What’s in a Trill?

That question is asked fairly often by singers who don’t spontaneously find their way to the trill. On most instruments, it’s very clear what’s being done. On the piano, you are simply putting down two fingers alternately on two adjacent keys. If you’ve worked on the technique of doing this, you’ll know that you can do it faster and more evenly if your wrist does most of the work and your finger-muscles just help out. But if you hold your wrist rigid and rely only on the fingers, it’s still a trill.  

It’s not so easy for singers. If they use the muscles under their conscious control to go up and down between two pitches - the way the Queen of the Night has to do near the end of her first aria, or Olympia near the beginning of the Doll Song - the maximum speed reachable by even the most agile singers is somewhere around a metronome setting of quarter-note = 144. But the alternating notes in Frances Alda’s trills on this week’s record, if they were 16th notes, would need a metronome setting around 212. Nobody can sing coloratura anywhere near that fast.  

So what is she doing? 

Physically speaking, the classic vocal trill is related not to agility but to vibrato. Agility is voluntary motion of the voice from one pitch to another in response to intentional signals from the brain. Vibrato is a neuromuscular tremor that wiggles the vocal folds and makes pitch rise and fall slightly even while our brains imagine a single steady tone. What’s the difference between vibrato and trill, then? Mainly, pitch-span. You can see that in a spectrographic image of Alda singing an F-sharp with and without trill. The trill is from this week’s record - score here, starting at bottom of first page -  and the plain note from the next disc cut in the same session. The speed is exactly the same, but the rise and fall of the trill is roughly double that of the vibrato. 

F# trill - Alda, April 4 1912

F# plain - Alda, April 4 1912

So far so good, but how to you get this to happen? Trial and error, to some degree, and there is the difficulty. You have to readjust the muscles so that a bigger wiggle is allowed to happen. Generally speaking, the whole larynx shakes slightly in a trill, somewhat like the pianist’s wrist. But you can see your wrist, and so can your teacher! Can the vocal trill be taught?

Definitely. Just ask Alda’s teacher, Mathilde Marchesi. Or - well, you can’t ask, because she lived from 1821 to 1913, but you can check out her students. At least seventeen of them made records (for instance Nellie Melba, Emma Calvé, Blanche Arral, Emma Eames). And they could all do what Alda does here. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.