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Critical Analysis of: "An Examination of Vibrato: Use Options for Late Renaissance Vocal Music&

An Examination of Vibrato: Use Options for Late Renaissance Vocal Music By Christopher Jackson

Critical Analysis by Diego Barbosa-Vásquez

Dr. Jackson explores the stylistic use of vibrato in the Late Renaissance Vocal Music. Two opposed schools (“Straight Tone School” and “Natural Vibrato School”) are described by the author in order to explain the most important approaches on the stylistic discussion of renaissance vibrato. To clarify those opposed solutions, Dr. Jackson creates an interesting analysis of primary sources that give the reader interesting clues of the vibrato that was used in Late Renaissance. The article ends with an experiment in order to clarify the most adequate vibrato for this music. The article describes in a very effective way the conclusions but, due to the subjective thinking of vibrato, the description of the stylistic types of vibratos requires at this moment a close physical and musicology approach. This article is a very important contribution to the field. Despite the fact that the author is more focused in the vocal music due to his background, this article gives interesting ideas to be analyze in the discussion of the stylistic vibrato with instruments. In addition the article gives ideas of the use of vibrato as a performance philosophy not only in renaissance but also in all music periods.

“Straight Tone” and “Senza Vibrato”

One of the more important clarifications that the author made with this article is the correct differentiation of this terms. In terms of acoustic studies the straight tone is a tone without any kind of fluctuation.[1] This is a very difficult procedure not only for singers but also for instrumentalist. Musicians create sound in an acoustic way that means that some minimal variations of the tone are created with the air, with the acoustic material of the instrument or with the bow. In addition some harmonic overtones of the acoustic notes create fluctuations. The straight tone in definition can be performed with electronical devises. Opposite to those descriptions, Senza Vibrato is a performance procedure where musicians try to avoid the fluctuation, as close as they can.[2] These term allows the inner characteristics of the acoustic produced sound with its nature fluctuations. However, is very difficult to understand how many fluctuation is permitted in Senza vibrato to do not be considered a “Natural Vibrato”[3].

This terms difficulties explains the bigger problem of this article. The concept of vibrato is very personal for each musician. Different technique schools have been creating exercises to develop vibrato in beginner and professional musicians with different concepts. Some schools accept the natural vibrato as a talent to create a better projection. Others believe that a correct vibrato needs to be controlled in a very specific way. Moreover, each school have a different concept of correct fluctuation of vibrato in terms of amplitude (how far is the fluctuation related with the “correct” tone) and periodicity (how slow or fast the fluctuation is). In addition, as a mature performer each musician create his own criteria of the correct vibrato. Therefore the same vibrato can be assumed in style or out of style subjectively.

Dr. Jackson tries to create a possible solution to give an important base to talk about vibrato but just at the end of the article. He uses a recording examples for the experiment that is described at the end, but when the reader wants to hear it the link is not current available. In addition, even with a wonderful performer, the vibrato will have just one possibility of a good vibrato in certain type of vibrato. But it can be assumed by others in a different way. Therefore, these aspect requires a close physical and musicological approach in order to be clarified. Physical descriptions about the fluctuation (amplitude and periodicity) would bring a better understanding of this difficult performing aspect while musicological approaches gives period and music understanding. Furthermore, an analysis of vibrato through different techniques and performing philosophic schools needs to be doing before describe a certain type of vibrato as the stylistically correct for certain type of music.

How is the stylistic vibrato for Renaissance Vocal Music?

Dr. Jackson starts his article describing the most significant schools in the stylistic discussion of the use of vibrato in the late renaissance. The first one, called “Straight Tone School”[4] or Senza Vibrato School, is related with the avoidance of the vibrato in the late 16th and 17th century music. This school arguments that the use of vibrato obscures the clarity of the intonation in the renaissance music.[5] On the other hand, the Natural Vibrato School states that a normal vibrato is always required in order to create a healthy performance for singers.[6] In order to clarify the better stylistic solution the author creates an analysis of primary to different primary sources. The first typo focused in the specific discussion of vibrato and the other in performance and ensembles descriptions.

In terms of vibrato discussions, the author uses two vibrato descriptions of the first half of 1600 in order to show that no definitive solutions can be created with those. The first source could be used by the Straight Tone School as an argument.[7] The source claims that the steady sound is required in the performance because the trilo or ardire are ornamental aspects of the music. In addition the source says that tremulo is an involuntary result of the lack of support in the voice, very common in older singers. However, Dr. Jackson argues that the problem with this source as an argument of the Straight Tone School, is that the terminology can have different meaning. The word fermo assumed as a steady, can be analyzed as a controlled vibrato or the tremulo can be connected with the specific vibrato of the old singers.[8]

The second source is a description of how to instruct choir boys in the new Italian music of this era.[9] With this source the author explains that the Natural Vibrato is something that was not only used in the late renaissance music but also exalted. Dr. Jackson highlights that the primary author, Praetorious, describes that to have a perfect vibrato you need to be born with it. This source could be used as an argument of the Natural Vibrato School.

Despite the fact that the sources are important, the lack of research of sources that talks about specific of vibrato is clear. Dr. Jackson is choir performance major and music director of different choir organizations, thus in terms of musicology research, this article is very light in terms of primary sources that discuss in a specific the vibrato. The unique possible solution in this case is that the author cannot create a conclusive solution because both source are strong but complete opposed. Some theory treatises could be an interesting sources to review in order to create a strong conclusion about it.

Due to the impossibility to create a strong conclusion with those primary sources, the author uses another written primary sources to clarify in a better way the use of vibrato in late renaissance. These kind of sources are ensembles and performance descriptions of late renaissance. The way that the author connected the ideas in this part of the article, allows him to create the important conclusions that can be use not only in choral music but also in instrumental music. With those sources the author infers that the use of vibrato is related with the place where the ensemble is singing and the complexity of music.

In terms of the place, the author suggest that projection is probably the clue to choose a specific type of vibrato. When the ensemble is singing in a church or in public chapels a full voice is required.[10] This environment creates the necessity of a natural vibrato in singers in order to win projection. On the other hand when the ensemble is singing in chamber sessions a softer kind of voice is required.[11] The singers will use less vibrato because a good projection in those spaces is easier to get. Is very interesting because this conclusion is very close with the conclusions of the vibrato development in string players.

The use of romantic vibrato, the kind of vibrato that the average of string players tend to play, is the product of soloist’s voice that wanted to have more projection than the orchestra. When a soloist were playing in front of an orchestra the sound of his/her instrument could not be hear easily, thus they needed to create a way to win projection and vibrato was the better solution. Therefore to create a balanced solo performance, the orchestra need to play almost without vibrato or with a smaller vibrato than the soloist.

In terms of the complexity of the music, the author argues that the more complex is the music the less vibrato should be used.[12] This conclusion is made with an interesting research of the vibrato notation in late renaissance works.[13] In those works the letter V is used to symbolize the use of vibrato, while the symbol SV is used to show Senza Vibrato.[14] The author states that V is used in homophonic moments and SV is used in difficult intonation sections and imitative parts.

Those conclusions are very important in terms of the musical performance philosophy behind. Those are applicable not only for renaissance performance but also for current rehearsals and performances, and not only in vocal but also in instrumental music. In terms of intonation, even in current rehearsal practices, the vibrato is a distractor of a correct intonation. Rehearsals techniques requires the use of senza vibrato to solve intonation problems. Therefore senza vibrato in difficult intonations sections can be a great solution. On the other hand, in terms of imitative passages, the vibrato is probably the most difficult technical aspect to be imitated by other musician because is very personal. An interesting research to clarify this imitative no vibrato conclusion can be an analysis of imitative sections with different kinds of chamber ensembles. In this research the findings would be that the articulation is the first step that musicians tend to imitate, but the vibrato with its characteristics probably will be very difficult to imitate. Therefore “the vibrato would be use just for homophonic passages and avoid it in imitative procedures” would be an interesting philosophy theory of performance practices.

The vibrato experiment

At the end of the article, the author describes an interesting experiment in order to prove that the excess of vibrato and the straight tone are not only out of style but also difficult to produce.[15] Four types of vibrato were tested: Straight Tone, Senza Vibrato, Style Appropriate Vibrato, and Style Excessive Vibrato.[16]

In the experiment singers recorded a late renaissance work with the four types of vibrato. Then, they responded a survey in order to analyze the difficulties to sing with each kind of vibrato. Subsequently, those recordings were hearing by choral conductors in order to discover the most adequate vibrato in terms of intonation and balance effect. As a result of the experiment the author describes the senza vibrato and the Style Appropriate Vibrato are the most adequate for the late renaissance music.[17] However the descriptions of the Style Appropriate Vibrato and Style Excessive Vibrato are not available for the reader in order to understand which type of vibrato is each of those.

As a conclusion, Dr. Jackson creates very important conclusions about the field that can be used not only renaissance but also in the whole music periods. In addition, the author is focused in vocal music, but this article gives interesting ideas for the vibrato discussion with instruments. However, due to the subjective thinking of vibrato, at this moment a close physical and musicological approach is necessary to clarify important aspects of the use of vibrato.

[1] Christopher Jackson, “An Examination of Vibrato: Use Options for Late Renaissance Vocal Music., 48(1), 24-35. Retrieved From,” Choral Journal 48 (2007): 1, accessed March 28, 2017, (Page 26)

[2] Ibid. (Page 26)

[3] Ibid. (Page 25)

[4] Ibid. (Page 26)

[5] Ibid. (Page 26)

[6] Ibid. (Page 25)

[7] Ibid. (Page 27)

[8] Ibid. (Page 27)

[9] Ibid. (Page 28)

[10] Ibid. (Page 29)

[11] Ibid. (Page 29)

[12] Ibid. (Page 30)

[13] Ibid. (Page 31)

[14] Ibid. (Page 31)

[15] Ibid. (Page 31)

[16] Ibid. (Page 32)

[17] Ibid. (Page 33)

This Critical Analysis is Partial Fulfillment of M.M. in Opera and Orchestra Conducting at APU

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