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I was just wondering what are the real differences between tremolo and vibrato. Are those two different words for the same concept? Which one is used in opera singing? I searched to find the exact meaning but I still couldn't find the real meaning out of them.

  • Vibrato is pretty much agreed to be a wavering in pitch but people will argue about what exactly tremolo is, see Wikipedia for how many ways it is defined en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremolo – Dave Halsall Nov 3 '15 at 12:39
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    Note that Leo Fender made a mistake in his understanding of The two terms when making and selling his guitars. To this day his "Tremelo bar" is misnamed. Because of this, us guitarists tend to have an incorrect understanding of the term. Most guitarists and guitar manufacturers have adopted Mr Fenders mistake. see: ezinearticles.com/… – amalgamate Nov 3 '15 at 16:19
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    @amalgamate - interesting, if inaccurate, article. I think Leo actually used vibrato as the term for tremolo on some of his amps, so confusing us all. – Tim Nov 3 '15 at 17:13
  • @Tim I didn't read the article too carefully, but what ever the reason Mr Fender had for naming these product parts (I forgot about the vibratto nob that has a tremmolo effect, I miss that amp...), the end result is he definately has managed to confuse and muddy the issue for us guitarists. – amalgamate Nov 4 '15 at 15:49
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    Short, simple answer: for singing, just focus on vibrato, and leave the tremolo to various instrumentalists. – aparente001 Nov 5 '15 at 4:10
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Vibrato is pretty easy to define because there is one widely agreed-upon definition: a deliberate, regular, periodic change in pitch (like a controlled warble), generally much less than a semitone, sometimes as much as a quarter-tone or more up and down. Vibrato is commonly used as a performance technique by vocalists (including opera singers), players of string instruments, and guitarists, among others.

Vibrato is also available as an electonic effect commonly used for electronic keyboard instruments, electric guitars, and other electric, electronic, or electrified instruments.

Tremolo (1) (my numbering) is rapid repetition of a single note or repetition of two different notes that are usually separated by more than a whole step. Whole or half step separations would usually be considered a trill, but a sequence of tremolos might have whole or half step separations in some parts and still be notated and described as "tremolo". Tremolo (1) is most commonly used in bowed or plucked instruments.

This kind of tremolo is notated as follows:

Single note tremoloenter image description here

I believe there may be cases of tremolo (1) involving more than two notes, but one and two note are the most common types.

Tremolo (2) is a rapid variation in volume, dynamics, or intensity. As far as I know, this is primarly done electronically for electric or electronic instruments. Electronic tremolo is available in electronic effect form, like vibrato, and also possible as a performance technique using the volume or level controls on some instruments. The electronic effect can also be applied to acoustic instruments or voice either during the mixing process of producing a recording, or as part of amplification of the instrument during a live show. This can be heard on Robert Plant's voice in "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper" by Led Zeppelin.

Tremolo (3) is also used to mean vibrato or a combination of vibrato and tremolo (2). This sense of tremolo also applies mainly to electric and electronic instruments, and it's possible that this usage of the word comes from the introduction of the "tremolo bridge" (which actually creates the above vibrato effect when used) on the Fender Stratocaster. The arm used to operate a "tremolo bridge" is famously called a "whammy bar". Sometimes a "tremolo bridge" is more properly called a "vibrato tailpiece".

Appendix

An example of an electronic device that produces both a vibrato and tremolo (2) effect:

enter image description here

A Fender Stratocaster "tremolo bridge" that actually produces a vibrato sound when used:

enter image description here

See also:

What is tremolo picking?

How does one sing with vibrato?

When to start Vibrato (on any instrument)

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Tremolo is essentially a variation in volume, vibrato in pitch. They are nicely separated with bowed strings where "vibrato" is done by a variation in the fingering hand, and tremolo is done by a rapid back-and-forth of the bow on the same spot.

However, lots of instruments have things they call "tremolo" or "vibrato". There is also the non-instrument specific concept of "tremolo" as a rapidly repeated note or chord or alteration of notes or chords.

Instrument-specific executions may have separate names (like the "bellow shake" on an accordion). Quite usual is the execution for single-note tremoli by alternating between two to four fingers (like on piano or guitar).

For wind instruments and voice, what could be considered sort-of-tremolo is rather called "vibrato": a certain regular variation in loudness achieved by an elasticity in the breath control and (in the case of the voice) a relaxed throat and voicebox. The resulting slight variation of both pitch and volume is called just "vibrato".

For the accordion, "tremolo" is mainly used for a registration of two to three reeds which are deliberately slightly out of tune resulting in an undulating tone. The term "vibrato" instead is used for using the same kind of movement on the keyboard that a string player would use on the string. This does not actually result in any pitch variation (as the pitch of most free reed instruments is intentionally quite fixed) but in rather subtle pressure and consequently loudness variations via the bellows.

Indeed, such a "vibrato" will work even with an acoustic piano though considerably more subtly there.

So all in all, there is some overlap to how "tremolo" and "vibrato" are used, with tremolo used for pretty tangible changes in loudness (and usually with repetitive manual attacks of a note/chord except when talking about tremulating registers in accordion or organ or other wind instruments), with vibrato being reserved to slight periodic variations primarily (but not entirely so) of pitch.

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  • Tremolo is alternating between two different tones, which are separately notated in the score. These might be quite close (a half-tone or full tone apart) or an octave apart.

  • Vibrato is a sort of enriching a tone by slight or (depending on the performer:) not so slight variations in pitch; in the score you will typically not find anything, but the performer decides, which tones deserve which amount. Surely this latter one is much more common in opera singing. For string instruments tremolo is typically produced by small movements in the finger pressing against the string, for woodwind instruments variation in the tension of the diaphragm is needed.

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    Tremolo on guitar, for example, may well be playing the same note repeatedly, and in vocals is the change in strength of a note - but not a change of pitch. Some call a fast vibrato a tremolo. – Tim Nov 3 '15 at 10:47
  • @Tim: So according to your answer, both terms are used in both vocals and playing instruments, right? And in opera, which term do you have to use in this occasion? Is it tremolo or vibrato? And also, do these terms have anything to do with pitch bending in organs? Sorry if I sound stupid... – Sahan De Silva Nov 3 '15 at 10:49
  • @Guidot Thanks for sharing your answer. So it's vibrato that is used in opera. – Sahan De Silva Nov 3 '15 at 10:53
  • @Sahan De Silva - I only have comments, as I'm not 100% sure. However, there's also a trill, which on instruments and voice, is rapidly going from one note to another a semitone or tone apart. It could well be that tremolo is a fast version of vibrato - a slow one is a wobble. – Tim Nov 3 '15 at 10:58
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    The definition for tremolo here is leaving out many alternate definitions for the word. – Todd Wilcox Nov 3 '15 at 14:11
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Tremolo is the rapid reiteration of very short notes that for the guitar gives the illusion of sustain.

Vibrato is an effect on the guitar that is done by moving pulling the string up and down to move the pitch up to a full semitone.

Which is used in Opera singing?

Natural Vibrato is part of singing. It is done by the rapid alternation between two notes. Tremolo to me is a stringed instrument technique. I doubt singers who sustain basically for as long as they can hold their breath would have any use for it.

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    True for guitar, and true w/ different sound for string instruments. Tremolo for winds is closer to a microtone trill. – Carl Witthoft Nov 3 '15 at 15:59
  • Vibrato on guitar can be anything from a microtone to a full tone, and more. The pitch change is dependent on the player and the melody. – Tim Nov 4 '15 at 10:00
  • How does one physically accomplish a full tone of vibrato on guitar? That's a repeated bend, in my book. – Todd Wilcox Nov 4 '15 at 15:57

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