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So, I understand why classical strings (violins, cellos etc.) aren't fretted, because of the change this makes in the tone. I've often wondered though, why the note positions aren't marked on the neck anywhere.

Wouldn't notes relative to the open string be in the same place all the time? Wouldn't it be possible to start at a marked position and then adjust the pitch to match other instruments? Wouldn't even a chalked-on mark would make it easier to find notes?

Any clue why it's done the way it is?


Note the question is not “why don’t violins have frets?”

  • 12
    I drew chalk lines on a string bass when I was first learning. By the time they wore off I no longer needed them. :) – Tetsujin May 24 '18 at 10:59
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    Holding and playing a violin is a rather unergonomic stance as it is. Holding and playing a violin while straining your neck to see the position marks would be horrifyingly unergonomic. – Kilian Foth May 24 '18 at 13:46
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    @guidot fretless bass guitars are sometimes (not always) lined. Search for 'lined fretless'. – topo morto May 24 '18 at 15:22
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    You should try to play a note on a violin, you will realize that the precision of the finger placement needed for intonation makes visual aids useless - learning the hand position is unavoidable. – Maxim May 24 '18 at 19:58
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    @guidot even fretless basses without lines generally have inlays on the side of the neck that indicate the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th, 21st and 24th position. These are quite necessary to play most stuff, because you're usually far from both the nut and the neck joint (the main features that classical string players use for orientation). Incidentally, some double basses have such markers too, and they're not just a beginner's aid – even some virtuosic players like Paul Kowert have them. (I reckon they're rather shunned in classical music though...) – leftaroundabout May 24 '18 at 22:14

10 Answers 10

40

With many string instruments, it's seen as a bad thing to need to look at the fingerboard - often, it's desirable to be able to play the instrument by feel. This is essential if you're reading music at the same time, which in most classical contexts, you would be! Even in the pop/rock world it's often seen as better to be able to play by feel - many fretless bass guitars don't have fret markers either.

With violin and viola, the player's view of the fingerboard is very foreshortened, so it might be hard to pick out an exact position even if it were marked.

It's also hard using traditional construction methods to construct a fretless fingerboard with markers in a way that the markers don't interfere with the tone, and don't wear out easily. Inlays and paint both have their own problems.

It is quite common for teachers to put stickers on the fingerboard while a student is in the early stages of learning, as a means to the end of learning to play by feel.

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    Yep. It should also be mentioned that string instruments are (eventually) often played at speeds where visual aids to position are not going to help you because your fingers are moving too fast to benefit from visual feedback. A good violinist can play sixteen notes a second or faster, which is about the so-called "ballistic speed" for human fingers: they are moving faster than their positions can be reported to the brain via the nervous system (eyes or proprioception). If you want to play that fast, you have to have the positions by feel. – Scott Wallace May 24 '18 at 10:45
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    As an aside: I play rock guitar and it often astonishes me how fast classical violinists play arpeggios etc. I'd use van halen style tapping for that kind of speed, but they're fingering it directly. Amazing. – user2808054 May 24 '18 at 11:39
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    You could eliminate the word "string" in the first sentence and it would be just a true. Well.. I guess you'd have to adjust the word "fingerboard" also. A lot of instruments, you just can't see what your fingers are doing - it has to all be done by feel. I'm thinking flute and harmonica. One final note, there are cases where the intonation may be different from equal temperament, or microtonality is part of the piece. In those cases, markings would just get in the way. – Todd Wilcox May 24 '18 at 13:39
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    When my daughter started playing violin, I started as well, having played guitar for most of my life. We had stickers, but I very soon could play by tone and "feel", and stopped looking at the stickers. Even without frets, you just know where the notes are. The frets on a guitar allow you to play chords without getting your fingers exactly in the correct spot. – Guy Schalnat May 24 '18 at 14:30
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    @jjmusicnotes the question isn't about having frets, but purely visual lines or other markers (as per a lined fretless bass) - and the question already mentions that having such lines wouldn't prevent the player from having to make further adjustments. – topo morto May 25 '18 at 7:12
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FWIW, people who play piano, harp, and the lowly :-) trombone play largely by position-muscle-memory as well. I've never seen a trombone slide with position markings!

It may be of interest to know that string players do on occasion put a small pencil mark if they have to "jump" to a position very far up the fingerboard,i.e. a position that's not only unusual but the note in question is a large interval from the previous notes in the piece being played. That mark doesn't outlive the performance of said piece, obviously.

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    Wind instruments are "worst of both worlds" in this regard: you get neither the automatically correct intonation of fretted instruments and keyboards, nor the total freedom of fretless instruments. – dmbaturin May 24 '18 at 15:08
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    @dmbaturin dunno 'bout that -- I can bend most clarinet notes at least a half-step. – Carl Witthoft May 24 '18 at 19:04
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    @GuySchalnat that feels like a half-truth. You say it as if it’s possible to play a chromatic scale on a trombone without changing position, or on a bugle, at all. – AJFaraday May 24 '18 at 22:27
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    @AJFaraday- actually, you can do just that. Doesn't sound very good, but it's quite possible to override the resonant frequency of the length of pipe with control over your lips. It's easier to do with instruments of larger relative bore: on a cornett, you can finger a descending scale while playing an ascending scale. Not musically useful, but possible. – Scott Wallace May 25 '18 at 9:35
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    @PLL you should listen to trumpets in a swing band, or the obvious example of the clarinet intro to Rhapsody in Blue. – Carl Witthoft May 25 '18 at 12:33
5

While many of the answers already address issues such as the ergonomics of looking at the finger board and temperment (slight changes in pitch depending on the style of the music), there is also a practical reason:

The note produced depends on the length of the string - so ultimately also depends on the position of the bridge.

This can move (and does, especially on larger stringed instruments, especially when travelling/stored in a soft case) so changes the position required to generate precise intonation (albeit by very small amounts).

Also the height of the bridge has a small impact and these can be changed to suit the owner (this normally affects tone/volume but again changes the intonation by very small amounts).

However, it should be noted that these will only have very small changes (unless someone really knocks the bridge out of place (seen it..), which should be fixed before playing).

4

Notes are pretty close to one another and adjusted for temperament. Play happens relative to fixed positions in certain patterns rather than absolutely and the normal playing position for a violin does not make looking at the neck of the instrument a good idea or even feasible: at the angle you'd be looking, distinguishing finger positions visually would be far too inaccurate.

You have to use your ears.

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Actually in earlier times, classical instruments had frets too. The precursor of the violoncello was the viola da gamba (actually available in different sizes), which had frets. The same applies for the the baryton. Sure, it is easier with them - especially during learning phase, as long as the ear is not sufficiently trained.

But small pitch modifications are much more difficult, you are effectivly restricting the number of pitches to the differentiation of a keyboard, which prevents tweaking the minor third just the tiny little bit. Since they also affect sliding of the fingers, I guess the disadvantages were too many.

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    The question isn't about frets, but marks/indicators on the fingerboard. – S. Burt May 24 '18 at 13:29
  • @S.Burt: This was not visible, when I answered. With the edit I'm somewhat unsure, what the question is all about: A hard to see high precision marking is completely impractical. – guidot May 24 '18 at 15:01
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    Actually, the viola da gamba was not a predecessor of the cello: the violin family (including the cello) and the gamba family evolved in parallel. The main reason for the frets on the gamba is not to aid intonation, but to make it easier to play chords. – Scott Wallace May 24 '18 at 19:48
  • Sorry, I must have seen it post-edit. Removed my down-vote. – S. Burt May 24 '18 at 21:33
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    It was in the original question it’s made clear that I appreciate the value of a smooth fingerboard without fixed frets. And was asking why one wouldn’t visibly mark the note positions on it. – AJFaraday May 24 '18 at 22:33
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Actually, it's because the notes you need are NOT at fixed places. If you play by ear, you will move the notes around a bit. It's a good approximation to mark 12 equal temperament out. But when playing chords, the notes need to move around dynamically to form perfect chords.

If you play major third interval like G/B together on a guitar, you need to bend up G very slightly until the beating in the chord stops (or equivalently drop B slightly if you can). It similar for minor third interval A/C where you must slightly bend up C (or drop A slightly if you can). A semitone needs to be slightly widened. A tritone needs to be slightly narrowed. A chord like E/D needs to be slightly widened to form a correct sounding chord.

Analyzing this stuff is a complex topic, but if you watch a tuner closely, you can see that the adjustments are not random. They line up with harmonic locations on the strings.

2

Well one reason might be that that you do not look at the fingerboard much while you are playing. You learn where the notes are without being able to "see" them on the instrument.

This is not the case just in "classical instruments". Some older banjos were made without frets as are some folk instruments.

  • I suppose one could over-simplify any stringed instrument as being guitar-like, fiddle-like, harp-like or zither-like. Depending on how pitches are selected. – AJFaraday May 24 '18 at 22:30
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If you are using frets, you are creating a fixed tone which can't be altered - similar to a piano. Historically there were different ways to tune an instrument. Intonation like we know it today (well-tempered) changes some of the tones in a scale (especially the third and fifth.) This intonation makes it easier to change scales (i.e C-major to b-minor) and the chords still sound good to our ears. On an instrument that has no frets, you are able to adjust to the "correct" scale (make the 7 in a scale a little bit higher i.e.), while fixed keys won't be able to do so. I apologize for the laymen's terms, but I didn't want to be too scientific. More details (and a better explanation) can be found here.

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    There question isn't about frets, but marks/indicators on the fingerboard. – S. Burt May 24 '18 at 13:27
  • And those are called frets (at least so I learned.) But whatever we call them, meant are fixed points on a string instruments neck. – Dante777 Jul 27 at 0:45
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It's mainly a practical issue... by the time students learn the fingerings, it's not necessary to mark anything because they now have the positions locked into their muscle memory.

I learned to play a fretless electric bass (without learning a normal fretted base prior) and I was surprised how quickly my fingers knew the right place to reach.

-1

As Rob says correctly in the previous answer, the right positions are not fixed, but have to vary slightly depending on the context. The fixed keys of a piano with his usually equally tempered tune are only an approximation, trying to distribute equally the error for all possible musical scales. Otherwise, if you tune the piano exactly for one scale, for other scales the errors will be larger.

Singing or playing a string instrument are examples where it is expected from a good musician to hit the right note intuitively. Jazz singers are specially famous for singing far of the "official" note. And even pianists are expected to slightly influence the individual sounds, not just pressing a key like a robot.

There have even been experiments with pianos having twice as many keys.

  • "even pianists are expected to slightly influence the individual sounds" -- are you suggesting that pianists can make pitch adjustments when they play? – David Bowling May 25 '18 at 10:10
  • I’m talking about pitch, not dynamics or timbre. If a violinist is playing in equal temperament, they would not be expected (or at least, it’s not advisable) to vary the pitch. – AJFaraday May 25 '18 at 10:13
  • I remember reading in books for professionals, where the suggest this is possible. It is more complicated and very limited, but tehre is a lot of talk about how to press the keys. – karsten May 25 '18 at 10:17
  • The explanation being in MHO, that the spectrum of the produced sounds is influenced, e.g. when you hit a key hard or softly, and thus the ear hears differences. Also I remember a book where they point out that additional sounds contribute, which do not stem from the chord, but from the keyboard. – karsten May 25 '18 at 10:20
  • But still you will find musicians which devaluate the piano as an instrument which is very practical, but more appealing to less musical persons. – karsten May 25 '18 at 10:23

protected by topo morto May 25 '18 at 10:18

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