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I thought both tremolo and vibrato are the two main ways of melody inflections on instruments. Yet I noticed singers only talk about vibrato with their voices and not tremolos, why is this?

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    A lot of vocal vibrato is partly involuntary. Note that vibrato is far more popular than tremolo in general for all instruments, at least partly because it helps create an impression of better intonation. Also almost all instruments have a bit of tremolo mixed into their vibrato, including the human voice. So singers are really doing both. – Todd Wilcox Aug 2 at 2:45
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    I believe that singers will also use a third inflection - change of tone/timbre. This comes out as similar, but not the same - there's no change of pitch, although volume may fluctuate. Not talking about those opera singers here! – Tim Aug 2 at 5:28
  • And some talk of neither. The voice should be steady in all respects. When it is properly supported vibrato happens automatically. – ggcg Aug 2 at 20:20
  • @ggcg - what makes you state 'the voice should be steady in all respects'? To me that would be, in a choir situation, like a bank of violins playing without vibrato - not a usual situation, surely? – Tim Aug 7 at 6:41
  • Please give a few examples of what you mean by tremolo (not vibrato) on instruments. That may quieten the debate raging in the answers that's due to tremolo meaning different things to different singers. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 5 at 20:11
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As @JSheldon says, vibrato is varying pitch, tremolo is varying loudness.

Why singers vary pitch more agilely than loudness is an accident of human musculature -- songbirds are quite different, for instance. The muscles that adjust the tension of the vocal cords (to adjust pitch) are tiny, and can change tension rapidly. The diaphragm and other apparatus that pushes air past the vocal cords (changing air flow is the main cause of changing loudness) is larger, heavier, slower. You can fake a tremolo by tapping quickly on your chest like a gorilla (or on a three-year-old's, to amuse them).

A secondary cause of changing loudness, for a professionally trained singer, is shaping the mouth to align its resonances more or less closely to the pitch being sung (tuning a filter, in engineer-speak). Those muscles are again small and agile. If you inspect a spectrogram of an opera singer holding a long note, you'll see fast variation in both pitch and loudness.

  • when you say tremolo is varying loudness, do you mean it's off and on repeatedly. because it doesn't sound like the loudness is varying in this example. youtube.com/watch?v=olfm8UROAYg or maybe it does, I'm not sure. but it's more like a note is being struck many times. – foreyez Sep 5 at 19:07
  • Of course on a plucked string instrument, tremolo means on-off-on-off. On a sustained instrument (such as singing, some say, which includes the OP I think), tremolo means louder-softer-louder-softer. See the two blocks of examples that begin en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tremolo. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 5 at 20:07
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In terms of the physics of sound, vibrato is usually defined as a variation of pitch, while tremolo is a variation of volume.

Basically, a singer's vibrato happens naturally when they are singing healthily with good technique. A well-trained/well-skilled singer can modify the pitch and speed of their vibrato, or sing with straight tone (without vibrato) when needed. The vocal world doesn't usually use the term tremolo because we don't vary the volume when natural vibrato occurs, just the pitch.

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Vibrato results from a slight modulation back and forth in pitch, which is caused, in the context of the voice or a wind instrument, by modulating the volume and over/underblowing, per se, the note. In strings it's different, of course, but mostly what it boils down to is a. Vibrato and tremolo are tightly connected in singing and wind contexts, so doing one without the other is very difficult; b. Vibrato covers up bad pitch, which is convenient; and c. Vibrato was just what was used in the baroque/classical period and it stuck. Regardless of the most dominant factor, vibrato and tremolo go hand in hand in any musical application that involves the lungs, and have therefore not tended in the past to be considered especially different in such fields. I would be surprised, however, if no contemporary piece has been written specifying a vocalist to use tremolo sans vibrato. Sounds like something Roomful of Teeth would do...

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    Could you add some newlines in there to improve readability? – marcellothearcane Aug 3 at 12:49
  • I don't think professional singers use vibrato to cover up any lack of skill. According to a quick google, it was originally used in order to maximise volume before microphones. – marcellothearcane Aug 3 at 12:51
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Tremolo is playing a note repeatedly very quickly. Violinists (and fiddle players) do this by moving the bow back and forth very quickly (think Charlie Daniels' playing long sustained sliding tremolos in "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"). Mandolinists and guitarists do this by rapidly picking a note with a plectrum or fingers. A pianist commonly does a tremolo on octaves by repeatedly striking the keys.

A vocalist might do this by using consonants to start a note over and over, like "ta ta ta ta ta ta ta" or "da da da da da da" or by using a fluttering or rolling effect with the tongue. A vocalist could also create a tremolo by opening and closing the glottis, or by using the diaphragm to vibrate the vocal chords with puffs of air, like "ha ha ha ha ha".

In short, tremolo for vocalists is a bit of a "weird" technique, and likely is only called for in avant garde classical music.

Vibrato is a slight, smooth wavering of the pitch — and a more common vocal technique for dominant western styles of jazz, classical, rock and country. 1970s Country & Western singer Tanya Tucker had a very fast vibrato, which almost simulates a tremolo sound. Some people referred to her sound as "nanny goat" vibrato. But far more common is a smoother style of vibrato found in a singer like Andrea Bocelli performing Con te partirò.

  • In this context, tremolo indeed means varying the loudness -- but not varying it so much that the sound stops, like 'ha ha ha!' Just getting louder and softer during one note. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 5 at 17:01
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    There is a lot of inconsistency in what tremolo might be as refers to vocal technique. Check this article from a retired distinguished vocal professor that classifies it a "bleat": sci.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~jones/Shirlee/vibrato.html – magi182 Sep 5 at 17:07
  • No kidding! She even writes that tremolo is the same as vibrato, just faster. That would make the original question nearly meaningless. – Camille Goudeseune Sep 5 at 17:16

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