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Cello standard tunings

The cello (short for its formal name, violoncello[1]) is a low-pitched string instrument of the violin family. It often shares the melody, and sometimes harmonizes with, the Violin in a western orchestra. Its pitch range is similar to that of the human voice, giving it a warm and emotional quality.


The cello grew out of a member of the string family called the ‘viole de bracchio’ in the early 16th century, as a 3 stringed instrument. By the late 1600s the tuning of the modern cello, i.e. with four strings tuned an octave lower than the viola, had been adopted. Its size, which had fluctuated, was standardized by “Stradavari” in about 1710; and it was becoming an intrinsic part of the standard orchestra by that time. The spike that supports the instrument on the floor was introduced in the late 18th century but was not universally used until the late 19th.

In the modern cello’s repertoire, the first great work is the series of partitas for solo cello by J. S. Bach (though their greatness was not realised until Pablo Casals’ recordings in the 1930s.) In the post-baroque 18th century, a number of virtuoso players – foremost amongst them Boccherini - brought the instrument out of its normal support role in chamber music to be an equal in the string ensemble. Boccherini, Joseph Haydn|Haydn]] and Mozart used it as the bass in their string quartets, and (usually) doubled up with it in quintets. It "arrived" as a concerto instrument with the three concertos by Haydn.

During the 19th century Beethoven wrote his five cello sonatas - the first serious music of their kind - and a concerto for piano, violin, cello and orchestra. Important sonatas were written by Felix Mendelssohn (2), Chopin (1) and Brahms (3), Robert Schumann and Dvorak’s concertos are firm favourites.

The 20th century has enjoyed important works for cello and orchestra by Edward Elgar, Prokofiev, Shostakovich (2) and Benjamin Britten; with those by Samuel Barber and William Walton finding favour in concert halls. The solo repertoire has seen works by Reger and Kodaly.

With Casals, the most important exponent of the instrument in modern times has been Mstislav Rostropovich, who died in April 2007.

In popular music, the cello was used to good effect in the Beatles' songs Eleanor Rigby and I Am the Walrus- and has also recently crossed over into a more modern genre with the appearance of the band Apocalyptica in Finland and has come to international acclaim. Apocalyptica initially started off playing Metallica music on four cellos but have recently branched out into original pieces.

Playing the Cello

The cello differs from the violin and the viola in that the cello is usually played sitting down with the instrument supported on the ground by the endpin, rather than rested on the player's shoulder. The cello rests between the player's legs, with the neck rising above the left shoulder. The bow is drawn horizontally across the strings, but the terms "upbow" and "downbow" are still used. Many of the playing techniques from the violin, such as vibrato and the use of harmonics apply to the cello as well.


When reading from a score, the cello part or section is usually written on the bass clef. In the higher register of the cello, it may also pass into the treble clef, if the passage length is appropriate for the treble change.

Notable Works for the Cello

  • Bach - Suites for solo Cello
  • Beethoven - Cello Sonatas; Variations on "See the Conquering Hero" in G
  • Brahms - Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102; Cello Sonatas, opp. 38 and 99
  • Chopin - Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65; Introduction and Polonaise for Cello in C
  • Dvorak - Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
  • ELgar - Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
  • Haydn - Cello Concerto No.2 in D major, Hob. VIIb/2 Op. 101
  • Schubert - Arpeggione Sonata
  • Schumann - Cello Concerto in A minor
  • Shostakovich - Cello Sonata Op. 40: Cello Concerto No.1, Op. 107
  • Tchaikovsky - Rococo Variations for Cello and Orchestra
  • Walton - Cello Concerto

Notes and references

  1. Not "violincello;" the fifth letter is an o, not an i