This lesson focuses on the investigation of geometric sequences by
considering the placement of frets on a stringed instrument. A major
component of this lesson is the measurement of distances between frets,
and without correct measurements, the mathematics of the lesson will be
lost. It is imperative to stress the importance of accurate
measurements for this lesson, so you may wish to begin the lesson with
a discussion of precision and accuracy.
As a first step, display the Pre-Activity Questions from the first page of the Overheads.
Questions 2 and 3 are warm-up questions that allow students to review
some of the skills that will be needed for the lesson. Question 1,
however, will lead into a nice discussion about precision of measuring
During the activities, students will be required to measure
lengths on fretted musical instruments and calculate the ratios of
consecutive lengths. Although there are advantages to students making
their own decisions about which measurement system to use, a discussion
about precision and accuracy might be useful in helping students choose
a system so that their measurements are as accurate as possible and
their calculations are less tedious. In general, the metric system is
less tedious, less likely to result in measurement and calculation
errors, and is the more precise than most U.S. measuring tapes. (A
U.S. ruler with 1/16-inch precision, converted to metric, has precision
of 1.6 mm. Comparatively, a metric ruler typically has 1-mm precision.)
Display the second page of the Overheads (which shows three rulers with various levels of precision) and discuss the difference between accuracy and precision.
Students should understand that precision refers to the smallest unit
that a tool will measure, while accuracy refers to the range of
possible values that might be described by a particular measurement.
Precision is the smallest unit of a particular
measuring tool. The actual length could be as small as the measured
length minus one-half the precision of the measuring tape, or as long
as the measured length plus one-half the precision of the tape. For
instance, a correctly measured length of 4½" inches, measured with a
measuring tape with ½-inch precision, could have an actual length of
4½ ± ¼ , or anywhere between 4¼" and 4¾". If the same length were
measured as 115 mm, with a metric measuring tape of precision 1 mm (and
accuracy of 0.5 mm), the actual measurement could be anywhere
between 339.5 and 340.5 mm. The first two rulers below demonstrate
precision and accuracy within the U.S. system; the first has
¼‑inch precision, whereas the second has 1/16‑inch precision. The third
ruler is a metric ruler with 1‑mm precision.
Students may convert between metric and U.S. measurements to
determine which has greater precision; however, they might also
"eyeball" the markings to determine which has greater precision. If the
smallest marking on a U.S. tape is 1/8 inch, it is easy to see that
1 mm is the smaller measure, so the metric tape has greater precision.
If the smallest marking is 1/16 inch, students may have to convert
between metric and U.S. measurements to make the comparison. (However,
they can probably still see the difference—a millimeter is smaller than
Divide students into groups of four for the first activity, and distribute the To Fret Activity Sheet.
To Fret Activity Sheet
In this activity, students measure the distance from the bridge
to the nut and to each fret on an instrument. (See figure below.)
Two students can measure while the other students record information or
do calculations. Any instruments with frets will work, such as guitars,
ukuleles, and mandolins. Students should discover that the ratio of
consecutive lengths will be constant, regardless of the measuring
system or musical instrument. The ratio is approximately 0.94, meaning
that the distance from the (n + 1)st fret to the bridge is about 0.94 times the distance from the nth fret
to the bridge. Although measurements may differ from group to group,
the ratio should be the same for all groups. Slight variations will
occur due to measurement or calculation errors; other variations may
occur because of errors in the instrument itself, such as incorrect
bridge or fret placement.
After students complete the To Fret Activity Sheet, review the results as a class. Allow students to point out similarities and differences in what they found.
Rearrange students into new groups, and then distribute the Exact Ratio Activity Sheet. In the previous activity, students should have realized
that the ratio between lengths is approximately 0.94. For this
activity, students use the exact ratio of 2-1/12 to generate
a geometric sequence that gives the exact location of each fret. The
points of this geometric sequence can be approximated by an exponential
equation, and the y-intercept of the graph represents the scale length of the instrument.
Exact Ratio Activity Sheet
The last row of the table in Question 5 on the Exact Ratio Activity Sheet reveals an interesting occurrence. Using the exact
ratio, the value of the calculated length from the 12th fret to the
bridge is ar12 = a(2-1/12)12 = ½a,
meaning that the 12th fret occurs exactly halfway between the nut and
the bridge. A string played "open" (that is, played without pressing
any fret on the instrument) is exactly one octave lower than the same
string played while pressing just behind the 12th fret. A string played
open is twice as long as a string played when the 12th fret is pressed,
so the open string vibrates at half the speed. (It is this very
occurrence that explains why the exact ratio is 2-1/12.)
In the next lesson of this unit, Fretting, students will use what they’ve learned about the geometric sequence that occurs with frets to place frets on an instrument.
Questions for Students
1. Describe the difference between a geometric sequence of the form a, ar, ar2, ar3, ..., arn, ..., and an exponential curve of the form y = arx.
[A geometric sequence is discrete, whereas an exponential curve is continuous. The geometric sequence y = arn represents a discrete function where the values of n correspond with the frets on the instrument; in this case, the value of n is always an integer. The continuous function y = arx models the continuously changing string lengths on a fretless instrument as the musician’s finger slides up or down the string.]
2. For graphs of the form y = arx, explain what the y-intercept represents on a stringed instrument.
[The y-intercept represents the length of a string from nut to bridge.]
3. Discuss what factors contribute to the distances between frets not forming a perfect geometric sequence.
[The biggest issue is precision. Although an instrument maker may be very good, the ability to place the frets correctly depends on the precision of the measuring tool. If a measuring tool with 1/16-inch precision is used, the error on each fret could be up to 1/32 inch. After 12 frets, the combined error could be as much as 12 × 1/32 = 3/8 inch, which is significant.]
- Did students effectively compare differences and similarities between related geometric sequences and exponential functions?
- Were the high achievers challenged? Were the low achievers engaged?
- Were concepts presented too abstractly? Too concretely? How would you change them?
- What other content areas were integrate with the lesson? Was the integration successful?