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In questions and answers on this site, I see a great deal of confusion about directions.

I've seen "lower string" refer to strings that are lower in pitch, and to strings that are closer to the floor (therefore, opposites on a conventionally tuned guitar).

I've seen "up" mean:

  • away from the fretboard
  • towards the nut
  • towards the bridge

... so two different directions on the same axis, and a third perpendicular to that.

... and "down" having the complementary three meanings.

In one conversation I saw

Do you mean you are pulling "down" towards the edge of the fretboard or "up" and away from the fretboard?

... where "up" and "down" are not even opposite directions to each other.

Is there a commonly agreed set of meanings for directions; if not, what can be done to communicate our meaning more clearly when talking about fretted instruments?

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This is great. I personally doubt there'll be any way to completely clear the confusion, but I'm interested to see what people have to say about this! – Josh Fields Jan 18 '12 at 14:50
up vote 10 down vote accepted

"lower" strings are lower in pitch, the thick ones... Upper is higher.

Lower frets are towards the nut, upper to the bridge.

However, (and apparently in contradiction) we normally use "up" for say, bends where the strings are pushed towards the upper edge of the fretboard, and down for the opposite direction.. But only rarely is there a directional meaning to bending...Normally bending raises the pitch, regardless of direction.

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This. In my experience, "higher" is only used for "higher from the ground" by people who don't actually know what high and low pitches are. – Matthew Read Jan 18 '12 at 16:35

Lower and higher should always refer to frequency - despite some confusion for beginners when playing guitars, for example, which are usually string with the thinnest and highest string closest to the ground.

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Most present-day musicians will corollate up/down with pitch. But the ancient greeks (source: Nicomachus's Harmonics) considered low-pitched notes to be bigger and high-pitched notes to be smaller. Somewhere in history, the custom changed.

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