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What is a Cello?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A cello is a large stringed instrument, related to the viola, violin, double bass, and bass violin. The name cello is a shortening of violoncello, and is sometimes written with an apostrophe as ‘cello. The cello is usually played with a bow, as the violin, although it may also be plucked.

The earliest origins of the cello date back to the mid-16th century, when a three-stringed bass violin was created. For the next hundred years a number of pieces were composed for this instrument, which was usually meant to be played in concert with a violin. In the mid-17th century, with the advent of metal-wrapped strings, an instrument much more like the modern cello was created. The cello enjoyed limited success until the Baroque era, when the design was refined, and a great deal of exceptional pieces were composed for the instrument.

Cellos are most often made of wood, and have the same general shape as a violin. The body is larger near the bottom than the top, with an inward curving indentation towards the middle, and a protruding neck at the top. Four strings are used, and may be made from synthetics, metal, or gut. Traditional cello bows are made from brazilwood, with higher-quality bows made from the heartwood of the tree. Horsehair is used as the rubbing surface of the bow, and is coated with rosin to help resonate the strings better. Synthetic material may also be used for the bow, although this is less traditional and not widely seen.

Cellos can be found in a number of sizes, from slightly larger than the full 4/4 size down to the relatively tiny 1/16. Although the smallest of these cellos are meant primarily for children, some smaller-framed people choose to play 7/8 cellos to allow their hands to find positions with greater ease. In some cases a cello larger than 4/4 might be played by someone with large enough hands to reach.

The cello is tuned to a low register, with the four strings being tuned to A, D, G, and C. This is from highest pitch to lowest, with traditional tuning being to A3, D3, G2, and C2, in intervals of perfect fifths. Alternate tunings are not uncommon in the cello, with the most widely used being to C2, G2, D3, and G3, as in one of Bach’s suites.

The cello is primarily played in Classical, Baroque, and Romantic music, and is an integral part in a chamber orchestra. It may also be seen as part of a string quartet, providing the low bass end. A great deal of music has been written for the cello over the years, and it is a widely popular instrument. Probably the most famous of these classical cello pieces are Bach’s six cello suites. In recent years the cello has begun to feature more widely in contemporary music, particularly R&B and pop. The cello has also begun to be used in genres where a fiddle may have traditionally been used, such as Celtic or Americana music.

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Discussion Comments
By anon990967 — On May 18, 2015

One always bows a stringed instrument with one's right hand, putting the fingers of the left hand on the strings.

By anon337231 — On Jun 04, 2013

I think cellos are great. Where can I get one?

By anon91880 — On Jun 24, 2010

The cello is an octave below the viola, and an octave and a fifth below the violin. It has a darker, less bright sound than e violin, giving it a special richness throughout its range.

By anon85370 — On May 20, 2010

How low/high is a cello's sound compared to other string instruments? Thanks if you can reply and tell me, I'd love to know!

(P.S. I'm a fan of the violin, the cousin of the viola, which is related to the cello so basically I am a fan of the cello! Well, I'm trying to be - I have to get the knowledge about cellos first!)

From Lexie

By someferge — On Mar 29, 2008

Malena, the bow is supposed to be held perpendicular to the strings about 1 inch or so north of the bridge that holds the strings together. The bow should be tilted slightly towards you about 15 degrees or so. Actual bowing technique should be captured directly from a cellist as it would be impractical to describe in writing.

By malena — On Jan 27, 2008

How is the bow supposed to be held when playing the cello? Perpendicular to the strings? Or does it not matter so much?

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