Orchestration and Arranging Wiki
A Cello


String Instrument

Other names





Bass, also Tenor and Treble

The Violoncello, or Cello, is a string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is the second largest bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra, the double bass being the largest. The cellist produces sound by drawing a bow across one or more strings (which may be stopped by the fingers of the other hand to produce a full range of pitches), by plucking the strings (with either hand), or by a variety of other techniques.

Pitch Range[]

The compass of the cello is from C2 (two Cs below middle C) to C6 (two octaves above middle C). The top notes, however, are often produced by natural or artificial harmonics. Thus the A two octaves above the open A-string may be considered a practical limit for orchestral cello parts.


A cello

Cellos are tuned in fifths, starting with A3, followed by D3, G2, and then C2 (two octaves below middle C) as the lowest string. It is tuned in the same intervals as the viola, but an octave lower. This gives the instrument the Open Strings of C2-G2-D3-A3, although the technique of scordatura allows this fundamental tuning to be changed in certain works or styles. For non-western variants and tuning possibilities refer to Wikipedia.

Timbre & Tone[]

The cello has a bright tone and is often equated with the male human voice in it's timbre. This tone can be adjusted through mechanical means (string choice, instrument construction) or through the various techniques available to the player.


Attaching a small rubber, wooden, or metal device called a "mute" to the bridge of the cello alters the tone, softening the instrument's sound by adding mass to the bridge and so reducing its ability to vibrate freely, decreasing volume and giving a more mellow tone, with fewer audible overtones. In performances, it may give a desired dulled effect. Mutes are mostly used in orchestras with the entire string section playing with mutes, resulting in a soft, hushed sound quality. Parts to be played muted are marked con sord., for the Italian sordino or occasionally mit Dämpfer in German. (The instruction to take off the mute is senza sord., sometimes marked just senza or "ohne Dämpfer" in German.) In French, instruction is given for application of mutes at the beginning of muted passages, "mettez les sourdines", and for removal at the end "ôtez les sourdines".

Sharing the same name but with a completely different purpose, massive metal, rubber, or wooden "practice mutes" or "hotel mutes" are available. These mutes are used to drastically reduce the volume when practicing where others can be disturbed.


Left Hand Techniques[]

Double Stopping[]

Double stopping is when stopped notes are played on two adjacent strings, producing
a two-note harmony. This is more difficult than normal single-string playing, as fingers must be accurately placed on two strings simultaneously. Sometimes moving to a higher position is necessary for the left hand to be able to reach both notes at once. Double stopping is also used to mean playing on three or all four strings at once, although such practices are more properly called triple or quadruple stopping. Collectively, double, triple and quadruple stopping is called multiple stopping. Sounding an open string alongside a fingered note is another way to get a harmony. While sometimes also called a double stop, it is more properly called a drone, as the drone note (the open string) may be sustained for a passage of different notes played on the adjacent string.


Vibrato is a technique of the left hand and arm in which the pitch of a note varies in a pulsating rhythm. Mechanically, it is achieved by fingertip movements which alter the length of the vibrating string. There are several different styles of vibrato ranging from the use of just the fingers, to the use of the wrist or even the whole forearm. By employing these different techniques both the speed and amplitude of vibrato oscillations can be varied for musical effect.
Vibrato is often perceived to create a more emotional sound, and it is employed heavily in music of the Romantic era. The acoustic effect of vibrato has largely to do with adding interest and warmth to the sound, in the form of a shimmer created by the variations in projection of strongest sound. A well-made violin virtually points its sound pattern in different directions depending on slight variations in pitch.
Players oscillate backwards, or lower in pitch from the actual note when using vibrato, since aural perception favors the highest pitch in a varying sound. Vibrato does little if anything to disguise an out-of-tune note. Students, especially beginners, are taught to use it only on extended notes and or during points of emotional tension. Vibrato can be difficult to learn and may take a student several months, if not years, to master.

Open String[]

A special timbre results from playing a note without touching its string with a finger, thus sounding the lowest note on that string. Such a note is said to be played on an open string. Open string notes (C2, G2, D3, A3) have a very distinct sound resulting from absence of the damping action of a finger pad, and from the fact that vibrato can not be produced. Other than C2 (which can be played in no other way), open strings are sometimes selected for special effects.


Lightly touching the string with a fingertip at a harmonic node while bowing close to the bridge can create harmonics. Instead of the normal solid tone a lighter-sounding overtone note of a higher pitch is heard. Possible harmonics are defined by the Harmonic Series of the string being played. A responsive instrument will provide numerous possible harmonic nodes along the length of the string.
Harmonics are marked in music with a little circle above the note that determines the pitch of the harmonic. There are two types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics (also known as "false harmonics").
Artificial harmonics are more difficult to produce than the natural harmonics described above. Stopping a note on one string, for example first finger "E" on the D string, and having another finger just touching the string a fourth higher, in this case on the position of the note "A", produces the fourth harmonic of the "E," sounding a tone two octaves above the note that is stopped, in this case, E.

Harmonics become more difficult to produce as you move up the harmonic series. Consequently the most found harmonics are the octave (1st harmonic), two octaves (2nd harmonic) with the fifth and third slightly less common.
Traditional notation of artificial harmonics uses two notes on one stem: the lower note employs a round note-head representing where the string is strongly stopped with the first finger, and the upper note uses an open diamond note-head representing where the string is lightly touched with the fourth finger.
Elaborate passages in artificial harmonics can be found in virtuoso violin literature, especially of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Right Hand Techniques[]


When a note is marked pizz. (abbreviation for pizzicato) in the written music, it is played by plucking the string with a finger of the right hand rather than by bowing. When the bow hand is occupied (or for virtuosic effect) the left hand can be used; this is indicated by a "+" (plus sign) in the music. This allows players to simultaneously play bowed notes while plucking on a different string. In addition, some players have acquired the trick of playing fast pizzicato passages using two alternating fingers of the right hand. Players continue playing pizzicato until there is an indication to return to arco (playing with the bow).
Cellists may also pluck a string with their left hand, denoted on written music as a "+" symbol above the note desired. Left-handed pizz in general is less flexible pitch-wise than the right-handed pizz, but allows the right hand to either stay where it is or simultaneously play with the bow or by plucking.
A snap pizzicato, first specified by Béla Bartók, and often called a Bartók pizzicato, requires the player to pull the string away from the fingerboard so that when it is released it rebounds with force onto the fingerboard, yielding a sharp, percussive snapping sound.


  • Sul ponticello - Playing close to the bridge gives a more intense sound than usual, emphasizing the higher harmonics;
  • Sul tasto - Playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard makes for a delicate, ethereal sound, emphasizing the fundamental frequency.
  • Détaché - The term détaché simply means "separated" and it can be applied to any notes not linked by a slur. Stopping the bow on the string deadens the vibrations and thus creates a muted accent, elastic détaché which covered off-the-string strokes, and dragged détaché (détaché traîné) where smooth bow changes leave no audible gap between each note. Video Example of Detaché.
  • Martelé (French; Italian martellato) - literally "hammered," is a type of détaché stroke with a lightly hammered attack. A strong attack is referred to as Martellato.
  • Collé - "stuck," or "glued," is a stroke that begins from a heavily weighted bow resting motionless on the string. Ideally, the initial weight will be almost enough to cause an undesirable scratch sound.
  • Spiccato - Technique that uses a bowing style that leaves the string clearly to produce a light "bouncing" sound. Despite major misconceptions, violinists play this technique with a horizontal stroke; the "bouncing" motion is only due to the natural resistance of the violin string and light weight of the blow. Spiccato becomes Sautillé at faster tempos, due to the lower amplitude of the "bounce". Spiccato is usually performed at the balance portion of the bow. The balance portion of the bow refers to the area of the bow where weight is distributed evenly on both sides, allowing for maximum control. Spiccato articulation is indicated by a small dot placed directly under the note.
  • Legato - Of successive notes in performance, connected without any intervening silence of articulation. In practice, the connection or separation of notes is relative, and achieved through the presence or absence of emphasis, Accent and attack, as much as silences of articulation; degrees of c
  • onnection and separation vary from legatissimo (representing the closest degree of connection), tenuto, portamento, legato, portato, non legato, mezzo-staccato, Staccato (the natural antonym of legato), to staccatissimo. Some of these terms have connotations going beyond simple degrees of connection or separation.
  • Sautillé (French; Italian saltando, German Springbogen, Spanish saltillo) - A bowstroke played rapidly in the middle of the bow, one bowstroke per note, so that the bow bounces very slightly off the string. If the bounce becomes higher at this speed, it is really a flying staccato or flying spiccato. It is not indicated in any consistent manner: sometimes dots are placed above or below the notes, sometimes arrow-head strokes, and sometimes the stroke is simply left to the performer's discretion. spiccato and sautillé are sometimes used as synonyms, though spiccato tends to be applied to a broader range of off-the-string strokes. Video Example of Sautillé.
  • Jeté - Also known as "ricochet" bowing, this consists of "throwing" the bow on the string in the upper third of the bow on a down bow, so that it bounces and produces a series of rapid notes. Usually from two to six notes are sounded this way, but up to ten or eleven can be played.
  • Louré (French; Italian portato) - This bow stroke, used in slow tempo, separates slurred notes slightly to articulate them, without stopping the bow. It is used in passages of a cantabile character.
  • Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato - A bouncing stroke, played on broken chords, so that each note of the arpeggio is played on a different string.
  • Tremolo - Chiefly used for orchestral playing, this consists of moving the bow back and forth in very short strokes extremely rapidly, not in measured rhythm.
  • Col legno - Occasionally the strings are struck with the stick of the bow ("with the wood.") This gives a muted percussive sound, and is most effective when employed by a full orchestral violin section. The eerie quality of a violin section playing col legno is exploited in some symphonic pieces, notably the "witches' dance" of the last movement of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique.
  • "Shuffle" - A repetitive pattern of slurs and accents, much used in some fiddling styles. Named shuffles include the Nashville shuffle, the Georgia shuffle, and the double shuffle, which is often considered to be a trick or showoff shuffle.
  • "Chopping" - A more modern percussive technique, in which the hair near the frog of the bow is struck against the strings with a quick scratching sound of indeterminate pitch.
  • Flautando - A light tone produced by fast bow movement with very little pressure on the string.



Cellos are part of the standard symphony orchestra, which usually includes eight to twelve players. The cello section, in standard orchestral seating, is located on stage left (the audience's right) in the front, opposite the first violin section. However, some orchestras and conductors prefer switching the positioning of the viola and cello sections. The principal cellist is the section leader, determining bowings for the section in conjunction with other string principals, and playing solos. Principal players always sit closest to the audience.

The cellos are a critical part of orchestral music; all symphonic works involve the cello section, and many pieces require cello soli or solos. Most of the time the cello section provides part of the harmony for the orchestra, although it is a capable melodic instrument. There are also numerous cello concertos, in which a solo cellist is accompanied by an entire orchestra.

In the 20th century, the cello repertoire grew immensely. This was partly due to the influence of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who inspired, commissioned and/or premiered dozens of new works.

Finally, there are several pieces for cello solo, most importantly J.S. Bach's six Suites for Cello (arguably the most important cello pieces), Kodály's Sonata for Solo Cello and Britten's three Cello Suites.

The cello is a member of the traditional string quartet as well as string quintets, sextet or trios and other mixed ensembles. There are also pieces written for two, three, four or more cellos; this type of ensemble is also called a "cello choir" and its sound is familiar from the introduction to Rossini's William Tell Overture as well as Zaccharias' prayer scene in Verdi's Nabucco. As a self-sufficient ensemble, its most famous repertoire is Villa-Lobos' first of his Bachianas Brasileiras for cello ensemble (the fifth is for soprano and 8 cellos). Other examples are Offenbach's cello duets, quartet, and sextet, Pärt's Fratres for 8 cellos and Boulez' Messagesquisse for 7 cellos, or even Villa-Lobos' rarely played Fantasia Concertante (1958) for 32 cellos. The Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (or "the Twelve" as they have since taken to being called) specialize in this repertoire and have commissioned many works, including arrangements of well-known popular songs.

Popular music, jazz and neoclassical

Though the cello is less common in popular music than in classical music, it is sometimes featured in pop and rock recordings. The cello is rarely part of a group's standard lineup but like its cousin the violin it is becoming more common in mainstream pop (e.g. the baroque rock band Arcade Fire uses the cello in their songs).

In the 1960s, artists such as the Beatles and Cher used the cello in popular music, in songs such as "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)", "Eleanor Rigby" and "Strawberry Fields Forever". Bass guitarist Jack Bruce, who had originally studied music on a performance scholarship for cello, played a prominent cello part in "As You Said" on Cream's Wheels of Fire studio album (1968). In the 1970s, the Electric Light Orchestra enjoyed great commercial success taking inspiration from so-called "Beatlesque" arrangements, adding the cello (and violin) to the standard rock combo line-up and in 1978 the UK based rock band, Colosseum II, collaborated with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber on the recording Variations. Most notably, Pink Floyd included a cello solo in their 1970 epic instrumental "Atom Heart Mother". Bass guitarist Mike Rutherford of Genesis was originally a cellist and included some cello parts in their Foxtrot album.

Established non-traditional cello groups include Apocalyptica, a group of Finnish cellists best known for their versions of Metallica songs, Rasputina, a group of cellists committed to an intricate cello style intermingled with Gothic music, Von Cello, a cello fronted rock power trio, Break of Reality who mix elements of classical music with the more modern rock and metal genre, and Jelloslave, a Minneapolis based Cello duo with two percussionists. These groups are examples of a style that has become known as cello rock. The crossover string quartet bond also includes a cellist.

So-called "chamber pop" artists like Kronos Quartet, The Vitamin String Quartet and Margot and the Nuclear So and So's have also recently made cello common in modern alternative rock.

In jazz, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Harry Babasin were among the first to use the cello as a solo instrument; both tuned their instrument in fourths, an octave above the double bass. Fred Katz (who was not a bassist) was one of the first notable jazz cellists to use the instrument's standard tuning and arco technique.

The cello can also be used in bluegrass and folk music, with notable players including Ben Sollee of the Sparrow Quartet and the "Cajun cellist" Sean Grissom as well as Damien Rice. Lindsay Mac is becoming well known for playing the cello like a guitar, with her cover of The Beatles' "Blackbird" a big hit on The Bob & Tom Show.