Of all the violin family instruments, the cello and the bass are most often the subjects of many hot debates. You see, due to the similarities between both instruments, many people confuse them and take one for the other. This is particularly true in circles of rookie instrumentalists and non-music people. However, if you know what to look for, the differences between the cello and the bass could not be more evident.
In case you are wondering, there are four instruments in the violin – the violin itself, the viola, the cello, and of course, the double bass (or simply called bass).
Granted, the cello and the double bass share some characteristics (being from the same instrument family). But, on a more cursory inspection, you will find that both instruments are, in fact, strikingly different. Understandably, you’re probably very curious as to how you can tell these sibling instruments apart. Not to worry, we will show you.\
Cello Vs. Bass: In Every Aspect in More Details
Here are some of the critical distinguishing differences between the cello and the double bass:
Size is arguably the most obvious difference between both instruments. Although the cello and double bass are the violin family’s second-largest and largest instruments, respectively, there is still a clear cut difference between them both.
You see, a full-size double bass is (for lack of a better word), huge and we mean it. The instrument towers above the average man and stands about six-feet-five (6′ 5″) or sometimes seven-feet-five (7′ 5″). On the other hand, the cello is relatively smaller. At its largest, the size of the cello only comes up to five-feet-six-inches (5′ 6″). Indeed, in Italy, they call the cello ‘violoncello,’ which translates to ‘small double bass.’
Once you know the difference in size between the cello and the bass, you can almost always tell both instruments apart. But, to ensure that you have all the relevant knowledge you need, we will keep going.
Strings & Octaves
The cello and the double bass are the two of the largest string instruments, with the double bass larger than the cello. Hence, both instruments rest on the floor, for they are too heavy to be carried around on one’s shoulder. But let us cut through the nonsense and figure out their significant difference.
The double bass, for example, is tuned in fourths rather than in fifths (E1, A1, D2, and G2), .and it is the only modern bowed string instrument that is tuned like that. On the other hand, the cello is tuned in the perfect fifths from C2, G2, D3, and A3 (low to high). Of course, looking at how their strings are tuned, you will notice the difference in their string tuning, except for one—the G2.
The cello’s lowest note, for example, is the C that is two-octave below the Middle C, while the double bass’ lowest note is only six diatonic notes lower. So, with only six diatonic notes difference, the note range of these two instruments basically overlaps with each other.
You will notice that the top bass string, which is the G is the same G as the cello’s open G string. Another big difference is that the double bass is much bigger, so you need to stand or use a stool when you play it. Most double bass players use a German bow hold to get that big upbow swell.
There wasn’t a double bass in the Baroque time, and the cello was the bass. But when the orchestra came along, the sound gets bigger, and composers need to match some of these woodwind instruments’ tonal qualities, so they needed a way to get more low ends. So, the double bass was made to double the normal range of the cello. For this reason, the cello and the double bass are intricately related.
In summary, the cello is smaller than the double bass and more melodic, although at the onset, it was the bass instrument in baroque time. The sound and pitches of the double bass have a beefier tone than that of the cello. However, the double bass is a more unwieldy instrument to play than the cello, but it carries an intricate relationship with the cello.
Tuning and Tuning Pegs
Another difference between the cello and the bass is how they are tuned as well as their mechanism for tuning.
Let’s start with the tuning process itself. To set a cello’s tune right, you will typically have to go in fifths from the lowest to the highest in this order, C to G to D, then A. On the flip side, a bass is generally tuned in fourths from E to A to D, and then G. It is also worth mentioning that a bass’s low E is significantly lower than a cello’s C.
As a result of their tuning methods, the cello has a broader octave range and reaches five octaves. A double bass will typically max out at a four. However, technically, if one was inclined to try to, they could tune a cello using fourths and bass using fifths. But no one ever does that.
Now, let’s discuss their tuning mechanisms.
If you look at the scroll on a cello, you will find that it has little metals that stick out of its sides. These are known as tuning pegs, and they control the tightness or looseness of the instrument’s strings. Conversely, the ‘little metals’ on a bass stick out of the scroll’s back, and they are called tuning machines instead.
A first glance at a cello and a bass standing side by side may yield no differences. We understand that as they can sometimes be challenging to spot. Moreover, both instruments are indeed very similar. However, if you take a closer look, you will find that double bass has more sloping shoulders than the cello.
If you are wondering about the differences between the cello and the bass, chances are you interested in the sound they produce. If that is the case, you may be delighted they both make beautiful but uniquely different sounds.
On the one hand, the cello has a beautiful tenor key and can produce more resonant and richer tones than the violin or viola. Due to this, the cello has become quite the figure in orchestras, with larger symphony orchestras having between eight and twelve cellists.
However, on the other hand, because of its octave range, the bass can produce a much deeper sound than the cello can achieve. As such, the bass features in most western music productions, if not all. There is no doubt that the bass is one of the most versatile instruments out there. Indeed, many may argue that it is the foundation of any musical group.
But, despite the differences in the sounds the cello and bass make, they combine to create the most amazing music. The thick, rich sound of a bass perfectly complements the sweeter, purer sound from a cello. Without a doubt, there is nothing quite like hearing a cello-bass combo to set the tone for the rest of the orchestra.
Octave and Notes
Varying octave and notes are some other vital differences between the cello and the bass. Although they veer into the more technical aspects of music, we’ll help you break it down.
While the cello and bass are both low instruments, the double bass can go approximately one octave lower than the cello can. You see, the strings on a double bass can play the lowest notes on a piano, even getting all the way down to the lowest E and sometimes C. Indeed, the bass’s notes are so low that you can almost keep track of its vibration per second.
Of course, we should also mention that the cello does have a wider sound range. Also, remember the order of strings on a bass is EADG, while a cello is CGDA.
For our final difference between the cello and the bass, we have – playing position. While both instruments rest on the floor with a metal pin holding them up, instrumentalists do not play them the same way.
Due to the towering size of the bass, players typically have to stand to play it. However, some instrumentalists may opt to sit on a tall stool to play. On the other hand, a cello is the only instrument in the violin family that you have to sit down to play. Players typically sit in a chair with the instrument in between their knees while they play.
To give you a clearer picture, let us share some tips on holding the cello and the double bass.
1) How to Hold a Cello?
- First, you will need to sit in an upright chair. Try to keep your back straight and don’t slouch.
- Next, set your instrument between your knees. The cello’s neck should be on the left side of your head, while the tuning peg for the string C should be close to your ear.
- If you notice you are slouching, you may sit on the chair’s edge to keep yourself upright.
- Next, adjust the metal endpin such that the cello leans on your chest.
- Make sure you balance the lower half of the instrument in the middle of your knees. This will ensure the cello stays in position while you play.
- Finally, angle your cello to your right side such that your bow can conveniently touch every string.
2) How to Hold a Bass?
Here, things are much different.
- Stand behind your instrument and make you have a balanced stance (your feet should not be too wide).
- Modify the instrument’s endpin so that the fingerboard’s nut is level with your eyebrows. (Bear in mind that this is not an absolute rule. Different bassists have their opinions on the nut’s position. So, your teacher may advise you differently).
- Finally, turn the bass a bit to your right side and angle it backward such that it leans on your left hip for support.
- Although standing to play the bass is the more common choice, some bassists may choose to sit and play.
Career Opportunities with Cello and Double Bass
The cello will indeed provide you with a better solo repertoire. Moreover, it will be easier to work with the cello than with the bass. Of course, you can choose to focus on mastering the bass, which is also found in many popular music genres like bluegrass, jazz, rock-ability, pop, and R&B. You can also find a career as a member of the orchestra because orchestras do need low string players.
Nevertheless, if you are desirous of playing in an orchestra, you should pick the double bass, for you will easily get work with it. It is also easier to get professional work as a bass player. You can also easily transition to electric bass guitar playing, for they also use similar tuning, and you already know where your notes will be.
If you desire to have a career in playing double bass, you can take a bachelor’s degree in bass performance. Such a study is a four-year program that includes bass lessons, amateur orchestra experience, and courses in music theory, music history, and liberal arts courses.
As a double bass student, you will need to perform some double bass music solo recitals like in concertos, Baroque suites, and sonatas.
On the other hand, you will also find works as a cellist in the orchestra in the cello section as part of the standard symphony orchestra. You can also join cello concertos where an orchestra accompanies a solo cello. You will also find works as a string quartet member and in popular music, jazz, and neoclassical music.
The cello and the double bass, when set up right, are indeed playable. Nevertheless, mastering each of these two instruments requires constant and years of practice before you can even reach that orchestral level of skills and sound.
The double bass, of course, is much more predictable compared to the cello. Yet, whichever you choose, you only need to master it. Good intentions to learn the cello or the double bass will not suffice. You will need constant practice to raise your skills a not higher.
We agree that the bass and cello have some similarities, but they differ in many ways too. Hopefully, this article on the differences between the cello and the bass has helped you see the light. Remember, whichever choice you make (cello or bass), you will have yourself a fantastic instrument with so much potential. Don’t forget to have fun playing!