Vibrato, Technology and Culture, by Jim West, 3/8/2014

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 GilbertoBrazilian0%-No vibratoGirl from IpanemaYoutube
Bob DoroughEuro-Am0%-No vibratoBlue Christmas (with Miles Davis)Youtube
Mark MurphyEuro-Am0%-No vibratoMilestonesYoutube
Mose AllisonEuro-Am0%-No vibratoYour Mind Is On Vacation (1975, on PBS)Youtube
R. L. BurnsideAfr-Am (blues)0%-No vibratoMississippi BluesYoutube
John HurtAfr-Am (blues)0%-No vibratoCocaine BluesYoutube
John Lee HookerAfr-Am (blues)0%-No vibratoHard Headed WomanYoutube
Betty CarterAfr-Am10%FastRarelySpring Can Really Hang You UpYoutube
Chet BakerEuro-Am30%Medium, slow, fastOn some sustained notesMy Foolish HeartYoutube
Diana KrallEuro-Am40%MediumMedium speed on some sustained notesJust The Way You Are (bossa)Youtube
Diana KrallEuro-Am40%MediumMedium speed on some sustained notesYou Go To My Head (ballad)Youtube
Kurt EllingEuro-Am50%MediumOn some sustained notesMy Foolish Heart
Anita O'DayEuro-Am70%Medium and fastOn some sustained notesSweet Georgia Brown
Betty CarterAfr-Am70%FastOn most sustained notesIf I Could Write a Book
Jon HendricksAfri-Am70%Medium fastOn most sustained notesThe Preacher
Cassandra WilsonAfr-Euro-Am80%Medium fastMost sustained notesYou Don’t Know What Love Is
Cassandra WilsonAfr-Euro-Am80%Medium fastMost sustained notesRound Midnight
Phoebe SnowJewish-Am80%Medium slowMost sustained notesPoetry Man
Frank SinatraEuro-Am80%Fast and wideAll straight notesFly Me To The MoonYoutube
Frank SinatraEuro-Am80%Fast and wideNo vibrato during his glissandosThe Way You Look Tonight
Carmen McRaeEuro-Am85%FastFew notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.Round Midnight (ballad)Youtube
Carmen McRaeAfr-Am85%FastFew notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.My Romance)Youtube
Carmen McRaeAfr-Am85%FastFew notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.Round Midnight (ballad)Youtube
Carmen McRaeAfr-Am85%FastFew notes without vibrato. No reflexive vibrato on moving notes.The Very Thought of YouYoutube
Etta JamesAfr-Euro-Am85%Medium fastAll sustained notes, influenced by Carmen McRaeThe Very Thought Of YouYoutube
Al JarreauAfr-Euro-Am90%Fast and slowMost sustained notesMy Foolish HeartYoutube
Al JarreauAfr-Am90%Fast and slowMost sustained notesJust to be Loved
Al JarreauAfr-Am90%Fast and slowMost sustained notesLoving You
Johnny HartmanAfr-Am90%MediumMost sustained notesBlues (~1975)Youtube
Johnny HartmanAfr-Am90%MediumMost sustained notesMy One And Only Love (1963 with Coltrane)Youtube
Johnny HartmanAfr-Am90%MediumMost sustained notesIt Never Entered My MindYoutube
Billy EckstineAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesMy Foolish Heart
Billy HolidayAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesBlue Moon (med tempo, mid-career)Youtube
Dinah Washington (age 38)Afr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesAll of Me (med. tempo)
Ella FitzeraldAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesSummertime (ballad, early career, 1958)
Ella FitzeraldAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesYou Don’t Know What Love Is
Ella FitzeraldAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesGeorgia (ballad 1963)
Hoagy CarmichaelEuro-Am100%FastAll sustained notesStardust
Joe WilliamsAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesSeptember In The Rain (med tempo, mid career, 1962)
Nina SimoneAfr-Am100%Very fastAll sustained notesDon’t Explain (ballad)
Sarah VaughnAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notes. Rarely, brief vibrato on sustained low notes.Shadow Of Your Smile (ballad, early career, 1964)
Sheila JordanAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesGood Morning Heartache (ballad, late 1980s, mid-late career)
Tony BennettItal-Am100%FastAll sustained notesMy Foolish Heart
Abby LincolnAfr-Am100%FastAll sustained notesDon't ExplainYoutube

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