Music Misconception: Fretless String Instruments Are More Difficult to Play Than Fretted String Instruments
One of the most common types of questions I encounter from people who are considering learning to play a string instrument involves a request to compare the difficulty of a list of instruments. For example, "Which is more difficult to play: the violin or guitar?" One of the most common answers to such questions that I see in forums is that the violin is more difficult to play because it does not have frets, and these answers often receive plenty of upvotes and affirmative comments.
First, even though it deviates from the topic of this article, I would like to state that the violin involves a greater level of skill that must be acquired before you can begin playing the sort of tunes beginners typically look forward to being able to play. That doesn't mean it requires more effort to play a violin well than it does to play a guitar well. The amount of effort is going to be related to an individual's strengths, weaknesses, and motivation. As a result, two musicians with different interests and experiences will have different, highly-subjective opinions when asked to rank the difficulty of instruments.
Now, to address the topic: frets are a matter of preference. They do not affect the difficulty of playing an instrument in a way that could be considered objective, and adding them to an instrument that is traditionally fretless could actually increase the difficulty for someone who is not accustomed to frets.
How Frets Work
The pitch a string produces when it vibrates is determined by its length, weight, and tension. Weight is, of course, a property of the string determined by the manufacturer, and tension is controlled by tuning. Musicians vary the length of a string by stopping them. On some instruments, like the violin, the string is stopped between the finger and the fingerboard. On other instruments, like the guitar, the finger or perhaps a tool, such as the noter used on a mountain dulcimer, is placed behind the fret at which the string is to be stopped, and it is contact with the fret, not the fretboard, that stops the string.The frets do not change how strings function, nor is the placement of the frets any less precise than the placement of the fingers on a fretless instrument.
The reason it is commonly assumed that string instruments with frets are easier to play is that the necessary precision is built into the instrument. The finger can be placed anywhere in the space between the frets without altering the pitch, so it is not necessary for the musician to touch the same place every time. There is a margin for error that does not exist on fretless instruments.
However, you cannot stop the music to count frets and make sure your fingers are in the correct place. On many instruments with frets, you are placing fingers on multiple strings and at different frets. You don't think of each of those fingers and their respective strings and frets individually. Instead, your hand learns to assume a given shape and placement on the neck for a given chord, and your brain becomes as efficient at placing the fingers for that chord as it is at stomping your foot. You know how that chord should feel without your conscious mind having to process how that chord is constructed, and repetition makes you better at and more comfortable with playing that chord.
We call this muscle memory. It is the same reason you can scratch your nose without looking in a mirror (perhaps before you realize you have an itch), tie your shoes faster than you can recite the steps involved in doing so, and stop your car without the word "brake" ever entering your mind. Our muscles repeat motions they have done before in response to the same signals, and over time we can do those things faster and on autopilot by shifting repeated tasks to a different part of the brain so the conscious mind can be occupied with something else.
The more a musician can commit to muscle memory, the more complex the musical tasks they can perform become. They can do different things with their hands and individual fingers, perhaps while also singing, dancing, or both.
If your string instrument does not have frets, you consciously learn the precise placement of your finger by taking advantage of how muscle memory develops. You place the finger repeatedly in the same spot while looking at the note on the page and listening to how it sounds, so your brain associates what you hear and see with what your finger feels. You learn to respond to what you see by immediately placing your finger where it should go. However, this process isn't actually any different on an instrument with frets. Just because you have a wider margin of error doesn't mean you actually need it. You are no more or less capable of developing muscle memory based on your choice of instrument.
How Do We Decide What is More Difficult, Anyway?
We tend to accept the notion that there is an objective ranking of the difficulty of various activities. Yet, we also know that each individual has his or her own set of strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and experiences. Does it make sense, then, that we can compare Activity A to Activity B when the fact that they are different activities implies the skill sets required to perform them will be different? Is it not more plausible that Person A who is more suited to Activity A will find it easier than Activity B, while Person B might find Activity B easier than Activity A?
Activity B could also be physically uncomfortable for Person A, which is going to affect how much effort they are willing to put into it. Someone with smaller hands might find the violin more comfortable than the guitar, while someone with larger hands might prefer the guitar (or maybe the cello) for opposite reasons. That doesn't mean that they aren't capable of learning to play the violin or that it would actually be more difficult for them if they were motivated to do it.
It might be that the reason we believe string instruments without frets, such as the violin family, are more difficult to learn is because people who play them tend to seek more formal training. Violinists are more likely to learn to read standard notation. Also, violin teachers tend to assign more preliminary exercises and delay introducing music the student might perform much longer than guitar teachers do. However, these things are about the respective traditions of learning to play each of these instruments, not the physical and mental requirements. The fact that the training takes longer does not mean it is objectively more difficult.
© 2017 Courtney Morgan