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I've been thinking about vibrato and straight tone in singing. My main focus is on what we call classical techniques.

I recently started taking singing more seriously (like an amateur) and it seems that in classical singing you have people who are more trained in using more vibrato or more straight tone. Some people are trained in using both straight and vibrato, I think.

I know of one opera singer who also sings the music that Frank Sinatra sang. I hear a lot of vibrato on some notes. I find it unnecessary.

He sounds like this:

I find that singing with a more straight tone (which does include vibrato at times) to be easier for me. We also speak with a straight tone, I think.

To me vibrato feels like a natural thing but the vibrato you hear in classical singers like Jussi Björling sounds unnatural. Jussi singing:

This is the straight tone (with less vibrato):

I would say that the straighter sound feels easier although it takes much practice to do it well.

Could one say that the straighter classical tone is more natural than the classical vibrato tone?

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    "We also speak with a straight tone, I think": speech also doesn't typically involve sustaining an unchanging pitch for several hundred milliseconds or even several seconds. Also, when comparing these recordings, consider the sound engineering. Jussi Björling could fill a 4000-seat house without amplification week after week over a 30-year career. A quick look at YouTube suggests that Orphei Drängar's soloists use amplification. Whether one style is more natural or the other is almost irrelevant; it's just a different style. Nessun dorma sung like that would be a joke.
    – phoog
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:35
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    Comment rather than answer: very difficult one to answer. Some have a natural inbuilt vibrato, others can only generally sing straight. Then there's the subject of vib. That can be a variance of pitch, or volume, or both. I also feel there's another - change of tone, but that's another story. Unless trained, most singers will do what they do - just sing. Opera singers sometimes tend to have such a wide vib. that it's difficult to tell what the actual note's supposed to be (!) A good well-trained singer will be able to regulate vib. and turn it on/off at will. No good/bad, necessarily.
    – Tim
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:48
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    So singing without vibrato can be very difficult and take lots of practice? I have found that I find it hard to sing without vibrato. Singing with a big vibrato on the other hand seems hard. Commented May 23, 2023 at 15:08
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    @Tim “Opera singers sometimes tend to have such a wide vib. that it's difficult to tell what the actual note's supposed to be (!)” — Indeed! That's probably one of the major reasons why I tend not to like opera and similar music with solo singers. (Most soloists use too much vibrato for my taste, though good ones at least let me make out the tune…)
    – gidds
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 22:39
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    @gidds - the others just sing way sharp & hope the tone-and-a-half vib hides it sufficiently we won't notice ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 12:58

2 Answers 2

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Rather than thinking of it in terms of "natural" it will probably be more meaningful to think of in terms of style, instrumental genre, and expressive intent of the music, and the type of vibrato used.

Big vibrato in opera is part of that style, helps the singer stand out over a huge orchestra, and (at least for some of the music) fits the dramatic content.

By comparison a madrigal is a different style, involves multiple voices, no loud accompaniment, and the text tend to be more personal, so less vibrato works in that context.

Pop/rock for the most part doesn't use heavy vibrato as a stylistic feature, but sometimes you hear it, like in the high notes of heavy metal singers, a style that is bombastic. A light quavering might be used in a quiet song to highlight a sensitive feeling, a particular mood and a particular application of vibrato.

Personally, I like to think about vibrato and intimacy. I hear the heavy vibrato of opera as a display of technique and that feels less of a one to one connection. Quiet singers like Astrud Gilberto or Nico (I'm thinking of the recordings like Girl From Ipanema and These Days) didn't use vibrato and that combination of quiet and sans-vibrato feels intimate to me. Electronic recording and amplification makes a difference in that comparison which sort of fits into the instrumental genre aspect.

There is a certain kind of untrained, "natural" vibrato that some people have. I think the point is to not misconstrue that as simply "good", but think about when it is either accentuated or suppressed, and whether it is good in specific terms of style, genre, expression, etc.

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"natural" means "not under deliberate control of the artist" and is consequently not a desirable category in art. Vibrato is a self-sustaining outcome of a certain configuration of the larynx and requires a certain amount of relaxation to be available. Not being able to glide into a shimmering tone is indicative of a lack of either relaxation or control. That is nothing to particularly strive for.

What degree of vibrato to employ should be an artistic choice. Once it is the outcome of a choice, calling whatever result "natural" appears to be comparatively arbitrary.

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  • There's also the oddity of people with untrained vibrato who can't stop it happening. I'm not thinking of classical singers, of course, but singers like Fergal Sharkey or David Sylvian. Both eventually learned how to do it, but after they became famous.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:39
  • "'not under deliberate control of the artist' ... is ... not a desirable category in art" Point taken, you're talking about technique rather than content, but it's worth pointing out that a lot of 20th-century aesthetic trends were all about distancing the artist's direct agency from the end product, from serialism into indeterminacy. Commented May 23, 2023 at 11:45
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    'Natural' means 'not under control of the artist.' And then following it with 'undesirable.' Where did those ideas come from? When someone says 'natural' it is indeed arbitrary. Commented May 23, 2023 at 14:19
  • So singing with the choir sounds is not easier than singing with the vibrato sound? Commented May 23, 2023 at 15:06
  • @MichaelCurtis Indeed. As Lewis Carroll once said, "as large as life and twice as natural". Commented May 24, 2023 at 15:06

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