Discussion and Table
This critical view of vibrato has carefully evolved, but it is not in stone. It is for discussion. I have been studying voice for decades, and have been a professional musician in classical, rock and jazz genres. For decades, I have been in and out of the New York pro music scene (trombone, piano and voice). For several years I toured nationally (trombone) and internationally (trombone, piano and voice).
Vibrato for the Tempered System
Vibrato is a technique developed by industrial cultures to enable vocalists to survive the 12-tone tempered music system. This system, as typically found, e.g., in a piano or harpsichord, produces harmonies that are usually slightly out of tune, i.e., it is not a system where natural harmonies can exist.
Solo vocalists in vibrato are technically never in tune. They give the illusion of profound perfect harmony (within the imperfect tempered system) by completely avoiding the tempered (compromised) pitches, by moving their tone slightly up and down. With vibrato, they avoid the problem of finding natural intonation. The vibrato center (average pitch) is in tune, but the center is an abstract. The tone in vibrato is always moving up and down. No part of the tone resonates with another tone. In a sense, they are never in tune.
Vibrato can be beautiful. However, it was developed and maintained by academia to make voices of flexible flesh compatible with mechanical instruments that are more built and fixed in tempered harmony. Instruments use vibrato for expressive vocal-like solos that can survive and coexist with the accompaniment of tempered harmonies.
Vibrato for Prominence
The technological development of instruments is analogous to the emergence of European industrial technology, i.e., bigger and louder
The tempered system is like "Microsoft Windows" where musicians and vocalists are "Solution Providers", making the advertised dreams come true for the consumers of the tempered system.
Vibrato gives an ambulance-like sound to a soloist, allowing them to cut through and over an 80-piece orchestra in operatic settings before the invention of the microphone. This focus on power is at the expense of effortless virtuosity and deep sensitivity, which would otherwise be much more available to the singer in practice and performance.
Orchestra and the opera evolved technically and artistically in parallel to industry, in parallel to the organizational and technical trends of industry. The large orchestra evolved representative of the industrial factory. From the Renaissance onward, orchestras became larger and larger, instruments became louder and louder, peaking towards the end of the 19th century. The great volcanic industrial apex was WWI and WWII. Present-day, in the nuclear/wireless age, the wars continue: We have epidemics of deafness with electric instruments, audio processing to maximize output ("wall of sound"), speakers, and headphones.
It common for opera singers to "lose their voice", suffer cord damage and wart-like growths, and to be thrown on the historical trash heap of ex-heroes. Each is easily replaced with another young hero. The wise (e.g., Placido Domingo) learn to survive.
Voices that use vibrato are usually trained or may be imitating trained voices. Reflexive vibrato, sung as routine technique rather than with an aesthetic purpose, can be ugly. This usage is common, e.g., "goat vibrato". Many great vocalists routinely follow the tradition of reflexive vibrato, mainly in opera and folk. Non-academic vocalists use vibrato for a variety of reasons, yet at least there, it is not mandated.
Vocalists are unique (like violins and trombones) in that they are not physically bound to any harmonic system like a piano or trumpet. When singing in a choir, vocalist generate lush harmonies that approach natural harmony, i.e., they automatically adjust their intonation to bring natural resonance.
Two or three vocalists (such as The Three Tenors) in harmony in wide vibrato, are usually a mess. Bluegrass and barbershop harmonies with their minimal reliance on tempered instruments are impressive as they often opt out of vibrato.
Solo vibrato can be profoundly beautiful, such as a slowly oscillating vibrato in a jazz ballad or a slow tempo classical piece. It is a beautiful effect. Unavoidable, routine, reflexive vibrato can be strange and comical, once the listener realizes that the singer's abilities allow no other option.
Vibrato in jazz, three generalities
Blues singers of all cultures do not tend to use vibrato, because blues is grassroots, down-to-earth, the polar opposite of opera. They often accompany themselves with a simple guitar, often with just a few strings, and/or they may sing acapella. Vibrato is unnecessary and even be comical in a blues setting.
Euro-Am (culture) jazz singers generally do not use vibrato because they are rejecting some of their roots as academic or inappropriate in the age of the microphone.
Exception: Tony Bennett uses heavy vibrato because his cultural background is Italian, where operatic voices are a popular tradition. His background is close to Broadway and opera as he spent much of his youth as a singing waiter in Italian restaurants, while growing up in the jazz era.
Culture Clash: Two Examples
a) Non-Euro legacy jazz singers use of vibrato is a way to establish them in the realm of trained Euro-Am professionalism.
b) Euro-Am legacy singers find an opportunity in jazz to clean out useless technique in Euro-Am legacy, for example, goat vibrato.
Vibrato reveals a paradox in jazz: The greater the European legacy of a singer, the less the European tradition of vibrato. Euro-Am jazz vocalists have an opportunity for rebellion. The microphone liberates them from the no-longer required advantages of the vibrato. With the mic, vibrato is an aesthetic option, no longer a power advantage -- a choice, not a mandated reflex.
An example sought by Euro-Am singers is the work of Betty Carter (below), where she uses only 10% vibrato during an entire song. Vibrato is a small part of her palette, not a goat reflex.
The following table demonstrates the clashing trajectories. "Culture" is estimated.
Culture vs Vibrato. Vocalists sorted on vibrato prominence
|Astrud Gilberto||Brazilian||0%||-||No vibrato||Girl from Ipanema||Youtube|
|Bob Dorough||Euro-Am||0%||-||No vibrato||Blue Christmas (with Miles Davis)||Youtube|
|Mark Murphy||Euro-Am||0%||-||No vibrato||Milestones||Youtube|
|Mose Allison||Euro-Am||0%||-||No vibrato||Your Mind Is On Vacation (1975, on PBS)||Youtube|
|R. L. Burnside||Afr-Am (blues)||0%||-||No vibrato||Mississippi Blues||Youtube|
|John Hurt||Afr-Am (blues)||0%||-||No vibrato||Cocaine Blues||Youtube|
|John Lee Hooker||Afr-Am (blues)||0%||-||No vibrato||Hard Headed Woman||Youtube|
|Betty Carter||Afr-Am||10%||Fast||Rarely||Spring Can Really Hang You Up||Youtube|
|Chet Baker||Euro-Am||30%||Medium, slow, fast||On some sustained notes||My Foolish Heart||Youtube|
|Diana Krall||Euro-Am||40%||Medium||Medium speed on some sustained notes||Just The Way You Are (bossa)||Youtube|
|Diana Krall||Euro-Am||40%||Medium||Medium speed on some sustained notes||You Go To My Head (ballad)||Youtube|
|Kurt Elling||Euro-Am||50%||Medium||On some sustained notes||My Foolish Heart|
|Anita O'Day||Euro-Am||70%||Medium and fast||On some sustained notes||Sweet Georgia Brown|
|Betty Carter||Afr-Am||70%||Fast||On most sustained notes||If I Could Write a Book|
|Jon Hendricks||Afri-Am||70%||Medium fast||On most sustained notes||The Preacher|
|Cassandra Wilson||Afr-Euro-Am||80%||Medium fast||Most sustained notes||You Don’t Know What Love Is|
|Cassandra Wilson||Afr-Euro-Am||80%||Medium fast||Most sustained notes||Round Midnight|
|Phoebe Snow||Jewish-Am||80%||Medium slow||Most sustained notes||Poetry Man|
|Frank Sinatra||Euro-Am||80%||Fast and wide||All straight notes||Fly Me To The Moon||Youtube|
|Frank Sinatra||Euro-Am||80%||Fast and wide||No vibrato during his glissandos||The Way You Look Tonight|
|Carmen McRae||Euro-Am||85%||Fast||Few notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.||Round Midnight (ballad)||Youtube|
|Carmen McRae||Afr-Am||85%||Fast||Few notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.||My Romance)||Youtube|
|Carmen McRae||Afr-Am||85%||Fast||Few notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.||Round Midnight (ballad)||Youtube|
|Carmen McRae||Afr-Am||85%||Fast||Few notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.||The Very Thought of You||Youtube|
|Etta James||Afr-Euro-Am||85%||Medium fast||All sustained notes, influenced by Carmen McRae||The Very Thought Of You||Youtube|
|Al Jarreau||Afr-Euro-Am||90%||Fast and slow||Most sustained notes||My Foolish Heart||Youtube|
|Al Jarreau||Afr-Am||90%||Fast and slow||Most sustained notes||Just to be Loved|
|Al Jarreau||Afr-Am||90%||Fast and slow||Most sustained notes||Loving You|
|Johnny Hartman||Afr-Am||90%||Medium||Most sustained notes||Blues (~1975)||Youtube|
|Johnny Hartman||Afr-Am||90%||Medium||Most sustained notes||My One And Only Love (1963 with Coltrane)||Youtube|
|Johnny Hartman||Afr-Am||90%||Medium||Most sustained notes||It Never Entered My Mind||Youtube|
|Billy Eckstine||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||My Foolish Heart|
|Billy Holiday||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Blue Moon (med tempo, mid-career)||Youtube|
|Dinah Washington (age 38)||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||All of Me (med. tempo)|
|Ella Fitzerald||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Summertime (ballad, early career, 1958)|
|Ella Fitzerald||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||You Don’t Know What Love Is|
|Ella Fitzerald||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Georgia (ballad 1963)|
|Hoagy Carmichael||Euro-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Stardust|
|Joe Williams||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||September In The Rain (med tempo, mid career, 1962)||Nina Simone||Afr-Am||100%||Very fast||All sustained notes||Don’t Explain (ballad)|
|Sarah Vaughn||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes. Rarely, brief vibrato on sustained low notes.||Shadow Of Your Smile (ballad, early career, 1964)|
|Sheila Jordan||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Good Morning Heartache (ballad, late 1980s, mid-late career)|
|Tony Bennett||Ital-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||My Foolish Heart|
|Abby Lincoln||Afr-Am||100%||Fast||All sustained notes||Don't Explain||Youtube|
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