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Music Misconception: The Guitar Is a Newer, More "Modern" Instrument Than the Violin

Updated on August 23, 2017
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Courtney is a violin, viola, cello teacher, and professional violinist from Kansas City, MO. She has been playing the violin since 1992.

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I once stumbled upon a thread in a question and answer forum concerning a question I have answered here: Why do violins not have frets like guitars? Interestingly, some of the answers implied that the lack of frets on a violin makes it an outdated and obsolete and supposedly more difficult to play. One in particular incorrectly stated that the violin was much older than the guitar, and it was apparent that this individual believed the guitar to be a 20th Century invention. It is rather easy to confirm that the guitar has existed for longer than that, but as often happens on the internet, credibility is determined by consensus rather than by factual evidence, and the majority in this particular forum were clearly of the opinion that the violin was invented before frets and that frets were never added.

This is a misconception that I held myself, until I was about nine years old. I remember exactly how I learned that guitars were not just for contemporary music. It was while reading the American Girl books. Felicity plays guitar, and when her story begins, the year is 1774, which is a long time before the sort of music I associated with guitars. That led me to the encyclopedia, which is how I learned that guitars are a lot older than - well, nearly everything my nine-year-old mind could think of. Instruments closely resembling guitars existed in ancient Egypt. The guitar as we know it first appeared in medieval Europe, presumably from the Middle East, and its history before that is a bit sketchy, as is most of music history, but that makes it at least a few hundred years older than the violin.

So, if the guitar is so old, why do we not associate it with old music? It could have something to do with the fact that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the violin stole the show. Violinists played the melody and generally got more attention than other classical musicians, and if there is a solo part, it is often a violin solo. They are front and center in the orchestra (well, some of the center instruments are violas), so if you go to the symphony, you are looking at the string section, from any seat in the house. There are many classical pieces written for guitar, but they are often solos. If there is an orchestra, they usually just hang out behind the guitarist while he does his thing.

Often, the classical guitarist has a stage all to himself.

We usually see classical music performed more like this:

That has, understandably, shaped the popular understanding of what classical music is. The violin is so intertwined with our concept of classical music that we almost can't imagine one without the other. People who are generally unfamiliar with pre-20th Century music tend to lump all orchestra music together under the heading of "classical" without realizing that not all music played by orchestras is classical, nor is all classical music played by orchestras. It is easy to ignore the roles that instruments not typically used in the symphony played in the Classical period, and the Baroque and Romantic periods, for that matter. Some of the best-known composers played guitar (e.g. Paganini).

The way we learn to play the guitar compared to the way we learn to the violin has also contributed to this misconception. If you take violin lessons, they will probably be heavily if not entirely focused on classical music unless you specifically seek lessons in a different style. Many violin teachers actively discourage their students from playing anything that is not classical. With guitar lessons, it's the other way around. Guitar teachers are everywhere, but most of them do not teach and have never played classical guitar.

Violins are likewise not limited to "old" music. A lot of the background music in movies and video games is played by ensembles that include violins, and some of the sound effects are produced by violins. They are common in nearly every genre of contemporary music. It is also not true that frets were invented after the violin and never added to the violin.

© 2017 Courtney Morgan

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