Meend Your Manners – What Fretless Guitars Can Do For Your Phrasing

I recently began reading Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu* (a book recommended to us by Dan Stearns) and I ran across a good section called “Between the Notes” in which the author describes the musical journey between the notes – a practice in North Indian music called meend.

Mathieu identifies four types of meend:

His discussion says a lot about our rationalized, Western impulses and, from my perspective, makes a good case for the virtues of fretless guitar. As Mathieu says:

“People who read music, especially keyboard players, are conditioned to suppose that music consists of a series of points in space, and that to make a melody we proceed directly from point to point. This model has something in common with the kid’s comic-page game of Connect the Dots: You connect numbered dots with straight lines to produce an image. The straight lines themselves have no shape; only what they connect has shape. In the sounds produced by keyboards, keyed woodwinds, fretboards, and valved brass, the fixed-pitch model engendered by our notation is carried forward into a culture of Connect- the-Dots music.”

“Most of the rest of the world’s music neither proceeds from nor is communicated by notation – at least not a notation as sophisticated as ours. Rather, it passes aurally from musician to musician, parent to child, mouth to mouth, heart to heart. The tones of such music are not so much dots as they are shapes in and of themselves, impatiently alive and wriggling. They are drawn with a wide palette of curves and angles and textures in thin and bold strokes, and the meaning of the music is given at least as much by these shapes as by the dots they connect.”

“Furthermore, if we perceive the tones of a melody as their harmonic essences, as states of resonance, then the shapings of the notes become journeys from one feeling state to another. The ride becomes as important as the destination. Since, in just intonation, the destination is a discrete absolute, the singer can continuously contrast the fleeting adventures of the journey with the certainty of the outcome. This lends even ‘simple’ melodies a dramatic, emotionally redolent context that becomes the through line of the music, the plot of the story. As Pandit Pran Nath used to say, ‘The music is between the notes’” (1997, p. 91).

* Mathieu, W. A. 1997. Harmonic Experience. Inner Traditions: Rochester, Vermont.