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Two cellists in action.

The cello is a large stringed instrument which is one of the mainstays of the modern orchestra. It is the biggest member of the viola family, which consists of the violin, viola and cello. Together with the double bass1, these make up the string section of the orchestra. The cello looks just like a very large violin, has four metal strings and is played in the same way, by stroking the strings with a horse-hair bow. Due to its size, however, it is played with the instrument held more or less vertically between the player's knees. There is a metal spike at the end called the 'end pin' which rests on the ground.

The original name of the cello was violoncello (literally, 'little big viola') which shows its relation to the violin and viola, and the name is still sometimes written as 'cello to show the missing violon- at the start. Cello players are called cellists, rather than celloists.

The cello is tuned the same as the viola but an octave lower in pitch. It is the bass of the viola family, while the viola and violin are alto and soprano2.


The cello, like all the viola family, was first produced in Italy in the 16th Century. The family was developed from an earlier family of instruments called the viol or viola da gamba. The viola family improved upon the viol family in a number of ways so its instruments quickly caught on. Today, only the double bass remains of the viol family.

The 16th Century cello makers of the city of Cremona, Italy, produced wonderful instruments, unrivalled even today. The names Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari are still well known, though more often for their violins than their cellos. There have been very few changes to the basic design of cello since that time.

The viola family became the basis for the orchestra. Other instruments were added as available, but the core was always the violin, viola and cello. As orchestras got bigger, other and louder instruments were added, and the number of cellos was increased to match. A modern symphony orchestra has as many as ten cellos.

Chamber music also kept the cello as an essential member. The pinnacle of chamber music is reckoned to be the musical form known as the string quartet. This consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. The cello is also used in chamber music with various other combinations, such as cello and flute.

The cello is very rare outside of classical music.

Playing the Cello

The cello is played very similarly to the violin. There are some differences, some obvious, some not so obvious:

  • Playing position: the cello is held vertically between the player's knees, with the tail spike on the ground and the top of the body touching the player's chest. The left hand is wrapped around the neck of the cello with the fingers on the strings. The right hand holds the bow horizontally. The playing position of a cello is a very natural position, much more so than many instruments such as the violin or flute.

  • Fingers: it takes great strength to hold down the strings against the fingerboard, so beginners are encouraged to use more than one finger at a time. For example, when playing with the third finger, the first, second and third fingers are held down. More advanced players use just one finger per string, though, because this allows greater flexibility in playing.

  • Positions: Because the strings are so long, the fingering patterns used on the violin will not work on the cello, because they require too big a stretch of the hands. The four strings are tuned in fifths, to the notes C2, G2, D3 and A3. (C4 is middle C). The simplest way to play notes is in the 'first position', where the four fingers of the left hand are positioned at four points along the string and rarely move from these positions. The string length is from the top of the fingerboard, the 'nut', to the bridge. The first finger is positioned one ninth of the string length away from the nut. The fourth finger is positioned one quarter of the string length from the nut. The other two fingers are in between. The hand's natural shape puts them in exactly the right positions. With the four fingers in place and the open string, all the notes of a C major scale can be played easily.

  • Clefs: Cello music is usually written in the bass clef rather than the treble clef. Some very high notes are written in the tenor clef.

Music for Cello

The cello has a harmony role in almost all classical music. In addition, there is a vast range of music where the instrument takes a more prominent role, either as a solo instrument or in a quartet.

  • JS Bach - Cello Suites
  • Haydn - Cello Concerto
  • Dvorák - Cello Concerto
  • Tchaikovsky - Rococo Variations
  • Elgar - Cello Concerto
  • Saint Saëns - 'The Swan' from Carnival of the Animals
  • Beethoven - String Quartets
  • Shostakovich - String Quartets
  • Richard Strauss - Don Quixote, tone poem in the form of theme and variations
  • Tavener - The Protecting Veil

Great Cellists

  • Pablo Casals
  • Jacqueline du Près
  • Mstislav Rostropovich
  • Julian Lloyd Webber
  • Yo-Yo Ma
  • Stephen Isserlis
1The double bass belongs to a different family of instruments, the viol or viola da gamba family.2The missing tenor part used to be supplied by an instrument called the tenor violin, but this is no longer used.

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