music, characterised by fast loops, quick jumps, short notes and tremolos. The term is commonly used for vocal music and is often used synonymously for vocal virtuosity. The soprano is best equipped to sing coloratura and sopranos who specialise in coloratura are called coloratura sopranos. A coloratura soprano, for example, is able to sing a different note on every pulse of the vibrato. One of the most well-known pieces to display this technique is Queen of the Night from the opera The Magic Flute by Mozart.

Twang Vibrato

Then there’s twang vibrato. We already covered twang in depth in a previous edition about belting and twanging, where we learned that twang is an essential part of belting, and involves tilting back the larynx or epiglottis. The laryngeal valve forms part of the funnel that lies above the vocal cords. By tilting this part back, your speech channel starts to operate much like a megaphone, amplifying the 4,000 to 5,000 Hertz frequency range – so the higher pitch region. When performing twang vibrato, you’re adding twang to every peak of a note vibrato. A good example is when you sing ‘yeah.’

Good to Know

The Larynx and the Suspension Bridge

Any object (including your larynx) has its own vibrational frequencies. Because of this specific frequency, at a certain air speed any object can start to vibrate. An excellent example of this is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington (see below) which, in 1940 started to sway and warp from side to side when winds swirled around the structure at just the right speed. The 64 kilometre-per-hour wind speed perfectly matched the own-frequency of the bridge. If the wind had been any stronger or weaker, nothing would have happened. The bridge was oscillating, or vibrating at such a specific speed that it would not stop, and eventually, it collapsed completely. Spectacular images of the event can be seen on YouTube.

The point is, your larynx is not much different from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. When the base of the tongue is relaxed, the muscles surrounding it also relax. If, under these conditions, the breath is released at the perfect speed, the larynx is allowed to move back and forth – or sway like a suspension bridge. Of course, with a real bridge, this is best avoided. But if you want to be able to sing with stunning vibrato, then it’s a must.

Unintended Vibrato

Above, we’ve made it pretty clear that vibrato always needs to be controlled by breath support. But in the absence of any breath support, a short burst of unintended vibrato can also happen. Normally, the breath support is held until the end of a vocal line. If you let the breath support go any earlier, the respiratory flow is accelerated so the last bit of air ‘flops’ out rapidly, as it were. The speed of the escaping air always causes the larynx to vibrate, resulting in a short, unintentional and uncontrolled burst of vibrato. As a vocalist, it’s simply wise to avoid this by never letting breath support go any earlier than you need to.

The Leslie Box, the Doppler Effect & Natural Vibrato

No Hammond organ would sound quite right without a Leslie amplifier, which features a rotating tweeter that literally spins round and round on a horizontal axis at a specific speed, while the bass frequencies are reproduced by a drum-like speaker that rotates below the tweeter. This creates a natural vibrato, making the Hammond organ sound even more like a Hammond organ. This somewhat bizarre design was inspired by the Doppler effect, which was named after the Austrian physicist Christian Doppler who, in 1842 was the first to describe a phenomenon that occurred in light and sound waves. The Doppler effect occurs when a sound source and the listener are moving relative to one another. As the distance between the sound source and listener decreases, the pitch gets higher and as the distance increases, the pitch gets lower. The best example is when you hear an ambulance passing with its sirens blaring. As the ambulance approaches, the pitch rises, and as the ambulance tears off down the road, the pitch lowers. The rotating speakers of a Leslie speaker continuously ‘move’ the sound towards the listener and then away again. This makes the tight tone of a Hammond float in pitch, giving it a natural, although mechanically generated vibrato that’s more pleasing to the ear. Often, this is even combined with the electromagnetic vibrato of the Hammond itself, which adds even more character.

See also…

» Singing With and Without Compression
» Auto-Tune, Melodyne… Is Using Pitch-Correction Cheating?
» How to Record a Full Choir
» Mixing Flawless Vocals in 5 Steps
» Recording and amplifying vocals for beginners

» Microphones & Accessories
» Vocal Books
» Vocal Effects
» Speakers

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