With the Cello being our main instrument it seemed only right to share a little information about the instrument that many regard as the most sonorous within the string family.
Interestingly, a significant homage to this expressive string instrument comes from the world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin: “The cello touches our feelings on a deep, unfathomable level”. That alone is reason enough to dedicate an entire blog article to informing you about this big sister of the violin and viola. ️
The earliest cellos were developed during the 16th century and frequently were made with five strings. They served mainly to reinforce the bass line in ensembles. Only during the 17th and 18th centuries did the cello replace the bass viola da gamba as a solo instrument. During the 17th century the combination of cello and harpsichord for basso continuo parts became standard. Joseph Haydn, Mozart, and later composers gave increased prominence to the cello in instrumental ensembles.
Perhaps more than any other instrument the cello sound can create a melancholy mood. Its deep tenor voice can be further enhanced by a broad vibrato which on other instruments might sound ridiculous. With its particularly wide range and powerful sound it can one minute be playing a bass line and the next a melody that is high enough for the rest of the orchestra to move underneath. Another of its useful qualities is its clarity of attack, which enables it to play crisp architectural shapes as well as driving rhythmic patterns and makes the cello a key component of the orchestra’s ‘engine room’.
At the simplest level, you can divide the cello into three main parts.
- The body: The body of a cello contains the top of the cello (usually made of spruce), the back of the cello (usually made of maple), and the ribs (also usually made of maple). F-holes are carved into the top of the cello. The body of the instrument also houses various components like the bass bar, sound post, end pin, bridge, and tailpiece.
- The neck: The neck of the cello extends upward from the body. The key feature of the neck is the fingerboard, where a player presses down on strings to create precise pitches.
- The peghead: The peghead is found at the top of the neck. It contains tuning pegs that provide the main tuning function of the musical instrument.
Tuning and Range
Cellos are tuned in fifths, starting with C2 (two octaves below middle C), followed by G2, D3, and then A3. It is tuned in the exact same intervals and strings as the viola, but an octave lower. Similar to the double bass, the cello has an endpin that rests on the floor to support the instrument’s weight.
A cello can play from a low C, two octaves below middle C, known as C2, up to a high A, two octaves above its highest string.
Most cello music will be written in the bass clef and occasionally moves into tenor clef as the music gets higher. When the music is very high the treble clef is used. Players do not like to change clefs too often and so will only want to go into a higher clef if the music is going to stay up high for a while. Changing back again presents similar problems and cello players will often mention that they do not like to read low notes in tenor clef.
Playing the Cello
Just like other members of the string family, cellos make a sound when the vibrations from the strings bounce around inside the instrument’s wooden body. The bow, made from wood and horse hair, is pulled along the metal strings to create a sound – but the strings can also be plucked.
The cello is usually played while sitting. The cellist basically “hugs” the instrument while playing it. The cello is closely related in construction and form to the violin and viola. Like these relatives, today’s cellos have 4 strings and are tuned in fifths. Nevertheless, there are clear differences between these stringed instruments in terms of dimensions as well as playing style and grip technique.
The bow is particularly important; ultimately it’s an extension of your arm, or some may say even of your soul. The tone and colour of your notes depends on how you stroke the strings. Different materials are used for the bow rod, whereby they need to be durable and, on the other hand, sufficiently flexible. Pernambuco (latin: Caesalpinia echinata), a now endangered wood from Brasil, is often used for the best bows. For some time now, bows with carbon rods have become increasingly popular. The balance of the bow is important for multifaceted and controlled playing.
Traditionally cellos are made of spruce and maple, but recently they’ve been brought bang-up-to-date with a carbon fiber version.