Vibrato is a change in pitch, tremolo is a repeated note, or rapid change in amplitude of a note. Often, I hear, particularly with vocals, a rapid change in tone, which is neither of the above. The pitch stays the same, and it's not a re-iterated note (or a trill), but a different sort of embellishment. Almost the same as a classical guitar vibrato, which changes the tone, but that also very subtly changes pitch. An approximation on guitar may be rapid use of a wah pedal - the tone of a note played is fluctuating, only. Is there a term for this, as it would appear to be a common vocal approach to, in particular, longer notes?

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    A link with an audio example would help a lot. When a singer is making this noise, are they changing the shape their mouth? – Todd Wilcox Nov 23 '15 at 12:57
  • Is this definitively an effect that comes from the technique of the singer, or is it possibly accomplished during the recording process with effects? – Basstickler Nov 23 '15 at 14:58
  • I hear it with just about every singer with whom I work, and those I listen to, too. It's not an artificial effect. – Tim Nov 23 '15 at 17:18
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    I think that's what people call vibrato when it comes to vocals, whether or not the pitch is changing a noticable amount - like @guidot's answer mentions. It can be very hard on most instruments to modulate pitch or volume without modulating both - except when the modulation is electronic. – Todd Wilcox Nov 23 '15 at 17:27
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    I voted to close as unclear what you're asking. Could you please provide a sound clip or a link? – aparente001 Nov 24 '15 at 23:25

I sort of disagree with the first statement: what vibrato actually is, depends on the instrument group at hand. For (at least: wood-) winds it is a variation of support, which would mainly translate to a variation in volume (but admittedly also some pitch variation as well). On strings as violin situation is opposite, that main effect is a variation in pitch.For human voice the observed sorts of vibrato are so various, I would not attempt a definition there.

As mkingsbu comments, brass players can evoke pitch variations by their lips; a brass colleague stated, that vibrato is mainly amplitude variation with some pitch enclosed, so maybe different techniques lead to varying results.

A technical term would be amplitude variation; modulation would also be appropriate for speech, but has a different meaning in music. Articulation would surely cover it, but is a bit vague.

  • So, are you saying that for some instruments, their vibrato is just what I'm asking about - the variation in volume will actually also give a change in timbre/tone? – Tim Nov 23 '15 at 11:06
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    For a brass instrument, vibrato does change the pitch. Vibrato is achieved by "lipping" the pitch up and down to achieve the pulsating effect. On a trombone, this can additionally be done by moving the slide up and down rapidly – mkingsbu Nov 23 '15 at 14:51

Well, your comparison to a guitar vibrato does sound like a proper singer's vibrato (which is mostly a self-sustaining effect of a relaxed throat).

There is also the baroque trillo but it's far less subtle than your initial description and a rapidly interrupted phonation, so not really related to vibrato all that much but more to a guitar tremolo.

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    I know some singers use a variation in pitch, like guitar vibrato, but to me it often sounds like they're singing out of tune, which, to a degree, is true... – Tim Nov 23 '15 at 11:38

Tim, I know exactly what you're talking about. It's called a timbral trill. This is a term employed by theorists and composers to describe sounds in which composers use alternate fingers on woodwind and brass instruments to trill between fingerings of the same pitch on a given instrument. Though it is the same note, there are minute variations in how it resonates through the instrument and therefore minute changes in microtonal vibrations, thus affecting subtle variations in the sound. It is much less commonly associated with the voice, but, if a particular singer had the facility to change the quality of their voice, a "vocal timbral trill" is certainly possible.

  • Banjo and guitar players use such a device too. The same note played on a different string, alternating. I still feel that it's fairly commonly the 'vibrato' used by singers, though. – Tim Dec 5 '15 at 8:01

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