There are fretless versions of electric guitars and basses. Instruments in the violin family are (almost) always fretless. But what is the general term for this when expanded for other instruments, like trombones, slide saxophones, theremins and other instruments that does not have fixed pitches?

  • 1
    What's an almost fretless violin? Or, do you mean they're almost always fretless? — A problem with this question is that it's hard to draw a clear line. Sure, piano and organ are 100% fixed-pitch and theremin is 100% continuous-pitch, but most other instruments have some sort of discrete choice built in yet can also perform more or less pronounced pitch bends and require fine-intonation by the player on each note. Striking example: recorder, which with its holes one might think should be discrete, but really isn't. Aug 12 '20 at 8:27
  • 6
    @leftaroundabout I think the OP had fretted violin in mind. It is not almost fretless violin, but violins are (almost always) fretless
    – Tom
    Aug 12 '20 at 8:29
  • The examples instruments given are all of the real contiguous pitch type. Others are imaginable (piano with bend wheel?) which have the normal scale structure, but are capable of bridging the gaps. Shall they be included in the searched term?
    – guidot
    Aug 12 '20 at 12:16
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft I did not know this instrument before, but this one seems to be capable: youtube.com/watch?v=POzJoi463UI
    – Tom
    Aug 12 '20 at 13:01
  • 1
    @Kaz You proved that musicians are as nerdy as programmers :D
    – klutt
    Aug 12 '20 at 20:33

I would suggest: continuous pitch instruments.

  • Interesting that it got a Wiki page! Personally I don't see any value to grouping said instruments, but if it is helpful here and there, why not use it. Aug 12 '20 at 12:52
  • @CarlWitthoft Well, it's a Category page, those are auto-generated on wikis anyhow. Aug 12 '20 at 20:45
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft would there not be value in grouping such instruments for a composer working on microtonal music?
    – kojiro
    Aug 13 '20 at 0:47
  • 1
    @kojiro Not really, as any wind or string instrument can be "bent" to produce microtones. Aug 13 '20 at 11:44

The expression technique of producing a continuous tone while smoothly varying the pitch from one note to another is called portamento.

If we use the term portamento instrument, it's clear we are referring to a variable-pitch instrument that fundamentally supports portamento playing.

  • 2
    But a skilled player can, in fact, perform a portamento on a fretted/keyed instrument like a guitar or trumpet or clarinet. Being able to portamento on a certain instrument doesn't indicate that it doesn't have fixed pitches. Aug 12 '20 at 20:54
  • @NuclearWang I would say that these instruments do not fundamentally support portamento. If an instrument fundamentally supports portamento it means that a complete neophyte picking it up for the first time can obtain the effect easily, and that it can be easily applied to all or almost all of the notes of any melody, including large intervals as much as an octave or more.
    – Kaz
    Aug 12 '20 at 22:38
  • @Kaz a complete neophyte can't produce the correct note or effect on pretty much any instrument. period. Aug 13 '20 at 11:45
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft There are tons of counterexamples. Anyone can hit a key on a piano and get a tone. Or blow into a harmonica. A toddler could blow into a slide whistle while moving the piston to produce a portamento from one pitch to another. That's what makes a slide whistle an example of an instrument which fundamentally supports portamento. You don't have to produce portamento in spite of the instrument's limitations; it is designed to produce it.
    – Kaz
    Aug 14 '20 at 21:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.