Fretless?

August 16, 2012 at 05:26 AM · This is a spin-off of the recent Vibrato/or not blog's subsequent discussion. I'm new to music theory and violin, but my understanding of fretted instruments is that they suffer from the same temperament constraints similar to a piano and that by removing the frets that you remove the compromising temperaments. Again, I'm new, so don't take this example literally, but the D in a C major scale will have a slightly different pitch than it has in a another scale. So, do the notes of diffferent scales have different pitches whether played on a guitar or a fiddle? Is this how it works or am I mistaken?

Replies (24)

August 16, 2012 at 09:45 AM · On a violin, play E (1st finger on the D-string) against the open G, and tune it till it is really smooth. Now play it against the open A and it is horribly discordant. Move the finger up 1/8" to blend with the the A: it now sound a bit harsh with G. Rhe difference is a comma!

The other advantage of being fretless is the tone obtained from the soft finger-tip.

August 16, 2012 at 11:11 AM · 'So, do the notes of diffferent scales have different pitches whether played on a guitar or a fiddle? '

I don't play guitar, so I don't know the answer.

On a violin, yes, different scale, you would play certain notes differently. Saying that, an out of tune note should not be blamed on that.

On a violin, the rule of thumb is to tune your notes to the open string notes that is available in your scale.

August 16, 2012 at 03:57 PM · In the OP example of a D note in the C scale, to be in perfect harmony they should be in a ratio of 9:8. Due to the compromise of splitting the octave into 12 even spaces, it's not quite... more like 8.98:8. So you might sharpen the D slightly if you are playing in the key of C. In other scales, a D might be high or low relative to the key note, in varying amounts.

I play guitar, and I DO retune slightly for different keys, where important notes/fingerings don't sound quite right if I leave it in the perfectly even tempered tuning.

I also play fiddle, where the lack of frets allows easier adjustments, and also allows for an infinite variety of wrong notes.

August 16, 2012 at 05:58 PM · I played the classical guitar a long time ago, and tuning was always an "interesting" procedure. [Just for a reminder, the standard tuning of a guitar is, from the lowest string up, E-A-D-G-B-E.] I'd tune the outside Es first, then the B, A and D as perfect 4ths. The G is the difficult one, and how you tune it depends on which key you're playing in. For instance, if the main key of a piece is A, I'd tune the G string so that the A on the 2nd fret is in tune with the A string. If you're playing in G or C then you would adjust the G to get a nice sounding 3rd with the B string.

When I played lute music on the guitar (mostly Dowland) I'd tune the G down to F# or F, and the bottom E down to D. That tuning enables most of the lute music of the period to be easily accessible on the modern 6-string guitar (but not necessarily easily playable!). The D tuning with the dropped G gives, as you might imagine, a remarkably resonant instrument.

Tuning a guitar is always a bit of a fudge, necessarily so because of the mathematics of tuning, and this shows up in pieces like Boccherini's quintets for guitar and string quartet where the inevitable clash between tunings affects even luminaries such as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble and the eminent guitarist Pepe Romero.

August 20, 2012 at 01:07 AM · The absence of frets allows you to slide up and down the fingerboard rapidly without impediments.

August 23, 2012 at 07:00 AM · John, once outside the treble and bass clefs, our ears tend to flatten high notes and raise low ones. Piano tuners compensate for this (as well as compensating for the non-harmonic overtones in the stiff, tense strings).

The problem is that we don't all agree on the extent of this phenomenon, and so some violinists will "correct" more than others. Even our own two ears may not agree if tested seperately!

Also, wind players, (who are not without sin!) find that we "stringers" usually like to tune, and play, a shade sharp, probably to hear ourselves better.

August 23, 2012 at 09:02 AM ·

August 23, 2012 at 09:57 AM · Regarding the difficulties in playing in tune with wind players I think it (in part) has to do with our different ways of making vibrato. A flautist I played with earlier explained that she (and flautists in general I suppose) made vibrator "around" the pitch. And when that is combined with string players vibrato going "up to" the pitch it becomes difficult to intonate poperly.

August 23, 2012 at 10:54 AM · As a player of a fretted instrument ie guitar, I can tell you that all the semi tones (half tone intervals) are present and represented in the frets. You play a C and then move up a fret to play C# up another fret to play D. With violin the concept is the same but you dont need the fret to sound the string. So now you have to "hear" the note, in my opinion it takes more skill. The neck of the violin is too short to stack frets at its upper reaches anyways.

August 23, 2012 at 11:00 AM · but the D in a C major scale will have a slightly different pitch than it has in a another scale. So, do the notes of diffferent scales have different pitches whether played on a guitar or a fiddle? Is this how it works or am I mistaken?

The D in a C maj scale is the D Natural. The D in the D maj and A maj for inst is sharped. So yes, depending on the key signature in that particular scale a note is either flat, natural or sharp. Majors, Minors its all relative!

August 23, 2012 at 12:01 PM · A note back for John Cadd,

The only scale that does not have an open string notes are Db and Gb major. All the other major and ALL of minor scales will have at least one open string note.

The idea behind tuning to open string notes is to play all open string notes exactly as it is regardeless of the the note position in the scale. (Whether its the tonic, supertonic, median, sub-mediant, dominant etc).

It means when I play a G, D, A or E note, it would ALWAYS sound the same regardeless what scale I play.

Then other notes which are not open string notes are tune to 'fit in' in relation to the open string notes in the scale.

August 23, 2012 at 04:57 PM · Kitty, yes and no!

Look at my first post, and try it yourself: even E's, A's D's and G's (fingered!) can need lowering a fraction in double stops.

But you are right that the fifth is the building-block of our tonal music.

August 23, 2012 at 06:25 PM · Hi Adrian,

Good point! In double stops, I would play the open string notes as fixed notes (again tune to open string) and adjust the other note accordingly.

If the fixed note is a lower note in double stop, the higher note is usually played flatter.

If the fixed note is the higher note, the lower note is play sharper.

As you have mentioned in your first post, Adrian. :)

August 24, 2012 at 02:48 AM · The neck of the violin is too short to stack frets at its upper reaches anyways. [Flag?]

There are mandolines about the same size and sometimes smaller that have frets - so I don't think that's it. Apart from intonation adjustment issues that have been discussed a lot, I think that no frets allow greater ease and smoothness of shifting. I think that it also goes back to the violin's origin. One of its forerunners was the rebec, a middle eastern instrument that was fretless.

August 24, 2012 at 03:15 AM · I just recalled on another thread, reproducing some correspondence between myself and David Rivinius, a violin maker and scholar as follows:

(RK)Someone asked me a seemingly innocent question - and I soon realized that I had no authoritative answer: why don't violins have frets? As a professional violinist, my response was that you don't need frets. It may be harder at first, but eventually I would think that subtleties of intonation, shifting, virtuosic passages, etc. would be impeded by frets. So my question became 'why do any instruments have frets?' I have a student who plays the guitar. He said that with the guitar being more consistently chordal than the violin, it gives you something to hold on to. But I have a sitar with big bowed metal frets. I don't play, but I know that Indian music is not chordal. I understand that the violin has a connection to the non-fretted rebec. But why do gambas have frets? How would their playing change if their frets were taken away? Well, I've 'fretted' enough about this issue. Thanks for your attention!

(DR)The gamba, which was re-introduced into northern Italy at about the same time the violin came into being, was championed by a woman named Isabella d’Este, Ercole’s daughter. She already played the lute, but was fascinated by the idea of playing on a BOWED instrument with a curved bridge, so that she could BOW any string without having to, simultaneously, bow other strings. She was interested in the tunings and fingerings she was already familiar with on the lute, and she was interested in reaching a degree of mastery without doing too much work to get there. So frets suited her well.

The professional players working on the violin, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with frets. Your comments about subtleties of tone and intonation are accurate. In addition—and probably even more to the point—in those days, frets weren’t these precision-machined brass bars that we have today. They were pieces of gut—made from the same material as the strings—tied and knotted around the neck and fingerboard of the instrument. They were susceptible to all the annoyances of gut strings: When the weather changed, they would stretch and move and would go out of tune, so one had to constantly be adjusting them. Also, since they wrapped all the way around the neck, they were an encumbrance to the thumb. In general, they were a royal pain! So for a professional, who spent more time learning his instrument than Isabella would have, he was more than happy to dispense with them.

Best,

David

August 24, 2012 at 04:57 PM · I came to the violin after playing mandolin for 10 years and in my opinion the frets just get in the way. Part of the great expressive advantages like vibrato, singing with your instrument, etc. are hampered by frets. Also the violin is capable of being one of the most swinging instruments around.

August 24, 2012 at 05:09 PM · But the downside of being fretless is the number of ppl playing out of tune and horribly. They should just stick to mandolin or viola.

August 25, 2012 at 03:37 AM · Phillips original question, I think, has to do with intonation verses vibrating string length. With a fretted instrument you stop the string by pushing it down just behind a fret wire that is at a specific length from the bridge. That length of string, from the 'stopped' fret wire to the bridge, produces the desired note. Sharp, flat or natural.

With a fretless instrument it all depends on where the contact point of the pad of the respective finger is placed exactly on the fingerboard. That corresponding vibrating string length results in the note sounded. Sharp, flat or natural. The string being 'stopped' between skin and the fretboard is one of the qualities that produces the overall unique sound of a fretless instrument.

Theoretically, a G sharp should be exactly the same string vibrating length as an A flat, regardless of the scale. That's the math of vibrating string length. Very small variations in the placement of the finger pad on a fretless instrument can truly be the difference between WOW and OW. Being able to apply vibrato to an exquisite note is masterful.

I would beg to differ that fretted instruments suffer from temperament constraints. There are amazingly rich wonderful compositions being played by equally amazing talent on fretted instruments. Tommy Emmanuel and Andy McKee are only two fine examples of how fretted instruments can be given a heart and soul.

I feel lucky to be human. I'm relatively confident that other species do not enjoy the heightened level of appreciation that our species can have for music. Made by fretless instruments or otherwise. Enjoy the music and the way it makes us feel.

August 25, 2012 at 11:52 AM · I have a question; I happen to own a few fretted instruments as a collector, but I don't play them. Can a player of a fretted instrument bend the intonation if so desired? I mean, does one have to put the finger right on or just behind the fret, or are they just guidelines? Especially in the lower positions it looks like there's lots of room to play around between frets.

PS Steve - I think my dear departed cat would have begged to differ about which species hears and appreciates best. She was my severest critic - and who knows, maybe she was right! ;-)

August 25, 2012 at 03:41 PM · Frets will stop the string at a specific length, unless you press so lightly that the string doesn't touch the fret... probably a thud sound.

Fretted players can adjust the pitch by adjusting the tension... pressing very hard (not much leeway) or more often sliding the string sideways across the fret. Or a tremelo bar on electrics. Or even bending the neck/body of the instrument, although I understand one player who does this frequently has broken a few guitars.

August 25, 2012 at 03:54 PM · But why not more simply put the finger between the frets? I also see that some instruments like guitar and balalaika have dots between the frets. I assume that these are maybe half-step guidelines?

August 29, 2012 at 07:40 PM · Philip, you certainly have it correct when you say that frets limit you to a specific temperament. That is unless you have movable frets as some of the early ancestors of modern string instruments had. But, then if you have movable frets you will be like harp players who spend half their time tuning and half their time playing out of tune.

I refer you to "The Invention of Equal Temperament (Howard Goodall's Big Bangs)" for a good discussion on the subject of Musical Temperaments.

When you get used to playing without frets it really is not a problem. There are 2 things happening. You first train your muscle memory for correct finger placement. Of course it's not as easy as a piano where each key is equal in width. As you know, when you go higher in pitch on strings the pitches get closer together.

Second you fine tune the pitch by ear. You have heard the age old saying: "Oh, he is only playing by ear. He can't read music." Well, playing bowed strings without frets requires being able to play by ear to some extent. Listening to the other players and comeing to some sort of agreement on pitch is very important.

The two points I mention happens almost instantaneous and eventually becomes automatic.

If this makes on sense to some string players I challenge them to take a multi track Recorder and record to a track without vibrato a passage with only a metronome. Then let another player do the same thing on another track keeping it synchronized with the first track only with the metronome. Then play the two tracks together (you can mute the metronome). It will prove to you that players must listen to each other to play in tune.

August 31, 2012 at 06:56 AM · Back to two of Kitty's reamarks:

"stick to mandolin or viola": I don't play mandolin, but I do play viola, in tune!

In one workshop , our teacher had the violins tune the E-string down a comma to harmonise with the open C's of viola and 'cello, (in a Haydn quartet in C major). Open A with open E was atrocious, but there was a lovely resonance overall.

August 31, 2012 at 02:33 PM · About three farthings?

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Find a Summer Music Program
Find a Summer Music Program

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Business Directory
Violinist.com Business Directory

Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning
Violinist.com Guide to Online Learning

Dominant Pro Strings

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Violin-Strings.com

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Warchal

Barenreiter

Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe