Brief description

  • Name: (Violon)cello
  • Spelling
    • German: (Violon)Cello
    • French: violoncelle
    • Italian: violoncello
  • Classification: Chordophone, necked lute, stringed instrument. Tenor and bass instrument of the violin family (violin, viola, cello)
  • Head: Scroll and pegbox maple; 4 side-mounted pegs (ebony)
  • Neck: Length: 28 cm, fretless fingerboard made of ebony
  • Body: Length: approx. 75.5 cm, box form; Belly with F-shaped sound holes, back, ribs.
  • Strings: Length of the vibrating strings: 68-70 cm, 4 strings, tuned to intervals of a fifth. C2, G2, D3, A3. Material: gut, silver, copper, aluminum, steel, nylon.
  • Bow: Length: 71-73 cm. Bow stick made of Pernambuco wood; point, adjustable frog. Shorter and heavier than the violin bow.
  • Tail-pin: Steel
  • Total length: Approx. 125 cm
  • Mute: Comb-shaped device made of metal or maple which damps the vibration of the bridge.

The cello (violoncello) is the tenor and bass instrument of the violin family (violin, viola, cello).

In the 19th century the cello advanced along with the violin to become the most important bowed instrument for solo works. In the 20th century cellists began to specialize more, concentrating more on solo, chamber or orchestral playing.

It is constructed using the same components as the violin, the only difference being the larger size. The bow is about 2 cm shorter and a quarter as heavy again as the violin bow. Horsehair is stretched between the two ends of the bow, with rosin ensuring that the bow remains in contact with the string.

In terms of its history, construction and sound the cello belongs to the violin family. Nevertheless if differs from the violin and viola in two points: the playing position and fingering.

  1. Playing position: because of its size the cello is played in the upright position (like the viola da gamba). Nowadays the cellist places the instrument between his legs, where it rests on the floor on a tail-pin (spike). In the past the cellist would hold the instrument between his legs and pressed against his body, or rest it on a chair and play standing up. His left hand grasped the neck. This method of playing meant that only very simple bass figures could be played.
  2. Fingering: this changed in around 1740 when the thumb was “discovered” as a playing finger. The thumb position made it possible to reach the high positions, especially on the top string.


The proportions on a stringed instrument refer to its length, namely the ration between the distances from the top nut to the top edge of the belly (distance 1) and from the edge of the belly to the bridge (distance 2). The proportions are expressed in terms of the ratio of these two distances to one another. The sum of these two distances equals the length of the vibrating string. On the cello the distance from the top nut to the top edge of the belly is 28 cm, from the edge of the belly to the bridge 40-42 cm (string length = between 68-70 cm). The ratio (proportion) is therefore 7:10. On the violin the neck is 13 cm long, the belly 19.5 cm (string length = 32.5 cm). The proportions are thus 2:3.

The proportion proper (the scaling) of a stringed instrument is the length of its belly, i.e. the top plate of the body, which can vary considerably. Three-quarter cellos (body length 68 cm) or half-size cellos (body length approx. 56 cm) are made especially for children.


Linguistic misunderstandings

How the violone became a cello

The instruments belonging to the violin family developed from the viola da braccio between 1520 and 1550 in Upper Italy. The family included bass instruments from the very beginning; these came in various sizes and tunings and carried various names: basso di viola da braccio or basso da braccio (in Italy in 1600), basse de violon (in France), bass violin (in England) and groß Geigen and klein Geigen or polische Geigen in German-speaking countries in the 16th century. In 17th century Italy the term violone was widely adopted as the collective name for all large bowed instruments (it was formed from the root word viola and the suffix one, meaning “large viola”). At the beginning of the 17th century the term described the bass instruments of both the gamba family and the violin family. Only from the middle of the century was it applied solely to the bass instruments of the violin family.

The modern term violoncello appeared for the first time in the twelve trio sonatas op. 4 by the Italian composer Giulio Cesare Arresti from 1665, so at a time that the violoncello was, in fact, already in existence. The violoncello was originally also known as the violoncino. What both terms share is a linguistic paradox: a diminutive form (cello, cino) is added to an augmentative (violone = large viola). Violoncello literally means nothing more than “small large viola”. In spite of this paradox the Italian name was adopted throughout Europe from 1700 onward. In German-speaking countries the terms Bassett or Bassel were used here and there. It is therefore no wonder that following this chaotic linguistic development the euphonious abbreviation “cello” became the most common name in English and German-speaking countries.

The large bass and the small bass

In the first half of the 16th century, when the violin family evolved from the viola da braccio, instruments were built in three registers: treble (soprano), alto/tenor and bass. The first people to make cellos were the renowned violin makers Andrea Amati (1581-1632), Gasparo da Salò (1549-1609) and Paolo Maggini (1581-1632). With a body length of 80 cm their instruments were bigger than today’s standard instruments.

It seems likely that the violin family’s first bass instruments had not three but four strings. There are records of instruments in many tunings, two of which managed to gain wide acceptance over a longer period of time. The first of these was tuned to Bb1, F2, C3, G3 (a whole tone deeper than today), a tuning which remained common in France and England until the middle of the 18th century and was a continuation in the bass register of the tuning to fifth intervals of the violin and the viola. In this configuration all the strings of the bowed instruments were tuned to intervals of a fifth: E5, A4, D4, G3, C3, F2, Bb1. This tuning required relatively large instruments, which were used when the cello was the only bass instrument, having to cope without the support of the double-bass. However, due to the nature of the string ensemble a second type of tuning proved to be more convenient and the cello (bass instrument) was tuned to an octave below the viola (alto-tenor instrument). Thus the C2-G2-D3-A3 tuning evolved which is still used today and which may have been usual in German-speaking countries as early as the end of the 16th century.

In his Syntagma Musicum (1619) Michael Praetorius describes a very small instrument with the tuning F2, C3, G3, D4.

Before 1700 there were basically two different-sized instruments to which this tuning corresponded: the larger bass instrument had a body length of about 80 cm, and was 37 cm wide at the top, 47 cm wide at the bottom. The ribs were 11 cm to 13 cm high. The smaller bass instrument was about 74 cm long and correspondingly slimmer.

Not until metal-wound strings were invented did it become possible to make shorter instruments: the relative shortness of the strings was compensated for by greater volume, which ensured that none of the quality of the sound was lost.

The large instruments were often played standing up, or were hung over the shoulders (in processions). Due to their more powerful sound they served as ripieno instruments. The smaller instruments were used primarily for solo work.

One further characteristic of early cello-making should be mentioned: the so-called “cutting”, the reduction in size of large instruments to dimensions which have remained customary to the present day: the top and bottom of the body was cut off, shortening it, the upper and lower bouts were narrowed and the ribs made flatter. Not one of the instruments made before the middle of 17th century seems to have survived this rather gruesome-sounding hacking up of instruments, which lasted from about 1700-1710, in its original (i.e. large) condition. But this “measure” on the eve of standardization was destined not to be the last in the history of the cello.

Stradivari establishes the norm

Again it was the great Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) who set the standards. Whereas he too had made larger models (80 cm) prior to 1710 he settled thereafter on instruments with the following dimensions: body length 75-76 cm, 34-35 cm wide at the top and 44 cm wide at the bottom, with ribs 11.5 cm high. Later instrument makers adopted these measurements and proportions which are still used today.

These new measurements also paved the way for the development of solo techniques on the cello, of which Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) can be regarded as the most important proponent. A cello virtuoso and composer, he took playing techniques further, making more use of tremolo, harmonics, playing sul ponticello and extending melodic playing into the higher registers. Boccherini was one of the first to treat the cello not merely as a bass instrument but also as an equal status “voice” in its own right. He it was too who gave the 2nd violins and violas more melodic tasks, so he can be regarded as one of the pioneers of the typical classical four and five-part composition for strings.

The second “measure”

The social and political upheavals at the turn of the century (French Revolution) and technical innovations led to radical changes in musical life. The responsibility for organizing and financing musical events shifted from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie which led to change in the audience; concerts became a regular feature of society life, being staged in ever larger halls before an ever growing audience. The figure of the itinerant virtuoso emerged. This new situation resulted in an audible change in the type of sound that was required, the new sound being more powerful and brilliant.

To achieve this, the following alterations were made to the construction of all the members of the violin family, starting in around 1800: the bridge was raised and made thinner, to increase the pressure of the strings and thereby also the volume; the strings became thinner and were stretched more tautly, which made the sound clearer and improved response; the neck was set back at an angle; at the same time the neck and fingerboard were lengthened. To cope with the increased pressure of the strings on the table the bass bar and sound post were also reinforced.

Whereas the old instruments had a delicate and transparent timbre rich in overtones, the new ones sounded full and lustrous.

Even on the large, old cellos the vibrating string was about 2 cm shorter than strings on smaller instruments today, because of the lengthening of the neck mentioned above.

Since that time no further changes of this magnitude have been made to the instruments’ construction.

Special forms

At the beginning of the 18th century there was the so-called viola pomposa, an instrument with five strings tuned to C2-G2-D3-A3-E4. Although little is known about it, the instrument was probably played on the arm.

A second special form was the violoncello piccolo, which also had a fifth string (E4). It is possible that J. S. Bach wrote his 6th cello suite (BWV 1012) for this instrument, which was held between the legs.

The arpeggione, also known as the guitarre-violoncell, was a guitar-shaped instrument with elongated sound holes, six strings tuned as guitar strings (E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, E4) and 24 frets which was played like a cello. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote a famous sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano (D 821).


The cello is a non-transposing instrument notated mainly in bass clef. Because of its huge range tenor and treble clef are also used.

There are instances in 19th century orchestra literature (e.g., in Anton Bruckner) of transposing notation, the “treble clef at the octave”: in such cases the instrument sounds an octave lower than written.

Bowing notation (right hand)

As a rule many bowstrokes which come under staccato are not notated but played in the appropriate manner by the violinist. If the composer desires a particular kind of bowstroke he writes it into the score.

Melodic phrases which are to be played with a single stroke are linked by a phrasing slur. The change of bowing can occur on a single note.

Détaché / Detached
Non-legato technique, strokes alternately up and down without the bow being lifted from the string.

  1. Détaché or detached is often written explicitly into the score.
  2. Strong détaché is indicated by a dot above the note.
  3. The strongest détaché consists solely of downstrokes. The bow is lifted from the string after every stroke.

Hammered stroke (in Italian martellato = hammered).

Every stroke, whether up or down, is ended abruptly, the bow remaining on the string.

Sul tasto and sul ponticello
Because of the effect it has on timbre the place where the bow should make contact with the string is often written into the score. Sulla tastiera (or sul tasto, sur la touche meaning on the fingerboard), sul ponticello (on the bridge).

Most playing techniques are possible both sul ponticello and sulla tastiera.

Col legno (with the wood, French: avec le bois)
Hitting or bowing the string with the wood of the bow. The first technique produces a hammer effect and is used for repeated figures. The latter sounds cracked, rough and dry and is of indeterminate pitch.


Changing from pizzicato to arco
The change from bowed (arco) to plucked (pizzicato) and back is always written in full. (The part is to played pizzicato until arco is written).

“Bartók pizzicato” (“snap” pizzicato) The string is lifted with two fingers of the right hand so that it snaps back onto the fingerboard when let go. This produces a very resounding sound which is used for percussive effects. Notation: a circle with a tail pointing either upward or downward above each note.

Measured bowed tremolo
The repetition of a note with no accent or rhythm by means of very fast up and downstrokes at the point. The impression given is of a “trembling” sound, which is used especially for dramatic effect and tonal intensification. Double stops can also be played tremolo. The bow tremolo is usually measured, i.e. the number of strokes corresponds exactly to the notated division of the whole note value which determines the length of the tremolo. This kind of tremolo must be played in absolute synchronization by all the violinists. Freely playable tremolo also exists.

Tremolos have been part of the strings’ standard repertoire of effects since the beginning of the 19th century.

Unmeasured bowed tremolo

Behind the bridge
The string is bowed between the bridge and the string tuner.

An X is written on the staff at the pitch levels corresponding to the open strings which are to be played. The pitch heard is indeterminate, the different strings produce various pitches.

Notation for fingering (left hand)

Natural harmonic
There are three types of notation:

  • Pitch notation:
    A note with a small circle above it indicates where the string were to be fingered if the “normal” note were being played. It is in this way that the fingering is notated that corresponds to the actual harmonic sounded. It is left to the musician’s discretion which node he or she chooses. (Harmonics can be fingered at any one of their nodes.) The string is often indicated under the note too (e.g., sul G).

  • Finger notation:
    One of the possible fingerings (vibration nodes) is represented by a note in the form of a diamond. The fingering given is always the one that is easiest to perform (i.e. is nearest the nut). The sounding pitch of the harmonic cannot be ascertained from this notation.

  • Fingering and pitch
    Some composers add the sounding pitch in brackets above the finger notation.

Artificial harmonics
The finger that firmly presses the string is notated as a pitch with the desired note value. The finger that lies lightly on the string - generally a fourth above the stopping finger - is notated as an empty, “white” diamond, that is, they always look like whole notes, regardless of the real note value.

An audible slide of the finger along the string with accompanying change of position. The effect is of two notes being joined together in a suggestion of a glissando.

Con sordino
Con sordino (with mute) calls for the use of the mute, which is not to be removed until instructed to do so by the term senza sordino.

Triple and quadruple stops
Triple stops (three-part chords) and quadruple stops (four-part chords) are notated as chords and played as arpeggiated chords (each note in quick succession, from the lowest to the highest note). When playing four-part chords, the two lowest notes are played first, then the two highest.

Pizzicato with the left hand is indicated by a + above the note.

Finger tremolo
Two notes are played as a tremolo on the same string as follows: the finger in the lower position fingers the string and keeps it pressed down while the other finger quickly and repeatedly stops and releases a higher note. In contrast to the bow tremolo, when rapid up and downstrokes produce the tremolo effect, bowing here is smooth and even over the string. The result is a kind of trill.

Su una corda
The instruction to play a cantilena on a particular string (e.g., sul G). Su una corda means “on one string”.


The range of the cello: C2 - A5 (harmonic A7).

  • C string (C2-F3)
  • G string (G2-C4)
  • D string (D3-G4)
  • A string (A3-A5, A7)

Sound production

Sound is produced by moving the bow over the string or by plucking it with the right hand. Pitch alterations are achieved by pressing down the string with the fingertips of the left hand on the fingerboard. This shortens the vibrating portion of the string and raises the pitch.

The cello is held upright between the legs with the tail-pin resting on the ground. This position is so stable that no additional support is necessary from the left hand, all the fingers of which including the thumb are free for fingering.

The thumb position has been in widespread use since 1740, chiefly for the high positions of the A and D strings as well as for double stops (in octaves) and artificial harmonics.


Change of string and change of position

The cello has four strings tuned to intervals of a fifth: C2 (4th string), G2 (3rd string), D3 (2nd string), A3 (1st string). The strings are an octave lower than the viola’s. The bottom string is closest to the bowing hand.

In principle there is no difference between sound production on the cello and on the smaller bowed instruments. But because the strings are twice as long as the violin’s the distance between whole and half notes on the fingerboard is greater. The result is a special fingering system.

The fingering is chromatic: each finger plays a semitone, except the 1st and 2nd fingers, which can play whole notes even in the lowest positions. This means that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers each cover a chromatic degree, while the 1st and 2nd fingers can reach over a whole note. The widest interval that can be fingered on one string without changing positions is therefore a major third, occasionally even a fourth.

The fingering described above is valid up to the 6th position. The greatest differences in playing techniques compared to the smaller instruments are therefore between the 1st and 6th positions.

The thumb position is used from 7th position.

Up to 6th position the thumb can slide freely up and down the back of the neck. But from the 7th position the body prevents the thumb rising any higher, so it is used for fingering. From the 7th position diatonic fingering is used, as on the violin, since the distances are smaller.

From 8th to 14th position, only the A string is used. Without the use of the thumb position octave fingerings cannot be played by cellists with smaller hands.

Natural harmonics are played by touching the open string lightly with the finger at the desired point. These respond very well on the cello and are used up to the 8th partial. On the string they can be played up to the 16th partial.

Artificial harmonics are usually produced by touching the string at a fourth.

To improve the timbre high positions on the bottom strings are avoided. Articulation is nowadays achieved by energetic fingering (percussion).


The bow is held at the frog by all four fingers of the right hand. The thumb and middle finger are opposite each other. The pressure of the bow is regulated mainly by the forefinger. The wrist is the most active joint, the elbow and shoulder remain as still as possible.

The entire length of the bow must be held at right angles to the string. This produces the purest notes.

The bow is thicker at the frog than at the point. Short, rapid notes are generally played at the point. The speed of bowing must be altered to correspond to the pressure of the bow; a faster speed of bowing with higher bow pressure produces a louder sound.


All string players distinguish between two basic forms of bowstroke:

  • The upstroke, the stroke from the point to the frog. As a rule it is found on unaccented beats and has a crescendo tendency.
  • The downstroke, the stroke from the frog to the point. It is found on accented beats (the beginning of a measure, accent) and has a decrescendo tendency.

Playing Techniques (left hand)

Double stops

Two-part fingering on adjacent strings. The easiest double stops are those with an open string. The best sounds are achieved with intervals of a fourth, a fifth or a sixth. The widest interval on two adjacent strings is an octave, in solo literature an eleventh is played with the thumb position.

Triple stops

Three-part fingering. The easiest triple stops are those with three or two open strings. Triple stops containing one open string are relatively easy; in terms of intervals the same criteria apply as to double stops. Triple stops with three fingered strings are difficult to play.

Quadruple stops

Four-part fingering. The more open strings and the fewer different positions are involved, the easier it is to play quadruple stops. They are played as arpeggiated chords. In orchestral music quadruple stops played piano are usually performed divisi, if notated sforzando the two lower notes are played as double-stopped appoggiatura to the two higher notes.


Technically the same as a finger tremolo and ranges between a half note and a whole note. Musically speaking the trill is an embellishment rather than an effect. There are many different trills which are defined according to the beginning and conclusion of the trill movement.

Finger tremolo

Two notes are played as a tremolo on the same string as follows: the finger in the lower position fingers the string and keeps it pressed down while the other finger quickly and repeatedly stops and releases a higher note. In contrast to the bow tremolo, when rapid up and downstrokes produce the tremolo effect, bowing here is smooth and even over the string. The result is a kind of trill, which is usually played freely, i.e. the number of notes is not governed by the notated metric division of the note value; the notes should simply be played as quickly as possible. The most common interval is a third, but on the cello can also be played up to a fourth or, using the thumb position, up to a fifth.

Natural harmonics

A harmonic played on an open string. A finger touches the string very lightly at one of its nodes. Nodes are those places on the string at which its partial vibrations develop. As a result the entire string, and not just the fingered part, vibrates along several equal lengths. A partial sounds instead of the fundamental. On the cello, natural harmonics up to the 6th partial are generally called for (and in solo pieces, up to the 16th partial on the A string).

Artificial harmonics

Harmonic on a fingered string. The string is fingered by the forefinger while the little finger rests lightly on it a fourth higher. As with the natural harmonic this causes the vibrating part of the string to vibrate in four parts. The pitch that sounds is two octaves above the fingered note. This is the most common artificial harmonic. Every note from a particular pitch upward can therefore be produced as an artificial harmonic.


The musician transfers the vibrations of the left hand onto the string. The result is fluctuating pitch and loudness. The vibrato depends on the extent of these fluctuations and the speed. Vibrato can be produced by movement of the finger, hand or arm or a combination of these. Exactly how it develops depends on the position and playing technique. Vibrato playing helps to achieve greater expression.

It was not until the 19th century that it became widespread; early music was probably played for the most part without vibrato. The technique only found its way into orchestral playing in the 20th century.


An audible slide of the finger along the string with accompanying change of position. The effect is of two notes being joined together in a suggestion of a glissando. Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) made frequent use of this means of expression in his symphonies.


Finger pizzicato

The left hand touches a string and plucks it. The plucked note is usually accompanied by bowed notes on strings which are not being played pizzicato. “Normal” pizzicato is performed by the right hand.

Con sordino

(with mute)

The mute reduces the number of higher partials, making the sound considerably quieter, darker and thinner.


Changing the strings’ tuning is done to increase the range in the low register, to make certain keys easier to play and to alter the timbre.

Playing Techniques (right hand)


Non-legato technique, bowstrokes alternately up and down without the bow leaving the string. Articulation of individual notes, clearly separated from neighboring notes. The bow changes direction on each note.


Accentuated détaché. Hammered bowing (in Italian martellato = hammered).

Every stroke, whether up or down, is ended abruptly, the bow remaining on the string. The result is a hard sound, like a hammer-on, with brief pauses between. Short, individual strokes are usually performed at the point.

Sul ponticello

(at the bridge)
The bow makes contact with the string near the bridge.

The nearer the bridge the string is bowed the greater the volume. The timbre becomes brighter but at the same time glassy, shrill, eerie, pale and thin. The number of partials increases. The technique is used as a tremolo to produce eerie effects.

Sul tasto

(on the fingerboard)
The bow makes contact with the string near the fingerboard.

The nearer the fingerboard the string is bowed the weaker and softer the sound. The number of partials decreases. The effect is a muffled and flute-like sound (the technique is often also called flautando ).

Most playing techniques are possible both sul ponticello and sulla tastiera.

Legato stroke by stroke

Each note is played by one stroke. The direction of the bow is changed quickly and imperceptibly, the bow remaining on the string. The technique is not indicated by a slur.

Legato on a single stroke

A group of notes is played with a single stroke so that one note flows into the next without a break. This technique is always indicated by a slur.


(heavy legato)
Several notes are played with one stroke.

Although there are slight breaks between the notes the impression of legato remains. Applies to repeated notes or notes with the same value.


(related to louré)
Several notes on the same stroke, each one being slightly accented and sustained to its full value.

The impression created is one of non legato. This technique applies mainly to repeated notes or notes with the same value such as scales.


Plucking of the strings with the right hand. This technique originated on the lute in the 16th century and is applied to chords as well as single notes.

“Bartók" pizzicato (“snap” pizzicato)
The string is lifted with two fingers of the right hand so that it snaps back onto the fingerboard when let go. This produces a very resounding and percussive sound.


A series of short strokes in the course of one whole stroke, usually an upstroke.

Strong staccato: As with martelé playing the bowstroke is in one direction only, the bow coming to rest on the string between each partial stroke.

Flying staccato: The bow is lifted from the string between the notes.


Leaping staccato, produced by beginning a new bowstroke for every note (as with détaché playing one up and downstroke per note). The leaping effect results from the elasticity of the bow, which swings to and fro and is controlled by the right hand.

Spiccato is indicated by a staccato dot over each note. No slur.


A rapid and light spiccato, which is uncontrolled.

The bow can bounce two to three times, resulting in short groups of repeated notes (typical in chords as an accompaniment figure). The technique consists of two to three short up and downstrokes in virtually the same place and can only be performed piano or mezzopiano.

Notation: a tie with dots above the note or staccato dots only. The bow is at its most elastic in the middle. Many piano or pianissimo staccato effects are in fact performed sautillé in the orchestra.


Thrown, several saltato leaps on one stroke.

The bow does not fall on the string with the force of its own weight but is thrown onto it so that the leaping effect continues in the same direction. Following its first impact on the strings the bow performs a precise number of leaps, usually three or four. Groups of three or four notes can therefore be played before the bow has to be thrown again. As far as p and mf. Possible on both the upstroke and the downstroke.

Bow tremolo

(bow vibrato)
The repetition of a note with no accent or rhythm by means of very fast up and downstrokes at the point. The impression given is of a “trembling” sound, which is used especially for dramatic effect and tonal intensification. Double stops can also be played tremolo. The bow tremolo is usually measured, i.e. the number of strokes corresponds exactly to the notated division of the whole note value which determines the length of the tremolo. This kind of tremolo must be played in absolute synchronization by all the violinists. Freely playable tremolo also exists.

Tremolos have been part of the strings’ standard repertoire of effects since the beginning of the 19th century.


Sustaining of a note given its full value.

Sound characteristics

Mellow, warm, sonorous, full, clear, brilliant, vibrant, singing, bright, lustrous, stately, lyrical, cantabile, thick, weighty, powerful, silky, lively, incisive, eloquent, transcendental, supernatural, sensuous, calm, round, pure, muffled, dark, open, sustaining, solemn, wafting, gentle, sweet, veiled.

The cello possesses a wide variety of differing tone colors and means of expression, ranging from the calm and solemn in the lower register to bursts of passion in the uppermost register. Its underlying character has often been compared with the male voice. The transition between registers is smooth, although it cannot be denied that the individual strings have their own character, as they do on the violin and viola too.

Basically, the cello is something of a split personality; one the hand it plays the part of the solid, reliable bass instrument; on the other hand it aspires to the passion of a heroic tenor.

Sound characteristics of the individual strings

Dark, stately, reedy, warm (the bottom three strings).

  • C string (C2-F3)
    This string sounds weighty, dark, powerful. Its darkly powerful sound makes it highly suitable for performing a sonorous fundamental bass.

  • G string (G2-C4)
    This string lacks the power and sustaining quality of the bottom string and is used to carry the bass voice. Suited to softer tonal effects. Resonant pizzicato on the C and G strings.

  • D string (D3-G4)
    The D string is often described as the most musical and soulful and without doubt has the most pleasing sound. Used to play soft, silky, intimate, warm and lyrical cantilenas. Its weighty clarity is virtually unsurpassed.

  • A string (A3-A5, A7)
    This string has a bright, penetrating, shrill, incisive and dominant sound.

Sound Combinations

All stringed instruments form a group with a homogeneous overall sound and perform tasks ranging from the subtlest tonal effects to the most eloquent reinforcements of sound and from the greatest possible tonal compactness to the greatest possible diversity. The stringed instruments are the most homogeneous of all groups in the symphony orchestra. Since Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) the strings have been the heart of the orchestra.

The same playing techniques can be played on the cello as on the other, higher-pitched bowed instruments, but in a lower register (tenor, bass). In the orchestra its tasks range from performing the bass part to expansive melody lines in the tenor register. In works of the classical period it forms a familiar sound pattern by playing in octaves with the double-bass.

String sections
String sections in large orchestras are composed as follows:

  • 1st violins: 16
  • 2nd violins: 14
  • Violas: 12
  • Cellos: 10
  • Double-basses: 8.

In late romantic works - R. Wagner, G. Mahler, R. Strauss - and 20th century pieces the strings are divided into a large number of parts (divisi ).

Cello + string orchestra

The cello section

The sound of the cello section achieves an intensity which is characterized by firm substance which serves in the lower register as a bass foundation as well as in the middle register for cantilenas. The cello has a particularly good blend with all the other instruments in the orchestra.

Cello + violin

The full sound is dominated by the cellos. In octaves an expansive effect is produced for cantilenas in the tenor register. This combination must be treated judiciously since the greater volume of the cellos can drown the violins.

Cello + viola

The cello sounds more powerful and more intense. Played together the two instruments produce a full sound which is dominated by the cellos. In the upper register the viola takes away some of the cello’s brightness and the sound becomes more mellow. In the highest register the bright elements reinforce each other. In octaves an expansive and harmonious effect is produced for cantilenas in the tenor register.

Cello + double-bass

Cellos playing in octaves with double-basses is a “classic” combination. The bass voice in octaves it produces has the great virtue of retaining its credibility as a sustaining bass even at low volume; in other words it forms a bass foundation that always allows the other instruments to the fore. The bright sound of the cellos combines well with the relatively dull sound of the double-basses. Playing both instruments pizzicato produces a particularly resonant effect.

Cello + harp

The pizzicato blends well with the harp.

Cello + woodwinds

There is a great affinity between the strings and the woodwinds. Generally speaking woodwinds provide the strings with more volume and power, while the strings make the woodwinds more mellow, especially when playing in unison. If the strings are playing with a single woodwind instrument in different registers the latter can assert itself.

Cello + oboe

The oboe accentuates the bright and clear properties of the cello’s sound and its vibrato. The resulting sound is very sharply defined.

Cello + clarinet

The clarinet makes the cello sound mellower.

Cello + bassoon

The bassoon accentuates the cello’s sonority, especially in the bass.

Cello + brass instruments

Cello + horn

The combination of cellos and horns played piano is particularly pleasing. As a rule a better tonal blend is achieved with the woodwinds.
The blend is strongly influenced by the playing technique employed by the strings (pizzicato, col legno). The use of the mute on brass instruments makes them sound similar to the strings and improves the blend. If the two groups are joined by the woodwinds, particularly the clarinets, the blend between strings and woodwinds is improved.

Repertoire (selection)

Cello solo

  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    • 6 suites for cello solo BWV 1007-1012 (1720)
  • Max Reger

    • 3 suites op. 131c (1915)
  • Henry Cowell

    • For Unaccompanied Cello (1919)
  • Hans Werner Henze

    • Serenade (1949)
  • Gunther Schuller

    • Fantasy op. 19 (1951)
  • Benjamin Britten

    • 1st suite op. 72 (1964), 2nd suite op. 80 (1967), 3rd suite op. 87 (1972)
  • Sofia Gubaidulina

    • Ten Preludes (1974)
  • Luciano Berio

    • Le mots sont allĂ©s (1978)
  • Beat Furrer

    • Frau Nachtigall for cello solo (1982)

Chamber music

  • Joseph Haydn

    • 83 string quartets, among them the Russian quartets (op. 33 Hob.III: 37-42), (1781)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    • Prussian quartets K. 575, 589, 590
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    • sonatas for cello and piano op. 5 (1796)
    • sonata for cello and piano A-major op. 69 (1808)
  • Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

    • sonatas for cello and piano op. 45, op. 58
  • Johannes Brahms

    • sonatas for cello and piano e-minor op. 38 (1865) and F-major op. 99 (1886)
  • Edward Grieg

    • sonata for cello and piano op. 36
  • Gabriel FaurĂ©

    • Elegie c-minor op. 24
  • Claude Debussy

    • sonata for cello and piano
  • Dmitri Shostakovitch

    • sonata op. 40 (1934)
  • Alfred Schnittke

    • sonata (1978)

Cello concertos

  • Joseph Haydn

    • 2 concertos for cello and orchestra C-major and D-major Hob.VIIb:1, VIIb:2
  • Luigi Boccherini

    • 10 concertos for cello and orchestra
  • Robert Schumann

    • concerto a-minor op.129 (1850)
  • Camille Saint-SaĂ«ns

    • concerto for cello and orchestra op. 33, op.119
  • Edouard Lalo

    • concerto for cello and orchestra d-minor (1876)
  • Johannes Brahms

    • double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra (1887)
  • AntonĂ­n Dvořák

    • concerto for cello and orchestra b-minor op. 104 (1895)
  • Aram Khatchaturian

    • concerto-rhapsody (1963)
  • Dmitri Shostakovitch

    • concertos for cello and orchestra op. 107 (1959) and op. 126 (1966)
  • György Ligeti

    • concerto for cello and orchestra (1966)
  • Witold LutosĹ‚awski

    • concerto for cello and orchestra (1970)
  • Alfred Schnittke

    • concerto for cello and orchestra (1986)

Strings in the orchestra, string orchestra

  • Antonio Vivaldi

    • concertos, Le quattro stagioni (The four Seasons) op.8
  • Georg Friedrich Händel

    • Concerti grossi
  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    • suites for strings
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    • Eine kleine Nachtmusik for strings
  • Piotr I. Tchaikovsky

    • string serenade (1880)
  • Edvard Grieg

    • Peer Gynt suites op. 46 (1888) and op. 55 (1891)
    • From Holberg´s time op. 40 (1885)
  • Samuel Barber

    • Adagio for strings (1936/38)
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams

    • Fantasy on a theme by Thomas Tallis
  • BĂ©la BartĂłk

    • Divertimento for string orchestra Sz 113 / BB 118 (1940)
    • Music for stringed instruments, percussion, and celesta Sz 106 / BB 114 (1937)
  • Witold LutosĹ‚awski

    • Musique funèbre (Funeral music for BartĂłk) for strings (1958)
  • Alfred Schnittke

    • Concerto grosso Nr.1 (1977)
    • sonata
  • György Ligeti

    • Ramifications for 2 string orchestras