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Looking at our stringed instruments, as well as the piano, they all start with the bass notes on the left side and move to the treble side, on the right.

Edit: What is the reason for that? Couldn't we just as well reverse them and put the treble on the left and the bass on the right? Is there a common reason for so many instruments going from left to right, or does each family have particular reasons?

Does this have something to do with the way we use our hands when we play?

Is it because western languages are read from left to right and the bass side is considered the starting point because it is lower in frequency? (I believe that oriental instruments also are set up the same way, although in that part of the world people do not usually read their languages from left to right.)

Edit: Perhaps a bit more difficult than those is the harmonica, which also goes left->right | bass -> treble, yet we only have one mouth. Besides, in our heads left and right are reversed. If you are right handed, you are 'left eyed' and 'left mouthed' (if there is such a thing): It is more difficult for right handed person to wink with their right eye than with their left. Things get reversed in the spinal cord.

Note: I'm leaving brass and woodwinds out of the discussion because there are often physical considerations that mandate they be constructed in a particular way: The treble end is on top at the narrow end, the bass end is at the bottom on wider end. But perhaps the layout of the valves and slides on such instruments is also relevant...

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    Great question! Possibly the (usually) more intricate parts are found in treble, and as ~85% of the world is right-handed, that part is better on the right. – Tim Feb 17 '18 at 8:47
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    Note that a drum kit set up in the most popular way for a right handed drummer is a notable exception. The highest toms are on the left. I think that also applies to multi-drum marching band rigs, like "quads". – Todd Wilcox Feb 17 '18 at 13:01
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    @ToddWilcox - mostly because right-handed drummers tend to lead with the r.h., and rolls/fills on multiple drums sound better (or have become the norm) high to low. – Tim Feb 17 '18 at 13:14
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    Even the humble recorder needs more to be done with the right hand. – Tim Feb 17 '18 at 17:43
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    In a drum kit, snare drum is to the left, floor tom-tom is to the right. So, when playing a tom-tom fill 'round the kit, it makes sense to start high in the left of the rack, end up low on the floor to the right. You could reverse the whole thing if you wanted to. Woodwind instruments SORT of have 'high notes at the top' Brass ones don't. – Laurence Payne Feb 18 '18 at 12:13
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Keyboard instruments are generally played with a more complex treble side than the bass side, and since most people are right handed it makes sense to give it the more complex part. This has been true for a long time I imagine, from ancient lyres and harps mainly. Technically those can be played with either hand leading, and when resting it on the left shoulder the strings read low to high from left to right.

For necked string instruments like the lute, guitar, and violin it makes more sense to use the left hand to stop strings since the rhythm played by the right hand is more complex. You can easily hold certain strings stopped and continuouly pluck or bow them. Bowing is especially important to violin playing, it's the voice of the instrument. Reaching across the whole neck provides a more stable grip in general that facilitates better bass string fingering, whereas the thin treble string doesn't need as much neck or finger to play. This is why the cello and contrabass have the same string sequence despite being the opposite order (low string on right). Plucking a chord tends to sound better when strummed low to high, and downpicks are more powerful. Makes it obvious.

For woodwinds, the all of them are played with left hand on top and right on bottom, which is also technically the opposite (right hand plays lower notes). Generally this is because the right hand moves more, since the left hand always has to hold the top closed to play the bottom. The break between octaves is also handled by the right hand, which is a pretty trick part of woodwind playing.

For brass they're all played primarily by the right hand and their valves are arranged in whole, half, and whole+half additive tubing for 1-2-3. That tends to put low on the right except on horn, because again, the right hand does a more complex action in the bell.

All in all it comes down to how people use their hands. The left is better at larger, more general movements while the right hand is better at more precise control, at least for the majority of people.

  • Great answer, even though you didn't cover the harmonica... :) The left is better at larger, more general movements while the right hand is better at more precise control - that's pretty much what it came down to for me. I'm a righty - my left hand has more strength but less precision - whether in baseball or in playing bass. – Stinkfoot Feb 18 '18 at 19:58
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    Yeah, if you look at a lot of forms of work that require both hands that tends to be the rule, like using a hammer with the right while the left simply holds a nail. Gotta aim that hammer. As far as the harmonica goes, it's probably following keyboard convention since it's more or less set up like one with chords. I don't see why you couldn't flip it over though, haha. – Tama Feb 19 '18 at 9:27
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I think you are not as much talking about "stringed" instruments rather than keyboard instruments here since instruments like guitar and violin don't have a low/high division of the left/right hand but a fingering/sounding division.

The inherent complexity of the melody side calls for the more dexterous hand. Taking a look at instruments with separate hand action, there is, for example, the accordion. Here particularly the accompanying action is simpler: the renowned chromatic button accordionist Rudolf Würthner changed his instrument's orientation to upside down when he lost several fingers on his right hand so that he could work the melody side (now to his left) with a five-fingered hand.

Now on a piano the playing action is not inherently simpler for lower notes given equally written parts, but parts aren't equally written: lower notes register slower and have more harmonic function than higher notes: for that reason they are usually changed at a lower rate, their articulation is less critical to hearing than for the higher notes, and they lend themselves less to chording since chords easily sound muddy in the low range.

Now if we take a look at actually separate left and right hand manuals, for right-handed play the left-to-right arrangement still makes sense because of the thumb's separate disposition making it uniquely suited for holding lower notes while the other fingers indulge in higher ornaments: when spreading out the hand, it's basically thumb vs the rest.

Indeed that observation allows us to close the circle by looking at picked instruments again where the strings are arranged in a manner where the right thumb is primarily focused with dealing with bass strings. That is not as much a left/right separation as it is accommodating the subdivision of the dominant right hand.

  • What about looking as brass instruments like the french horn, trumpet, tuba and trombone too? – marcellothearcane Feb 17 '18 at 13:28
  • You answers reflects one that I'm thinking about myself. instruments like guitar and violin don't have a low/high division of the left/right hand - I am talking just as much about guitar and violin. The question is not right hand and left hand, the question is left side and right side. What could be is that the reason for keyboards is different than the reason for violin and lute family instruments. – Stinkfoot Feb 17 '18 at 22:22
  • See my comment on Tim's comment on the question: That seems... Also see edits to the question. – Stinkfoot Feb 17 '18 at 22:44
  • @marcellothearcane - I excluded those. See note at the end of the question. But perhaps nonetheless they are in the conversation... because of the layout of the values and slides. – Stinkfoot Feb 17 '18 at 22:47
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Perhaps factors such as more people are right handed and therefore have better dexterity in the right hand for playing melody lines as opposed the rhythm parts and bass lines on a keyboard. However as a musician develops and improves, I would not expect this to be such and issue. Perhaps some one will develop a digital program for synth that will flip the whole thing over, and we can start playing our music the other way.

  • See my comment on Tim's comment on the question: That seems... Also see edits to the question. – Stinkfoot Feb 17 '18 at 22:44
  • On stringed instruments the location of the lower pitched notes are determined by the length of the string, the longer the string, the lower the pitch. Such instruments can be found for left or right hand, and therefore the low notes may either be right or left side. Then again, they're strung low - top to high - bottom either way. That may be construed as version of left to right in a round about way. – skinny peacock Feb 18 '18 at 2:07
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    On my stringed instruments - guitars, basses, banjos, mandolin and violin, all the strings are pretty well the same length. As are those on viola, cello, double bass... Only the piano and harp have different length strings. – Tim Feb 18 '18 at 8:15
  • @Tim Banjos have one half-length string, and are tuned high-low then progressively higher (similar to ukulele tuning) – marcellothearcane Feb 18 '18 at 9:44
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    @marcellothearcane - true about the banjo string, I'd forgotten! However, my point was possibly made. – Tim Feb 18 '18 at 13:00
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My idea: The hurdy-gurdy dates from the 11th century and had something similar to keys. Since the crank had to be on the wider side of the instrument (more useful on the right side for right-handers), the tangents connected to the keys established that sequence.

Update: The mosaic of the hydraulis 2nd century already shows todays scheme (longer pipes/deeper pitches on the left seen from the player), so hurdy-gurdy theory seems wrong.

But there seems a tendency to increase (on the keyboard: the frequency) to the right hand side, which is quite universal (at least in Western world): Did you ever encounter a ruler, where the zero is on the right hand side?

  • Are you saying that it began with the hurdy-gurdy? AFAIK it was mostly used in street music,etc - hard to believe it provided the model for "high profile" instruments. I also believe we have instruments that pre-date the hurdy-gurdy - lutes for example - that use the pattern of bass on the left. Perhaps that's not what you mean. Care to elaborate? – Stinkfoot Feb 19 '18 at 8:31

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