What’s the Difference Between a Cello and Double Bass?


An orchestra is a tad more complicated than a rock band, at least when it comes to their instrumental lineup. There are dozens of members in an orchestra, playing a dazzling array of various instruments. But the largest of these instruments are the cello and the double bass.

What’s the difference between a cello and double bass? While both instruments are large and have strings, the double bass is larger and has a lower pitch. Meanwhile, the cello is the deepest-sounding instrument in the violin family.

The distinction between the two is more complex than meets the eye. Read on so you can impress people with your orchestral knowledge the next time someone asks.

What is a Cello?

A cello, also called a violoncello, is a bulky wooden stringed instrument common in orchestras. An Italian luthier named Andrea Amati created the first modern cello in the 1500s.

They became super popular in Italy by the 1550s, where they quickly became commonplace in Baroque era orchestras. Cellos were originally made with five strings but later simplified to four — as we know them now.

Cellos offer a unique, instantly recognizable sound profile. Even if you can’t match the sound to the instrument, there’s no doubt that nearly everyone will think, “Oh yeah, that instrument,” upon hearing it.

For reference, here’s the cello (four of them to be exact) in action:

What is a Double Bass?

Meanwhile, a double bass (also called an upright, standup, or contrabass) looks like an even more massive cello. Silvestro Ganassi invented this instrument a couple decades after Andrea Amati invented the cello. As you can infer from his name, yes — Ganassi was also Italian.

A double bass usually has four or five strings. They stand taller than most members of the orchestra at over six feet. Thus, they must be played with the musician standing up or sitting on a high stool.

Because the pitch is so low, and there are no electronic amplifiers in a classical music ensemble, you’ll usually see around six bassists on stage. This enables the basses to come together and be heard during a piece.

Here’s what a double bass looks and sounds like:

Cello vs. Double Bass

So, we know that cellos and double basses have many commonalities. Both instruments:

  • Came from Italy in the 1500s
  • Have their notes (mostly) on the bass clef
  • Have four to five strings
  • Are big

Of course, there are other factors to consider. Let’s explore what these are to uncover what makes each instrument unique.

Cello vs. Double Bass Size

Short answer:

A double bass is bigger.

Long(er) answer:

A typical full-sized cello is about 5 feet tall if you stand it upright. However, if you shop for a cello, the length of the back is how sellers list the instrument’s size. Thirty inches is typical, although smaller adults and teenagers may opt for something shorter.

On the other hand, a double bass is usually 6 feet tall, but they may be larger if needed to accommodate the player’s height. Ideally, the bassist’s eyes should line up with the top of the fretboard when standing.

How to Play the Cello vs. a Double Bass

Cello

To play the cello, you sit down and prop it on your lap. Then, you face the strings away from your body so you can sound the instrument with a bow. If you’d like to get started with the cello, this video goes into more detail:

Double Bass

Meanwhile, to play the standup bass, you’ll need to (surprise) stand up. This is because a properly sized double bass will be taller than you.

Like the cello, you face the fretboard away from your body. But, unlike the cello, you’ll stand to the right of it rather than straddling it between your legs.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out this video:

Cello vs. Double Bass Sound

Cello

A cello sounds like a deep-voiced violin. You know it when you hear it — it’s the instrument that plays right before s**t’s goes down in a movie. Also, the cello has the second-lowest pitch of stringed instruments at 63 Hz on the open C.

Because you use a bow to play the cello, the sound is wavering and sustained. Again, like a violin with a bold twist.

Double Bass

You can probably infer from the name that a double bass is lower than a cello. This is because it (unsurprisingly) has the lowest pitch of an orchestra’s string section — 40 Hz, to be precise.

So, how does a double bass sound? Deep and ominous are appropriate adjectives for the instrument. For example, the Jaws theme song is a classic example of a contrabass in action.

Cello vs. Double Bass Tuning

Cello

Cellos are unique when it comes to tuning. Generally, the notes are (from lowest to highest) C, G, D, and A. The cello’s open notes are identical to the viola, except one octave lower.

Double Bass

If you’ve ever played guitar or electric bass, you’re familiar with how a double bass is tuned. Four a four-stringer, the notes are E-A-D-G. For five-stringed double basses, this includes a low B string.

Summary

Too long? Didn’t read? Don’t worry — here’s a table summarizing the differences between cellos and double basses.

CelloDouble Bass
Size
About five feet tall
Size
Six feet tall or more
Technique
A cello is played sitting down, straddled between the cellist’s legs.
Technique
A double bass is played standing up, or on a very high stool, so the top of the fretboard is at the bassist’s eye level.
Sound/Timbre
Low and foreboding, sometimes solemn. Always played with a bow, providing drawn-out notes.  
Sound/Timbre
Very low tone. Notes may sound one-by-one (plucked) or sustained (played with a bow).
Tuning
A cello has the notes, C – G – D – A. It’s tuned like a cello, but one octave lower.
Tuning
A double bass has the notes E – A – D – G. Meanwhile, a five-stringed double bass has a low B, too,

Cello vs. Double Bass FAQs

Is a Cello Just a Big Violin?

Kind of — it’s actually not a dumb question. Cellos are in the violin family and have the same tuning as their higher-pitcher cousins.

From highest-pitched to lowest pitched (consequently smallest to biggest), members of the viola family are as follows:

Violin – Viola – Cello – Double bass.

So yes, a cello is like a beefed-up violin, although the notes are different. While a cello has the notes C – G – D – A, a violin’s strings are tuned to G – D – A – E.

What’s the Difference Between a Cello and a Viola?

Another instrument people mix up with the cello is the viola. Upon first glance, they don’t look much different. However, the cello is bigger than a viola and is thus capable of lower notes.

A cello and a viola both (usually) have four strings, each tuned to C – G – D – A. Though as we mentioned, the viola is an octave higher. Therefore, violists generally read music on the lower part of the treble clef, while cellists play primarily on the bass clef.

Also, a viola measures about 25 inches long in total, or roughly half the size of a cello. Finally, you play a viola more like a violin, resting it on your neck rather than between your legs.

Other Names for Double Bass

In this article, we mainly use the term “double bass” to describe the biggest member of the violin family. However, it answers to many alternatives. They include:

  • Contrabass
  • Upright bass
  • Bass viol
  • Bass fiddle
  • String bass
  • The bass

So don’t get caught off guard with the names of orchestra instruments. Often, those terms refer to the same thing.

Is the Double Bass Hard to Play?

If you can nail “Money” by Pink Floyd on an electric bass without breaking a sweat, don’t expect the double bass to give you such an easy go.

Firstly, you’ll need to nail down your form. You can’t sling it down low or play it upside down like you can with a Fender Precision bass.

Secondly, your current callouses may not be enough. For example, the strings on a double bass are harder on your fingers, and you won’t have an amp to help you out. Also, if you’re playing a piece that requires you to break out the bow, you’ll be entering unfamiliar territory if you’ve never played a violin, viola, or cello before.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t try to learn double bass. It’s certainly not the most challenging instrument in an orchestra. But it’s certainly a step up in difficulty from a “normal” bass.

Conclusion

After reading, we hope you’re well-acquainted with how cellos and double basses differ. It’s not just about the size or the pitch. Cellos and contrabasses (or however else you wish to refer to the double bass) are fundamentally distinct.

Tuning differs. The double bass is taller than the musician playing it, while the cello is a lap instrument. One must be played with a bow, while the other offers more flexibility. All in all, they’re very similar instruments that are also extraordinarily different.

Samuel Kesler

Hey, I'm Sam. I'm a heavy metal enthusiast who plays guitar, bass, and keyboard whenever I have free time. I can't think of a more enjoyable hobby, which is why I'm devoted to writing about it.

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