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Intonation in relation to vibrato?

Could any of you point me to sources that consider the relationship between intonation and vibrato in choral contexts, particularly vertical intonation (i.e., tuning between the parts)? It seems to me like high levels of vibrato would usually lead to problems with intonation, but is this always the case? Are there any scientific studies of the relationship? Or more anecdotal ones, perhaps from people like Shaw, Herford, etc., or even earlier authors? To give you some context, I'm writing about reviews of the Choir of King's College, Cambridge from the 1930s. These reviews emphasize the choir's impeccable intonation, and I'm wondering if perhaps in saying this the reviewers are also indirectly praising the limited amount of vibrato in the choir's sound (if you listen to the earliest recordings of the choir from 1927, it is evident that they sang with less vibrato than other choirs at the time, for instance the Temple Church choir in London).
I'd greatly appreciate your help with these questions.
Jacob Sagrans
Ph.D. Candidate and Instructor in Musicology
McGill University
Schulich School of Music
555 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, QC H3A 1E3
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on October 4, 2014 3:34am
I'd look at vocal jazz.  My personal philosophy is that there are different 'tolerences' for vibrato in different styles of music, which is directly related to the harmonic density of the music.  Solo singer with piano, there is tons of room for vibrato, especially since the piano is providing a rock-solid, unwavering harmonic context.  Likewise with a unison choir line.  Something with diatonic major and minor triads - I'm thinking Brahms, etc. - has some room, though less, for vibrato.  As soon as you are in the land of chord extensions and tension notes, my opinion is there is very little if any room for vibrato.  Singing the major seventh in a Major seven chord while wavering in pitch by 20 cents in either direction is going to confuse the listener, and make the relationship between that seventh and root of the chord confusing.  Same thing with tone clusters in Eric Whitacre or others.  The default sound production in vocal jazz should have zero vibrato.  The sound could occasionally be warmed up on unison or two part writing, with 'terminal vibrato' at the end of notes by a soloist, or if voices are imitating the wide wobble of a Johnny Hodges sax solo or Count Basie horn shakes.  But not on dense chords with 7's, 9's, 11's, and 13's.
I think the other interesting thing is the relationship between limited vibrato and just intonation.  Some choirs and genres really value just intonation, some don't.  Barbershop isn't strictly diatonic but has a more limited harmonic palette than vocal jazz.  But they are always after pristine intonation, partly I think because it's a predominantly un-ampliphied genre, as opposed to a close miced genre like vocal jazz or pop solo singing.  The straight tone and just intonation helps the sound carry, I think.
Good luck!
Dave Piper
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 4, 2014 7:00am
Interesting question.... and likely to be controversial....
Since vibrato is a "natural" component of a healthy vocal technique, I have great trepidation in suggesting that singers "restrict" that natural aspect of their singing..... that being said, SOME singer have an "unnatural" vibrato that is NOT the result of healthy singing, but of "oversinging."   So a related question might be whether the "effect" of "pure" and vibrato-less singing may actually be harming the vocal apparatus of the singers.....
Don't know what the research shows--but as a SINGER, I most enjoy singing in ensembles that allow the freedom of "best practice singing" to trump other considerations--with the exceptions of specific stylistic and other considerations....
hope that helps.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on October 5, 2014 7:07am
Couldn't agree more Dennis. Excellent response.
Anúna have a simple philosophy - vibrato is a natural by-product of a healthy, unforced, non jaw wobbly, face contorty, properly supported, unrestricted air releasing code of practice. It should sound natural. If it sounds "wobbly" then it is forced, and I have heard far more singers using vibrato as a tool of their technique rather than a by-product of their technique.
Choirs that sing in a "straight" style do so by choice. Choirs that sing in a large wobbly style do so also by choice. I think the interesting question is why most children, who, as we all know, are the most natural singers in their earliest years, don't usually use it at all. Vibrato comes with age in the main, and it really is only massively intrusive when choral singers become "trained" singers. In the USA there is definitely a like for large vibrato among some teaching bodies, and that style is the polar opposite of the English one - a straight white sound. I don't think either is particularly "natural" .
In my group we endeavour to create our sound without forcing anything on it. The only time I ever criticise the vibrato in the group is when singers either consciously don't use it or use it in a mannered or artificial context. To sum up - I think Dennis has hit the nail on the head, but the issue is complex and clouded by words I am not very fond of in choral singing - Tradition & Style.
Best of luck with this one Jacob - it's a can of worms :-)
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 5, 2014 10:15am
Dennis, Michael, David--- I am curious..... is there any science-- any study--- that confirms that vibrato is "natural" ? Since young children sing without vibrato, it seems more like a learned technique. Listening to old recordings, it is clear that the stylistic taste among musicians, conductors  and the public changes over time in regard to how much, how little, how fast/slow, even how wide the vibrato may occur.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 5, 2014 12:11pm
I don't wish to foster contrversy, but, now in my 44th year of conducting public / private / choirs / ensembles, many "educated" conductors consider Barbershop to be just a hobby, when, in
fact, these people are politely obsessed with intonation and all that portends.  I suggest you contact SPEBSQUA and ask for their comments.  Their vocal coaches work intensively at
blend and tone....with a sub-goal of creating overtones and undertones - AUDIBLY.  Keep in mind, Robert Shaw once said, "It is not about volume, it is about PITCH."  Well he understood that
assiduous focus on pitch yields quality, regardless of the style.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on October 5, 2014 2:28pm
Thoughts from an amateur singer: In my  five-voice a cappella group, we struggle with this all the time. I know from experience that when we have a complicated arrangement, it sounds much better if we restrict our vibrato, but I for one (and the other guys in my group) can't do that for long. We tend to alternate or mix within a program, because singing a straight tone for too long makes everything sound pinched. And, speaking for myself, it restricts my range: I can sing in a straight tone comfortably in about a five-note range, but that's it. If I need to go higher (which I always do) the straight tone is unsustainable for long, except in falsetto. (And bear in mind the use of falsetto is a big issue here, I think.) We always laugh about striving for the what we call the "American Boychoir" sound: rounded vowels, straight tone, soft consonants; but we are all men in our mid-fifties, so it's not that easy to reproduce. 
Scientific studies? I am not aware of scientific studies here, but if there are any, they would be (I guess) looking at solo singing, where a big vibrato is not a problem. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 5, 2014 11:17pm
Re: "if you listen to the earliest recordings of the choir from 1927, it is evident that they sang with less vibrato than other choirs at the time, for instance the Temple Church choir in London"
It may be "evident," but if you can cite existing critical discourse that agrees with this assertion, that would help your argument.
Re: "relationship between intonation and vibrato" 
If you can't find sources that address this relationship head on, you can also break it down into its component parts.  I.e. established discourse on intonation and tuning (there's a lot of this, esp on just intonation) and historical and prescriptive performance practice of vibrato.  If you dig in to those thoroughly, you may come across some interesting bits that help you out.
You may want to look at popular criticism of Anna Karkowska ... granted it's not choral music, and granted it might be a hoax or a comedy, but it's a truly exaggerated example of your argument.  If your vibrato is crazy wide, who can ever tell what the pitch is supposed to be?  Might be an interesting footnote at the very least.  
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 6, 2014 11:22am
Thanks for all these helpful comments. The recordings of King's from 1927 that I am speaking of are unfortunately only available to listen to in person at the British Library, so I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for it (sorry). The earliest recording I can find of the choir the internet is from the 1941 WWII propaganda film "Christmas Under Fire": . Compare it, for example, to the sound of the Temple Church Choir in the 1920s: . Or an even greater contrast, the Sistine Chapel Choir: . Although neither really sound that out of tune to me (I should say I'm used to working with amateur choirs that go flat a lot so maybe my judgement is a bit off). It's just a lot of vibrato. So maybe the two aren't as directly related as I thought?
on October 6, 2014 6:57pm
It seems to me that there are several factors that could affect one's impression of a choir's sound, especially as judged from a vintage recording. Did the recording technology of the day accommodate and capture all the overtones and timbres produced by the choir, or do we hear only part of the true sound? Would the microphone placement give a skewed impression of the true sound?  Are the choirs in your comparison all comprised of the same types of voices, or are some using boy sopranos while others have a mixed group of adults? 
As for the connection between vibrato and intonation, one must be careful to define vibrato. So many times we denounce a big vibrato when in fact it is a wobble, produced by inefficient vocal habits. There are many studies of vibrato in the vocal pedagogy field, particularly in the area of vocology or voice science. Surely you have access to academic journals that publish such studies, both from the solo and the choral point of view. Here is an article with a great bibliography as an example:
Honestly, I think that beyond the basic question of tuning within the ensemble, vibrato becomes a matter of style and taste. Jazz singers use vibrato for emotional color, and keep it controlled when tuning chords with close harmony and small intervals between parts, but they will also choose to sing with a warm vibrant tone . Early music performers have adopted a less-is-more approach to vibrato to keep the counterpoint clear, but Montserrat Caballe's recording of the Arie Antiche that we all start on (aka the 24 Italian Greatest Hits) is also exquisite even though she is an opera singer with a  rich vibrant sound.
Just a few thoughts from a vocal coach who finds this whole discussion fascinating,
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 12, 2014 6:30pm
I have a couple of perspectives on this. As a sound engineer I have “corrected” a lot of pitch using a relative of AutoTune. The technology is quite amazing, breaking the sound down into its constuent parts, adjusting them, then putting them back together. Anyway, when it corrects a note with vibrato, you can keep the vibrato and adjust the pitch so that it is centred on the desired note. In this context the note sounds perfectly in tune, even if the vibrato is more than a semitone each way.
This only works for single voices or instruments recorded in isolation, but it shows that it is possible to have a wide vibrato and sound in tune.
As a chorister and choir director I have always sung in choirs where vibrato is frowned on. This is partly because of the repertoire (lots of renaissance music), and partly because once a choir has a tradition of no vibrato, a voice with vibrato sticks out. I know many soloists who curb their vibrato when in a choir, and I use vibrato as an expressive tool when I occasionally have a solo.
Any vibrato at all precludes the “magic” chords that barbershop singers aim for, or that I might achieve with my friends at the end of a Gesualdo madrigal, if we’re lucky.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on October 13, 2014 5:07pm
You are saying vibrato can be as much as a semi-tone, yet if fixed with Autotune to center on a pitch there is still a vibrato.  Is this of intensity?  Have you found any vibrato that did not include variance in pitch?
Vibrato must affect pitch- some will like this, some won't.  I think I have read about vibratos of singers matching in groups that sing a lot together.  Any experience on this from anyone?
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 20, 2014 7:39am
-The whole question of vibrato, with references to the scientific studies concerning it, is thoroughly discussed in "Prescriptions for Choral Excellence" by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase (Oxford University Press), pp. 137-150. This book is in general an excellent resource for choral directors at any level, and I highly recommend it. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on October 23, 2014 6:05am
I will have to check out this book. Thank you!
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