Vibrato is one of the most essential elements of good singing. It adds warmth and expressiveness to the voice and can help to mask pitch problems.
When used correctly, vibrato can add richness and depth to the sound of the voice. However, when overused, it can make the voice sound harsh and nasal. With a little practice, anyone can learn to control and enhance their vibrato singing voice.
•The science behind good vibrato
•Different types of vibrato
•How to develop vibrato
What is Vocal Vibrato?
The definition of vibrato is the pitch oscillation of a singer’s vocal cords that creates a smooth pleasing variation in pitch, and it can be used to add interest, color, or express emotion to your singing. Vocal vibrato is not just for classical singers and musical theatre. In fact, many styles of music use the extent of vibrato in their songs to add feeling and dimension to the sound.
The Science of Vibrato
The vocal folds are made up of two thin layers of tissue, and they lie against each other like the pages of a book. When the vocal folds are closed, no sound is produced. However, when the vocal folds open and close as the air passes through, this creates a sound wave or vocal production.
Singing is a balance of controlling the air (breath support) to the cords (vocal cords/folds open and close at optimal speed) and controlling the vowel (changing/adjusting vowels controls resonators in the throat and mouth to amplify and boost the sound wave.)
When vibrato is happening, the vocal folds are opening and closing in such a way that the pitch goes about a quarter-tone (that’s half of a half step) below and then back up to the root note that is being sung. This oscillation in the pitch allows the sound waves to travel more easily and produces a note with vibrato as opposed to a straight tone.
Three main factors determine whether a person can produce a good vibrato:
1. Your ability to control your larynx muscle, tongue, jaw, and lips.
For example, if you have poor muscle tone, then you may not be able to produce enough vibration, and if you have too much tension in the vocal tract, it will be hard to get the pitch variation for beautiful vibrato.
2. Your ability to have conscious control of the pitch of your voice.
You should be able to match the pitch of your song to start with. Singing on the exact pitch on a sustained note is actually harder than singing with vibrato, but you want to be able to start the note correctly before introducing vibrato.
3. Breath pressure and the speed at which your vocal cords open and close.
This is where your breath comes into play. Not enough air to the vocal folds, and the result will be a weak vibrato. On the other hand, too much excessive breath pressure will result in a forced sound like panting, a vocal trill sound, or it will create tension and lack of vibrato.
Click here to look at vocal cords in action: How The Vocal Cords Work For Singing.
Vibrato and Vocal Balance
For some singers, vibrato in singing comes very naturally. For other singers, they may sing with very little or no vibrato, and it might be that their singing voice just has less vibrato or pitch variance. In addition, the use of vibrato can sometimes be an overall style or personal taste of the artist, and they might choose to sing in more of a straight vocal tone.
So not everyone needs to sound like famous singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or Freddie Mercury, who all have a strong presence of vibrato in their voices. But when contemporary singers or skilled singers use the sound of vibrato, it tends to demonstrate that the voice is in balance. This means that the “Air,” “Cords,” and “Vowels” are all being used in a balanced way.
Air pressure to the vocal cords (with the right amount of vocal fold closure) and proper use of vowels and resonators also create optimal energy that comes out of the mouth as “sound” to listeners, but at the same time, this energy creates back pressure to the vocal folds and supports the folds to more easily oscillate and create the vibrato sound. This back pressure also creates ease in singing and easier higher notes.
Types of Vibrato
Not all vibrato is created equal. So with that, what I mean is that some ways of acquiring a vibrato sound may not be considered correct.
Here are the different types of vibrato:
Diaphragmatic vibrato is when the diaphragm is pulsated while singing a sustained tone. It can sound labored or like an exaggerated vibrato, and although it might be a way to start to feel vibrato, it is not recommended to keep this habit as it can be hard to undo the muscle memory.
Vocal Trill Vibrato
Forcing the vibrato or too much subglottal breath pressure can also present as a fast-sounding vibrato, bleating, or vocal trill vibrato. Practicing relaxed, steady breath support can help soften this sound and slow the vibrato.
This version of vibrato is where the singer rapidly moves the jaw and tongue. Again, although it might be a way to oscillate the sound, it is not considered true vibrato.
Watch out for wider vibratos – a slow vibrato or one that goes too wide. When this happens, we can get a vocal wobble, which we don’t want as this tends to make the singer sound old.
The goal is true natural vibrato. This is where healthy singing vibrato will not be too wide or too narrow in the vocal pitch (about six to eight oscillations per second) and is usually the result of coordinated singing.
How To Find Your Vibrato
Now that we understand that vibrato is that little undulation in our pitch, how do we develop this vocal technique?
It is important to understand that there is no “one size fits all” method for developing vibrato. Instead, each individual needs to find what works best for them.
For example, if you are working with a voice teacher, they can offer you proper vocal exercises that help first to build balanced resonance, as this will set you up to easier find your vibrato. After that, vibrato will tend to develop on its own with consistent practice of balanced, coordinated singing.
But usually, with singers struggling to find vibrato, there’s probably excess tension and excess muscle being used in most cases.
Think of it this way: try lightly shaking your hand – that’s much like a vibrato. Keep in mind you are not shaking back and forth widely, but it’s this little “quaver.” If you add tension to your hand when making this little quaver, it’s harder to get that smooth quaver.
Similarly, if we have too much tension in the vocal folds, we’re not going sing vibrato naturally.
Vocal Exercises to Find Vibrato
I encourage you to try these vibrato exercises on a lower note first because high notes have more tension naturally, and be sure to start first with vocal warm-up exercises as this helps in relaxing the voice.
Start by trying this on a comfortable starting pitch for your voice. Let’s take a nice narrow vowel such as an “oh.” And what I want you to do is start feeling emotion like you’re getting a little upset, like you might cry, or you’re a little nervous. Then, sing on a short 5-tone ascending scale, using the word “go” – “go, go, go, go, go” and hold the last “go” and just encourage that little shake in the voice.
Another feeling is “ghost vibrato” – on the “ooh” or held “boo,” pretend you are a spooky ghost and undulate the “oo-oo-oo” like a wave.
Now you can also try and trick the feeling of vibrato in by pressing on your abdominal muscles to force it a bit but be cautious with this as it is ok to use this technique to start to get the feeling of vibrato and the oscillation but be careful not to build a habit of diaphragmatic vibrato as it is a hard habit to break.
But if you can start to find that emotion in the voice on the “go, go, go,” and you start to get little shakes and slight variations in the tone, just continue to allow the feeling on this comfortable pitch, and you will start to feel a pronounced vibrato. And eventually, you’ll be able to take that up higher and higher into your vocal registers but for a little while, just stay in the lower register until you feel consistent vibrato.
But ultimately, continue to practice balanced, coordinated singing, and you will most likely notice your vibrato naturally occurring and developing through your vocal range.
A good listening exercise to practice is to pay attention to different vocal styles and see if you can pick out if they are using minimal vibrato, moderate vibrato, or continuous vibrato. This can help you learn when to use vibrato or a straight tone, depending on contemporary styles of music.
If you would like to develop your singing techniques, my new book, “Beginning Singing,” comes with bonus videos with effective exercises to get you started. And if you are interested in online singing lessons, I have incredible associate contemporary teachers to support you in your vocal journey. For questions, please reach out to: [email protected]