Vibrato is an Italian term (past participle of, or verb adjective derived from , vibrare, to vibrate), denoting an effect something akin to tremolo, yet differing essentially from it, used in musical performance.
In vocal music its mechanism is an alternate partial extinction and reinforcement of a note, producing almost its apparent reiteration.
In music for bowed instruments it is identical with the vocal ‘tremolo,’ consisting of a rapid change of pitch brought about by a quick oscillation of the hand while the finger is stopping a note, and producing a trembling sound or thrill.
It is strange that vibrato on the bowed instrument is the tremolo on the voice, while the tremolo in instrumental music (the rapid reiteration of the same note by up and down bow) more nearly resembles the vocal vibrato.
It is sometimes heard on the flute and cornet.
When the vibrato is really an emotion thrill it can be highly effective, as also the tremolo in extreme cases.
The art of pulsating a note by a throbbing pressure of a finger, now, commonly designated ‘vibrato,’ or ‘tremolo,’ has undoubtedly been known to stringed instrument players for over three centuries.
Its origin is a matter for speculation, although Leopold Mozart (Violinschule, 1756), gracefully disposed of the question in the phrase ‘Nature herself suggested it to man.’
Definitely speaking, we can trace the use of the ‘vibrato’ as far back as 1636, when Mersenne eulogises ‘Les Sierus Bocan Lazarin,’ and others, who played with a tremblement qui ravissent l’esprit.
The viol players of Mersenne’s time also employed the vibrato with circumspection.
Christopher Simpson advocated its use in ‘any movement of the voice imitated by the viol.’
Curiously enough, according to J. J. Rousseau, the ‘vibrato’ was then no longer in use. According to his authority the ‘vibrato’ then known as ‘tremolo,’ had been employed by stringed instrument players in imitation of the ‘tremblement de l’Orgue.’
Three years later a glimpse of the progress of the ‘vibrato’ is afforded us by Geminani, who attempts t minute description of the ‘vibrato’ under the heading: “of the Shake,’ in which he embodies the modern elements of the art.
Boillot calls it L’ondulation de la main gauche. In fact the term ‘vibrato’ is a modern description of a well established practice.