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The contrabass (also known as the double bass, stringed bass or upright bass) is the largest and lowest-pitched instrument of the Western bowed-string family of instruments. It is a standard part of the modern Western symphonic orchestra and smaller ensembles, as well as a common instrument in jazz and blues. It is generally played either bowed (arco) or plucked (pizzicato) in Western classical music, whereas it is most commonly played pizzicato in jazz and blues, with the exception of some soli.

One of its names, double bass, is derived from the fact that the contrabass was, and frequently still is, used to double the cello's bass part at the octave below in the symphonic orchestra.

Tuning and Range

The conventional contrabass has four strings, although some models may have three or five. The five-string model is more commonly found in continental European orchestras. Unlike the rest of the string family, they are tuned at intervals of the fourth rather than the fifth, due to the distance between pitches on the strings. The strings of a four-string model are tuned to the notes E1 (written as E2), A1, D2 and G2, while the five-string model adds a C string below the bottom E to allow it to double the violoncelli to the bottom of their range. However, it is generally safer to assume that the contrabass section cannot go lower than the E when writing for contrabass; if low Ds and Cs are notated and cannot be achieved, the bass players will usually play an octave up for these notes. The upper range of the contrabass depends on the skill of the player; in the higher registers the tone is difficult to control, though some professionals can play well in the extreme high register. Most orchestration texts suggest taking Bb3 (written Bb4) as a practical upper limit for orchestral parts. For amateurs, parts should not go higher than G3.

One technique of note for occasions when five-string basses are not available is the addition of an attachment to the contrabass at the top of the fingerboard which allows four-string instruments to reach down to the low C.[unclear] In Respighi's The Pines of Rome, instruments with the addition are then asked to lower the pitch still further to a scordatura tuning of B.


Music for the contrabass is usually written in the bass clef, and may also be written in the tenor and, occasionally, treble clefs.


It is important to note that, unlike the other stringed instruments, contrabass music is always notated an octave higher than sounding pitch in all clefs; this convention originates from the instrument's traditional role of doubling the celli, wherein it allowed both parts to be notated on a single stave.

Registeral characteristics

Despite its size, the contrabass does not produce a particularly powerful sound on its own. The lower register (bottom two strings) of the instrument is resonant, especially as a section, but does not have much carrying power. The sound's power and intensity increase somewhat on the upper two strings. In the highest register, the sound is rather pinched and nasal due to the thickness of the strings. However, for able players, it is a little easier to play in this register since notes are closer together on the string.


One area where the size of the contrabass is an advantage is in producing natural harmonics, which resonate very well in the large body. They sound equally well on all four strings. Artificial harmonics, however, are very difficult to produce on the contrabass and are thus only found in advanced contemporary solo repertoire.

Repertoire examples

As only a small number of concerti and chamber works have been written for the bass, notable orchestral passages are listed here as well.

  • Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, III
  • Britten: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Variation H (contrabass section)
  • Dragonetti: several concerti
  • Koussevitzky: Contrabass Concerto
  • Ligeti: Le Grand Macabre (many effects throughout including divisi harmonics and harmonic glissandi)
  • Mahler: Symphony No.1 'Titan', III (contrabass solo)
  • Respighi: The Pines of Rome, II & III
  • Schubert: 'Trout' Quintet
  • Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
  • Tubin: Contrabass Concerto

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass