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Double bass music falls into three main categories, including classical, jazz and bluegrass, and rock and pop. The classical category can be divided into orchestral, chamber and solo music. Each type of double bass music puts the bass in a specific musical role and has stylistic distinctions.
The first type of music a double bass usually plays is classical. Most commonly, the bass plays as a member of an orchestra. Its role typically is to complete the bass or lowest line of the music, and in this capacity it frequently plays the same music as the cellos, just one octave lower. This, along with the fact the bass usually doubled the bass line of the harpsichord continuo part in baroque music, is why the instrument is called the double bass. Each orchestra usually only needs two or three basses, so people who want to play this type of music have to practice seriously to pass competitive orchestral auditions.
Bassists also can play in chamber ensembles. This type of double bass music sometimes places the double bass in a prominent melodic role, but more often it is a supporting instrument. String quintets are common, but orchestration is dependent on the specific sounds the composer wants. Woodwinds often are paired with strings.
Another kind of double bass music is solo music. The deep range of the double bass means that the instrument cannot be as fluid, virtuosic or as easily accompanied as other members of the violin family, simply because the instruments strings are thicker and take much longer to complete vibration cycles. Subsequently, the repertoire for classical solo double bass is somewhat limited. One of the most famous solos for double bass, however, is the "Elephant" from Camille Saint-Saëns' larger work, "Carnival of the Animals."
Double bass music also can fall into the jazz and bluegrass category. In this type of playing, bassists usually have much more active lines compared to orchestral works. They make greater use of specific sequences to create a "walking" part, outlining chords or moving by step or half step to create better movement and propulsion of the chord sequences. Jazz double bass players also use other techniques such as slapping to create different effects not normally found in the classical style. Even though an electric bass guitar could play the same lines, some groups prefer the double bass because of its characteristic sound.
The last category of double bass music is rock and pop music. In most groups, the electric bass guitar is the preferred instrument over the double bass, partly because the bass guitar blends well with the rhythm and lead guitars, creating a more uniform sound. When the double bass is used in rock and pop, it typically is done in a rather eclectic way, with players performing feats such as twirling the bass for visual effect. Often, double bassists who play in these genres use an electric double bass, which can be amplified and has a very minimal shape to reduce the instruments bulk and weight.
One note about the various types of double bass music is that with some exceptions, jazz, bluegrass, rock and pop forgo the use of the double bass bow, and instead, the bassist plucks the strings with his fingers. This is more characteristic to bass guitar playing and helps bridge some stylistic gaps. In classical playing, bows are the norm, regardless of whether the performer is playing solo or with a group.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the main genres where the double bass is prominently featured?
The double bass is a versatile instrument that features prominently in several music genres. In classical music, it's a staple of the orchestra, providing the foundation for symphonies and chamber music. Jazz music often relies on the double bass for its rhythmic and melodic bass lines, especially in styles like swing and bebop. The instrument also plays a crucial role in blues, bluegrass, and folk music, where it adds depth and resonance to the ensemble.
How does the role of the double bass differ in an orchestra compared to a jazz ensemble?
In an orchestra, the double bass typically plays a supportive role, anchoring the harmonic structure and contributing to the overall texture and weight of the sound. It often plays in unison with other bass instruments, following written parts. Conversely, in a jazz ensemble, the double bass becomes more prominent, with the player given freedom to improvise and interact dynamically with other musicians, often leading the rhythm section and providing the harmonic foundation for solos.
Can the double bass be used as a solo instrument, and if so, in what contexts?
Yes, the double bass can indeed be a solo instrument. In classical music, there are concertos and sonatas written specifically for the double bass, showcasing its melodic capabilities. Solo double bass performances are also found in contemporary classical music, where extended techniques are explored. In jazz, the double bass can take center stage during solos, demonstrating the player's virtuosity and improvisational skills. Solo bass pieces may also appear in experimental and avant-garde music contexts.
What are some notable pieces of music that feature the double bass?
Notable pieces of music featuring the double bass include Giovanni Bottesini's "Concerto No. 2 in B minor," which is a staple of the double bass classical repertoire. In jazz, pieces like "So What" by Miles Davis prominently feature the double bass, played by Paul Chambers. Additionally, the "Double Bass Concerto" by Serge Koussevitzky is a significant work that has challenged and delighted bassists since its composition.
Are there different playing techniques for the double bass across various music genres?
Yes, the double bass employs a variety of playing techniques that vary across music genres. In classical music, players often use the bow (arco) for sustained notes and legato passages, while pizzicato (plucking the strings) is used for staccato effects. Jazz bassists predominantly use pizzicato, but may also employ techniques like slapping and walking bass lines to create a rhythmic drive. Folk and bluegrass styles might incorporate a mix of both, depending on the song's requirements.