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What is a Cello?

A cello is a deeply resonant string instrument with a rich, velvety sound that sings in the tenor to bass range. Its graceful form and soul-stirring tones have captivated audiences for centuries. Played with a bow or plucked, it's a cornerstone of orchestral music and solo performances. Curious about its origins and impact on music history? Let's explore the cello's captivating world together.
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

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.
Cellos are most often made of wood, and have the same general shape as a violin.

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.

The cello is usually played with a bow.
The cello is usually played with a bow.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cello and how is it different from other string instruments?

The cello, short for violoncello, is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned an octave lower than the viola. It is significantly larger than the violin and viola, requiring the cellist to play it while seated, with the instrument resting between the knees. Its deep, rich tones cover a wide range that is closer to the human voice than other string instruments, which contributes to its emotional expressiveness in music ensembles and solo performances.

What types of music can be played on the cello?

The cello is incredibly versatile and can be used across various musical genres. It is a staple in classical music, both in orchestras and as a solo instrument, but it also adapts well to chamber music, jazz, rock, and pop. Cellists can explore a broad repertoire, from Baroque compositions by Bach to contemporary pieces and arrangements of modern songs, showcasing the cello's adaptability and rich tonal qualities.

How long does it typically take to learn the cello?

Learning the cello is a personal journey that varies greatly among individuals. Beginners can expect to spend several months to a few years to achieve basic proficiency, depending on practice frequency and quality. Mastery of the instrument, however, is a lifelong pursuit. According to the Music Teachers National Association, consistent, structured practice over years with guidance from experienced teachers is essential for advancing in skill level.

What is the average cost of a beginner cello?

The cost of a beginner cello can vary widely based on factors such as craftsmanship, materials, and brand. Generally, student cellos range from $300 to $3,000. It's important for beginners to invest in a decent quality instrument to ensure a good playing experience. Renting is also a viable option, which can cost around $20 to $50 per month, allowing students to play on a quality instrument without the upfront investment.

Can the cello be self-taught, or are lessons necessary?

While it is possible to self-teach the cello to some extent, especially with the plethora of online resources available, lessons with a qualified instructor are highly recommended. A teacher can provide personalized feedback, correct posture and technique, and guide students through structured learning progressions. This hands-on guidance is crucial for avoiding bad habits that could hinder progress or lead to injury.

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Discussion Comments


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


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


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.


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


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.


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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    • Cellos are most often made of wood, and have the same general shape as a violin.
      By: papa
      Cellos are most often made of wood, and have the same general shape as a violin.
    • The cello is usually played with a bow.
      By: stokkete
      The cello is usually played with a bow.