The cello: a comprehensive guide
The larger cousin of the violin and viola, but smaller than the double bass, the cello is a popular bowed stringed instrument, capable of great range and expression
What is a cello?
The cello, or violoncello, is a bowed stringed instrument and the larger, lower pitched cousin of the violin and viola. Its larger cousin is the double bass. Like the violin and viola, the cello generally has four strings, made of steel, nylon or gut, which can be played with a bow or plucked with the fingers. These are tuned in perfect fifths: from low to high, C, G, D and A.
Together with violins, violas and basses, cellos form the string section of a modern symphony orchestra, and often play the bass part, where they are reinforced by the double basses an octave below. But the cello is also a common solo instrument, using its full tonal range to great effect in both unaccompanied and accompanied music, and in a great array of chamber music. Many leading composers have been inspired by the cello’s deeply expressive capabilities to write concertos for the instrument.
Though primarily a classical instrument, the cello is also used in popular music, and has featured in songs by the Beatles, Cher, Aerosmith, Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins, among many others.
Yo-Yo Ma performs 'The Swan' by Saint-Saëns
What does the cello look like?
The body of a full-sized cello is generally around 75cm in length, though the instrument comes in smaller sizes (such as quarter, half and three quarters) for children.
The traditional acoustic cello is typically made from several pieces of wood, including an ebony fingerboard. Like the violin, the cello has a wooden, carved bridge to support the strings, two f-holes, a tailpiece, an ornamental scroll and pegbox, and an internal soundpost, which transmits the vibrations from the top of the instrument to the hollow body. Unlike the violin which is held under the player’s chin, the cello and double bass have an endpin or spike, usually made of metal, that anchors the instrument to the floor.
Cellos played by professional musicians are generally hand-carved, while less expensive factory-made instruments are available for students. Modern acoustic and electric cellos can also be made from carbon fibre.
The cello is most often played with a bow, traditionally made from pernambuco or brazilwood, but also in recent years from carbon fibre or fibreglass, and strung with horse or synthetic hair.
How is the cello played?
Cellists generally play their instrument while seated in a standard chair, with the cello placed between the legs and leaning against the body.
The cello is most often played with a bow or by plucking the strings with the right hand, known as pizzicato. Rosin, a sticky substance similar to sap, is used by cellists to add friction to the bow hair so that it grips the strings and allows them to ‘speak’. The player rubs the hardened cake of rosin onto the bow hair to achieve an even coat. As it’s applied, the cake becomes a white powder which bonds to the bow hair.
The player holds the bow with their right hand and with their left hand holds the instrument’s fingerboard, using the fingers as stops on the strings to create notes of different pitches.
Cellists learn very similar bowing styles to those used by the rest of the violin family, including legato, staccato, spiccato and détaché. They also use vibrato, a rocking left-hand technique designed to add warmth and expression to the tone.
Jacqueline du Pré performs the first movement of Elgar's Cello Concerto
When was the cello invented?
The violin family emerged around 1500 as a category of instruments distinct from the viola da gamba family. The earliest records show three sizes of instruments, roughly corresponding to today’s violins, violas and cellos.
Contrary to popular belief, the cello did not evolve from the viola da gamba – meaning ‘viola of the leg’ – but instead from the violin or viola da braccio family, meaning ‘viola of the arm’. The earliest surviving cellos were made by Andrea Amati, the first known member of the Amati family of luthiers.
Why is it called the cello?
The name cello is derived from the ending of the Italian ‘violoncello’, which means ‘little violone’. Violone (‘big viola’) was a large-sized member of the viol (viola da gamba) or violin (viola da braccio) families.
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By the beginning of the 20th century, it was common to shorten the name to 'cello, with the apostrophe indicating the missing ‘violon’. But it is now most common to use cello without the apostrophe.
Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.