Just wondering if fretless stringed instruments like a violin or oud, by fretless does it imply that they are used mainly for melody? In contrast to an instrument like a guitar, that has frets, does it make it more suitable for harmony than the fretless ones?

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    Viola, cello, and contrabass viol are very popular fretless instruments that generally don’t play the melody. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 1:56
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    Why would that follow? Sure, frets may make it easier to stop multiple notes for playing chords. But by the same logic they would make it easier to stop single notes for playing melodies. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:21
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    Fretless basses - and double basses don't usually play melody.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:48
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    Yeah, it's a bit of a semantic point what's meant by “melody”. Perhaps you should change the question to say monophonic vs polyphonic rather than melody vs harmony. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 9:15

4 Answers 4


It is more difficult to play chords on fretless stringed instruments, largely because it is difficult to get accurate intonation when fingering more than two pitches on a fretless fingerboard. Bassists, violinists, and other strings players usually restrict their chordal offerings to double-stops.

But just because single note lines are easier to play than chords on fretless instruments does not mean that these instruments are used "mainly for melody." There is a whole world full of bass players in the rhythm section who are not playing melodies, but outlining harmonic backdrops for the melodies played by other instruments. And there is similarly a whole world of string section players providing harmonic backdrops for other instruments that carry the melody.

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    You say "restrict ... to double-stops". So are you contrasting double-stops to triple and quadruple stops? If so, then one major factor in why they are rare in string writing is that the instrument's strings are not in one plane, so that the bow can catch any two neighbouring strings while avoiding the others. This allows sustained bowed double-notes on any two neighbouring strings, but means that triple-notes must be broken.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:16
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    @RosieF -- triple stops can be plucked. I wasn't really contrasting with anything; intonation issues are a fundamental challenge for anyone trying to play triple or quadruple stops. My larger point was that playing chords is challenging on fretless instruments, but chords and harmony aren't the same thing.
    – user39614
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 6:26
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    This also applies to, say, a tuba. They too generally prefer to play only one tone at a time, but don't really get to play melody all that often.
    – Arthur
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 9:13
  • The difficulty is almost entirely flat vs. rounded fingerboard. Reasonably skilled players of bowed instruments can and do play long sequences of double-stops. Bowed or plucked, we're expected to play sequences of triple or quad-stops as well. Take a look at Peter and the Wolf for a well-known example. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:15
  • It is more difficult to play chords on fretless stringed instruments. ... define "more difficult". For the same instrument, fretted and fretless, perhaps; or trying to play guitar barre chords on a fretless arched fingerboard; but a reasonably skilled player will be able to play quite complex chords on their traditional instrument without having to think about it.
    – Rich
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 16:01

It is not an inflexible rule; for instance, the instruments viol family, which has frets, were used mainly for melody, while Bach wrote some (notoriously challenging to tune) pieces for solo violin with a lot of harmony. However, this correlation is worthy of note. The lack of frets on the violin and oud cries out for a melodic style with expressive microtonal embellishments (vibrato, etc.) The frets on the guitar, by contrast, limit melodic possibilities but ensure that chords are in tune even in awkward finger positions.

  • Of course, guitarists (especially electric) can use bending and sometimes a whammy bar to get easily as much vibrato and portamento as the unfretted strings. Then again, this gets even more difficult when playing polyphonically than on bowed fretless strings! Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 9:13
  • Not only bending is an option; most acoustic guitars have frets thick enough so you can do tiny vibrato by varying the pressure you put onto the string.
    – marstato
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:01
  • Not only bending and pressure are options - most electric guitars and basses have thin enough strings that makes it possible to play vibrato in the direction of the neck. Many guitarists also bend the entire neck; especially with open string chords; or on acoustics, applying pressure to the top around the bridge.
    – Rich
    Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 16:06

Just because they play one note at a time does not imply they cannot give harmonic structure to a passage.

In Pachelbel's canon in D you have a string quartet were you have the viola, first and second violins, taking turns to play the melody and the cellos providing the harmony. This coming from an ensemble with only fret-less stringed instruments.

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    ... and there's nothing stoppiing the harmony from being double-stops Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 15:16
  • Well, the cello gives the bass notes for the harmonies that happens with all the instruments playing. The lines in the violins and viola are created so they form harmonies when played together. Commented Jul 29, 2019 at 19:45

The common feature of fretless stringed instruments is that the player controls the intonation. It is possible to "bend" a note without bending a string--very expressive for melody, or play in a non-Western tuning. For example, ouds often play in the 17-note-per-octave Arabic tuning. However, fretless instruments differ from one another in other important ways.

Viola-family instruments have a curved bridge. This means a single instrument can play double-stops (intervals) but cannot easily play chords. But a section of violins or string quartet can certainly play chords. So it is difficult to generalize across fretless instruments--each has different capabilities.

Some fretless stringed instruments and playing techniques (e.g., the Japamese shamisen) are quite percussive. Harmony is the major organizing principle of Western classical music, but is little-used in Japanese traditional music.

Questions about "harmony" and "melody" are vague without more context: * Vertical harmony or sequential harmony? * Culture? * Tradition/Style? * Period? * Role (solo, self-accompaniment for voice, small ensemble, large ensemble)

The Western/European musical tradition tends to relegate rhythm to secondary importance, but this is by no means the case elsewhere. A "melody instrument" can also play a base line, an ostanado or a "riff")--and may be used that way in another culture.

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