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The violoncello, commonly referred to as the 'cello, is a member of the bowed strings family. It is similar in construction to the violin, viola and double bass; however, due to its size, the 'cello is held between the sitting player's knees rather than under the chin. It is a regular member of the standard Western symphony orchestra, as well as the string quartet and piano trio, its range allowing it to fulfil both bass and tenor roles in ensembles. There is a substantial body of chamber music written for the instrument, and several well-known concerti. Someone who plays this instrument is known as a cellist.

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The immediate ancestor of the violoncello was the bass viol or viol de gamba of the viol consort. It was held between the knees in the same manner as the cello and fulfilled much the same role in ensembles. However, the bass viol usually had six strings instead of four and was generally smaller in size, meaning that it had a weaker sound. The larger violoncello with four strings was developed in the early eighteenth century in parallel with the modern violin. Its more powerful sound meant that it began to take over as the standard bass instrument, although the viol persisted during this time, and the presence of Bach's viol de gamba sonatas of the 1720-30s indicate it was still an instrument in regular use. The viol and early cello had no end-pin to support it on the floor; the player thus had to play with the instrument at a slight angle to their left to provide better support. Low-tension strings made of gut were used and remained in use until the early twentieth century. The bow used also differed from the modern variety, being shorter and with a smaller amount of hair. Somewhat surprisingly, this type of bow is able to produce nearly the same volume of sound as a modern one. By the middle of the nineteenth century an end-pin had been added and the bow modernised, two factors which contributed to the elevation in technique and expansion of repertoire for the instrument. One of the final improvements to the instrument in the twentieth century was the addition of adjusting screws on the tailpiece; these made it easier to tune the cello precisely.



The vast majority of early music for the violoncello features the instrument in the role of continuo in ensembles. With the exception of the six Cello Suites by J.S. Bach, almost no solo cello music survives. However, there exist some concerti from the baroque period, including 25 by Vivaldi (in addition to a concerto for two celli and one for cello and bassoon); the cello is also prominently featured in Bach's Brandenburg Concerti Nos. 3 and 6. In the classical period, the cello was incorporated in the newly standardised orchestra; along with the double bass, it provided the bass part of the string section. The cello also became the bass instrument of the string quartet and piano trio, and solo sonate for cello and piano began to be written. There were also an increasing number of concerti for the instrument from this period, the most notable being two by Joseph Haydn, twelve by the virtuoso player Luigi Boccherini, and others by C.P.E Bach and Tartini. The nineteenth century saw advances in cello technique that allowed the instrument to further advance as a solo instrument. The cello parts in orchestral works and string quartets, particularly those of Beethoven, increased in technical difficulty and range as the orchestra expanded. Beethoven also contributed five sonate and gave the cello a solo role in his Triple Concerto. By the end of the Romantic period, many concerti had been composed for cello, including those by Schumann, by Brahms (a Double Concerto for violin and cello), two by Saint-Saëns, by Lalo, and the most famous concerti by Dvorak and Elgar. Other solo and chamber music from this period include works by Faure (two sonate, the famous Elegy and other pieces), Franck (a transcription of his Violin Sonata), Brahms (two sonate), Chopin, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schubert (the 'Arpeggione' sonata, written for a short-lived instrument of that name); Bruch's Kol Nidrei and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. The expansion of technique and repertoire continued into the twentieth century, inspiring concerti by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Martinu, Finzi, Bloch, Britten, Elliott Carter and others, and numerous chamber music compositions such as Britten's three solo sonatas and that by Shostakovich. Today the cello also features in electronic music by composers such as Kaia Saariaho. It has seen occasional use in popular music, usually quiet ballads where its tone matches the voice well. However, the Finnish group Apocalyptica use a quartet of amplified electric cellos to perform arrangements of heavy metal songs, at the obligatory high volume.

Orchestral use

In its orchestral role, the cello is best thought of as a tenor instrument. It is able to double the contrabass an octave higher, which is a widespread and effective colouring for bass lines in all music. The cello can also double the bassoon or tuba in the same role. However, the singing tone of the cello is also well suited to melody and counter-melody. The most effective range for this is on the A string, and there are numerous examples of melody in this range. See, for example the opening bars of the third movement of Brahms' Third Symphony. (A full discussion of Brahms orchestration of this passage can be found in Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration). When carrying a melody in its middle to upper range, the cello blends well with horn (either solo or tutti), viola, bassoon, clarinet or trombone, although it may be overpowered by the latter at loud dynamics. The are some examples of a cello section alone presenting a melody in a high register — for example in the second theme in the finale of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. It is more advisable, however, to double the cello in this register for security with another instrument or with a violin section. In the opening theme of In The South, the cellos go from the middle of their range to the extreme top; however, since the section is doubled by at least one other instrument at all times (partly due to dynamic considerations), they are able to play with more security than if this passage were for cello alone.

The solo cello is a resource that has not been overlooked in orchestral music, particularly when a rich, lyrical sound is desired. Provided that the accompaniment is soft enough, any part of the cello's compass can be used in a solo. Haydn gives the melody of the entire slow movement of his Symphony No. 13 to a solo cello, highly unusual for the period. The cello as part of a group of several orchestral soloists can also be effective - two notable examples being the opening of Rossini's overture Guillaume Tell (solo cello, four cello soli, and solo contrabass) and Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (solo cello as part of a solo string quartet, with a heavily divided string orchestra).

Tuning and Range

<music> \meterOff \cadenzaOn \clef bass <c,, g' d' a'>1 c \glissando \clef treble c' \octaveOn \harmonicOn c' </music>

The 'cello, like other string instruments, has four strings. Standard tuning, from the player's right to left, is C2, G2, D3, and A3 (or "a"). Occasionally, a composer may ask for one or more strings to be tuned differently, a technique known as scordatura; this occurs in pieces such as J.S. Bach's Fifth Cello Suite, Kodaly's Sonata, Op.8 and Respighi's The Pines of Rome. The full range of the cello is large; from the 'open C' string, C2, to well above the staff of the treble clef. The highest possible note a player is able to produce depends to some extent on the player's skill, although C6 is considered a practical upper limit. Higher notes can be achieved through the advanced use of artificial harmonics. Passages for the cello that remain in the upper range, approximately between C3 and C5, may use the tenor clef. The treble clef is used on occasion when higher notes are called for in extreme high register, which is more commonly found in solo literature. Finzi's Cello Concerto and Elgar's In The South are examples of such pieces.

The cello is a non-transposing instrument and sounds as written. Cello music is written on a single staff, except in special cases (usually in more contemporary repertoire) where a double staff may be needed.


The cello is unusual in that players read the bass, tenor and treble clefs - all three of which are commonly found in scores, and you can expect a cellist to read all three competently. This is mostly to do with its great range: as these clefs are still in common use, is it neater and easier to change clef than use ledger lines or octave transposition marks. The bass and treble clefs are used where the music falls roughly between the lines, but the tenor seems to only be used for the first octave of the A string. The clef can be changed mid-phrase as long as it is written clearly. One rather strange historical practice, which may be found in older orchestral parts of works by Dvorak and Bruckner, is to write all treble clef notes an octave higher than played - a somewhat odd convention, for it results in there being as many ledger-lines above the stave as there would be were the passage to have remained in the bass clef, rather negating the point of using the treble.

Playing Techniques

There are two standard ways of playing the violoncello; either with the bow (arco) or by plucking with the fingers (pizzicato, abbreviated to pizz.). It is only necessary to indicate arco if the previous passage has been pizzicato: if there is no indication at the start of a piece, a cellist will assume that the bow is to be used. First, a little about fingering:


Cellists use the left hand to 'stop' the strings by pressing down on them. This causes the length between the string and the bridge to shorten, producing a higher pitch than if the 'open' string were vibrating. In the 'neck positions' all four fingers of the hand are used, and the thumb supports the hand behind the fingerboard. When the hand moves higher, into the part of the fingerboard that is over the body of the cello, the thumb is no longer need for support and can be used as an extra finger. The thumb can also be used over the neck part of the fingerboard if this position is needed. Because the strings of the cello are tuned a fifth apart, there are only three tones in between one string and the next which need to be stopped in order to play all the diatonic pitches between two strings. Thus, in the 'first position' the left hand is positioned over these three pitches. If, for example, we wished to play a scale of five notes ascending between the D and A strings, we would first sound the 'open' D string without any fingers being used, then place the first finger down a short distance below the nut to play the E above it. This position then allows the cellist to find the F#, stopped by the third finger, and the G, stopped by the fourth, without any further change in hand position. The bow is then moved onto the A string to play the open A. If the scale were of D minor, the F natural would be stopped by the second finger in the same position. This basic system of fingering can be used in any part of the instrument and allows practically any sequence of notes to be played by positioning the hand. An experienced cellist can 'see' patterns of notes that will correspond to the hand position and will be able to play even complex passages with accuracy.

Arco (bowed)

In order to play arco, the bow is moved across the strings between the fingerboard and the bridge in either direction. Played in this way, the cello can produce a dynamic range from that which is barely audible to a full fortissimo. Moving the bow from left to right is known as a 'down' bow, this being the literal direction for a violinist, and is the stronger stroke. Moving the bow in the opposite direction is described as an 'up' bow and is weaker, although a good player will have an equal dynamic and technical ability on either stroke. Cellists will often simply refer to an 'up' or a 'down' in conversation. As the down-bow is the stronger stroke, it generally falls on strong beats in the music and cellists will bow so that this occurs as much as possible. However, in certain passages, for example those in 3/4 or irregular time signatures, this is not always possible and so an up-bow may have to fall on a strong beat. The dynamic level is altered by varying the sped of the bow and the pressure of the hair on the string. At loud dynamics the pressure is great and the bow speed may be fast or slow depending on the sound desired and technical considerations. However, a quiet dynamic will nearly always require a fast (albeit very light) bow stroke to compensate for the reduced bow pressure. It is very difficult to play pianissimo with a slow bow stroke and still produce a clear sound.

At all dynamic levels a note may be sustained indefinitely by changing direction, however in order to do this the player must attempt disguise the bow changes , and if a note with no change of bow of is desired the composer must be aware of how long it can be sustained at each dynamic level. Generally speaking, the louder the volume required, the more bow is needed and so the shorter this note can be sustained. Sometimes a composer will ask players to use two bow strokes where one would still be practical, in order to create a very intense sound (see Beethoven, Coriolanus Overture, mm 1-11). In addition, multiple notes may be played with the same bow stroke; which is indicated by writing a slur over the phrase. Care must be taken when indicating slurred passages that there is sufficient bow length to perform the entire phrase. If a slur is too long, or even just for personal preference, a cellist will often find a way to break it up into practical lengths. As explained above, a mezzo-forte dynamic will require the least amount of bow, as in order to compensate for a lower bow pressure at quiet dynamics the player must move the bow faster. Therefore, a quiet, slow line will in fact require nearly as much bow as a fortissimo one.

There are a variety of different articulations and effects possible with the bow, all of which are common to all string instruments and are possible anywhere in the compass of the instrument. See the Bowing techniques article.

Pizzicato (plucked)

When playing pizzicato, the first finger of the right hand, or sometimes the thumb, is used. The resulting sound is percussive without being harsh and the pitch is clear; however the sound has quite a quick decay and lacks the carrying power of pizzicato on the double bass. It can be practically used from piano to forte but is seldom effective at the extremes of the dynamic envelope. It is also inadvisable to write very fast pizzicato passages due to the limits of how rapidly the finger can perform the plucking action (Tchaikovsky, Capriccio Italien, measures 148-154, is an example that is highly impractical at the prescribed tempo). Pizzicato chords are very effective on the cello, especially with open strings in the bass which have great resonating power. Because the pizzicato chord does not have to be spread as with the bow, it is possible to play all four strings at once as long as sufficient fingers are free. However, most cellists will execute the chord slightly rolled in the manner of a harpist. The transition to pizzicato is achieved by turning the bow so that it held away from the strings in order to free the first finger and thumb of the right hand. If there is sufficient time, members of an orchestral section will place the bow across their lap in order to free up the whole hand. The transition from arco to pizz. can be done very rapidly and does not require a rest at all but the fastest tempi. The transition back to arco takes a little longer due to the need to reposition the bowing hand. Pizzicato is indicated by the word pizz. above the stave, and bowing is resumed with the world arco.

Left-hand pizzicato
A composer may require a player to use the fingers of his left (fingering) hand to pluck the strings, either because the bow is being used on a different string or just for the virtuosic effect this technique gives. The cellist will normally use his first or second fingers to perform this action, and a note may be fingered with the first finger and plucked with the second. Left-hand pizz is more successful on the A and D strings, as the C and G are too thick and slack to be plucked very effectively in this way. Benjamin Britten's First Suite for Solo Cello contains an entire movement ('Bordone') where the cellist's left hand alternates between left-hand pizzicato and normal fingering whilst the bow maintains a drone on the open lower strings. We advise this advanced technique to be used only in solo music or for orchestral soloists, for it is usually quiet, and difficult to co-ordinate in an entire cello section.


There are two types of harmonics, natural and false, both of which require different techniques to achieve.  ; Natural harmonics are the easiest to play. When playing normally, the cellist presses down hard on the strings to ensure clarity of sound. However, at certain points on the string, lightly touching the string will produce a glassy, ringing tone, several octaves above the stopped note at that position. A few moment's observation of these points will show that they are in fact the pitches of the string's overtone series above the fundamental (the pitch of the open string). Natural harmonics are easy to tune (they will not sound unless the finger is correctly placed) and will ring well when played with any finger. Charts of natural harmonics are shown below. Note that because of the design of the cello, the same natural harmonic can be found in two positions equidistant from the mid-point of the string. natural harmonics and open strings are notated by writing a small circle above the note.

False or artificial harmonics require a more difficult technique to produce. The player has to produce the fundamental tone using their first finger or thumb, and then touch the string with another finger (usually the fourth), in the same way as natural harmonics, at a higher pitch. Further complicating the contortion required is that the pitch above the artificially produced fundamental can be a major third, perfect fourth (most usual) or perfect fifth. The advantage of false harmonics is that a harmonic can be sounded anywhere on the compass of a string rather than only at the overtone points. Even more confusingly, (and again because of the overtone series) the same false harmonics can be found at three different places on the same string. False harmonics are notated by writing the fundamental as a solid note, and the 'touched' note as a diamond or open notehead above it on the same stick.

Natural harmonics on the A string (all notes shown are those fingered, not the sounding pitch. The first note shown is the fundamental open string):

<music> { a e' a e' a cis } </music> D string:

<music> { \clef bass d, a' d \clef treble a' d fis } </music> G string:

<music> { \clef bass g, d' g \clef tenor d g b } </music> C string:

<music> { \clef bass c,, g' c g' c e } </music>

Glissandi and Portamenti

The cello can execute slides and pitch bends at almost any speed in any part of its compass. One very important point of note which is often overlooked is that the start and end notes of the glissando must lie on the same string. Many arrangements by inexperienced writers assume that the cello will be able to perform an unbroken slide from its lowest note to its highest and vice versa; but there is no way to seamlessly carry the slide when changing strings. A competent cellist can slide a considerable distance on one string, but the sound quality will diminish as they get higher, particularly on the lower two. It is advisable, therefore, to restrict the compass of a glissando on all strings but the A to around an octave. A good player will, however, be able to 'fake' a smooth change of string during if a glissando if it is absolutely necessary.

Chord glissandi of two notes are also possible on the instrument, provided that both notes move in the same direction.


The cello is capable of producing two-, three- and four-note chords by playing two or more strings at once. This means that the notes of the chord must all lie on different strings within the range of the player's hand. As (in the neck positions at least) the hand only has a range of an augmented fourth at maximum stretch, it is highly advantageous if one or more notes of the chord is an open string. In the higher positions the thumb may be used, which extends the range of the hand to about an ninth. The same finger can be used on two consecutive strings, but only if the notes are a perfect fifth apart. As a fifth is actually found in all major and minor chords in root position, this is quite a useful feature, and allows cellists to use a common fingering for all chords voiced in a particular way by playing the two notes in the bass with their first finger. A chord such as C major has its two bass notes as the open C and G strings, meaning the cellist only has to finger two pitches (E and the top C, played by the first and second fingers) in an elementary position to play the chord thus: <music> { \clef bass <c,, g' e' c'> } </music>

Extended Techniques

In the last 50 years or so, the demands of contemporary music have led composers and performers to 'invent' many new techniques for the instrument - indeed, they continue to do so. Of course, careful consultation with a player about what is practical (or even possible) is essential. It also goes without saying that many extended techniques do not yet have a standardised notational symbol; and even for those that do, it is wise and courteous to explain at the head of the score what the symbol means and, if necessary, how to perform the asked-for effect.

Harmonic glissandi
Sliding up an down between the harmonic points on a string is called for in the scherzo of Shostakovich's Cello Sonata to produce a luminous, wispy sound.
Bartok pizzicato or 'snap pizzicato'
is named for the composer, who asked that the players pluck the strings sufficiently hard that they snapped back against the fingerboard. This is now commonly found in contemporary music. A few composers have asked for other pizzicato techniques, such as using a guitar plectrum or comb to pluck the strings.
Fingernail pizzicato
Bowing on the fingerboard above the fingers
George Crumb asks for this technique in his string quartet Black Angels to imitate the thin sound of a viol consort. Because the positions of the bow and the fingers are reversed, the music must be notated very high to sound in the 'normal' register of the instrument.
Bowing on the bridge or tailpiece
More a percussive effect than a melodic one, this will produce a rustling sound with deep vibrations from the tailpiece.
Tapping the body of the instrument
A surprisingly wide variety of percussive effects can be achieved depending on where exactly the performer plays. A hi-hat effect can also be produced by sliding a finger across the wooden surface. It is not recommended that the bow be used for this because of the possibility of damaging the cello.
Hitting the strings
When done with the palm of the hand, this is similar to the 'slap bass' sound produced by jazz players. Tapping with the fingertips is very quiet but would be audible when executed by a whole cello section.
De-tuning the string whilst bowing
In Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations for electric cello, the player executes the rock-inspired effect of performing a glissando from the top of the C-string to the bottom, then reaching up and steadily turning the tuning peg to extend the glissando below the cello's normal range. Understandably, this occurs at the very end of the work, as it would not really be practical for the cellist to tune the string back to normal pitch and continue playing.
Placing objects between the strings
Any object such as paper, tin foil or plastic which will not damage the cello can be woven between the strings. Be aware that it may affect the player's ability to finger or use vibrato.
The electric cello
is either a standard acoustic instrument with guitar pickups added or a pure electric instrument which may not incorporate a traditional shape or soundbox. It is played in the same way as a regular cello, but with the added capability of producing electronic sounds and effects and the added volume potential of an amplifier. Using effects pedals from an electric guitar enables the instrument to reproduce sounds now associated with that instrument: delay, reverb, distortion, chorus and harmony are only a few. In addition, the electric or acoustic cello may be used in conjunction with studio post-processing or sampling techniques to create new sounds and textures beyond the capability of a traditional instrument.

Works for example and suggested further study

(Works followed by # contain examples of extended techniques)

  • Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello, BWV 1007-1012
  • Beethoven: Sonatas Op.5, Op.69, Op.102
  • Brahms: Sonatas Op.38 and Op99; Double Concerto, Op.102
  • Britten: Three Suites for Cello Solo, Op.72, 80 and 87#
  • George Crumb: Sonata#; Black Angels#
  • Debussy: Sonata
  • Dvorak: Concerto, Op.104
  • Henri Dutilleux: Trois Strophes sur le Nom de Sacher#
  • Elgar: Concerto, Op. 85; String Quartet, Op.84
  • Jonathan Harvey: Curve with Plateux (extreme high register)#
  • Kodaly: Sonata, Op.4 and Solo Sonata, Op.8
  • A. Lloyd Webber: Variations#
  • Martinu: Variations an a Theme of Rossini and Variations on a Slovak Folk Song
  • Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time#
  • Rossini: Guillaume Tell Overture
  • Saint-Saens: Concerto No.1, Op.33 and Concerto No.2, Op.119
  • Schumann: Concerto, Op.129
  • Shostakovich: Sonata, Op.40; Concerto No.1 and Concerto No.2
  • Villa-Lobos: Bachianas brasilieras No.1 (cello orchestra) and No.5 (cello orchestra and soprano)
  • Webern: Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op.9#

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