Large, low and at times difficult to carry, the cello and the double bass have a lot in common. Sometimes referred to as fiddles after their soprano-pitched cousin, the violin, these instruments are important elements of orchestras and contemporary bands. Despite their similarities, the two instruments have much to separate them.
Size and Playing Posture
The most obvious distinction between the cello and the double bass is their sizes. While the cello is a large instrument compared to a violin or viola, it's nowhere near as large as a string bass, which is roughly double the size of a cello. Because of its large size, the bass is played standing up or seated on a high stool. The cello is easier to manage and is played seated with the instrument between the musician's legs.
The cello has a range from the C bellow the bass clef to C above the treble clef, encompassing the full range of the human voice. The bass, however, sounds an octave lower than the written note and has a range from C an octave below the bass clef to the G on the second line of the treble clef. Despite this overlap in range, the two instruments rarely play closely with one another. The high range of the bass is rarely used, while cellists are often called on to play the full range of their instruments.
Use and Purpose in Orchestration
Typically, an orchestra contains both a cello section and a double bass section. The most common use of a double bass is to hold down the lowest note of the chord framing the melody, while the cello is used as a low melodic counterpoint to the high notes of the violin, flute, trumpet and other instruments. In simple terms, this means the bass usually plays few notes slowly and very little melody, where the cello plays many notes quickly to harmonize or even take over the melody.
Strings and Bows
As a large instrument, the bass has correspondingly large strings. The strings measure 55 inches long, while a cello's strings are about 28 inches. The larger, heavier strings of the bass are also considerably wider in diameter, calling for a larger, stronger bow with which to play them. The larger bow also is well suited to the playing style required of the bassist, while the light cello bow, which has more in common than a violin bow, can be wielded with easy dexterity.
- MTI Research Centre: Bass -- Range
- MTI Research Centre: Cello -- Range
- Lutherie Information Website; "Bass String Length Data"; Liutaio Mottola
- "Orchestration"; Cecile Forsyth; 1982
- PhotoObjects.net/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images