What Is a Cello?

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The cello is a four-string bowed instrument which has been used for many centuries and is still popular today. The first cellos date back to around 1500 CE, when they were originally called the bass violin. However, it took until the eighteenth century for the cello to gain popularity throughout Europe. Later in that century, the cello’s tuning was finally standardized, and its sound became a fixture in Baroque Era music. The cello’s popularity did not die out with the Classical and Romantic periods, but only increased over time. More recently, cellos are optimized in Contemporary classical pieces such as in the popular works of Yo-Yo Ma and 2Cellos. In 2017, Tina Guo made “Wonder Woman Main Theme” a soundtrack icon with her electric cello solo.

How Are Cellos Constructed?

The Cello is an intricate and beautiful instrument comprised of four basic structures; the neck, the body, the tailpiece, and the bow.

The neck is long and thin and extends from the body upward. It is topped with the scroll, a box from which the playing strings are strung. Players use the pegs found on the scroll in order to tune their instruments. The neck of the cello also contains the fingerboard, a flat surface against which players press strings to create different notes. The body of the cello is the largest structure, measuring an average of 20 inches across.

The cello strings extend from the neck and fingerboard over the bridge, a fan-like structure which keeps the strings in place, until about two-thirds down the body, where they are secured by the fine tuners found on the tailpiece. There is also an f-shaped cut on either side of the strings where the sound is released when the cello is played.

The tailpiece is a v-shaped structure at the bottom third of the cello where the endpin, a thin leg-like spike, is attached. Finally, the bow is a separate piece comprised of hair, usually horsehair strung across a long wooden rod. Traditionally, cellos are made of carved wood, usually spruce or maple, but cheaper versions use anything from willow to laminated wood.

How Do You Play a Cello?

There are many different cello playing techniques, but all create vibrations in the four strings which are amplified through the body and exit the f-cuts as sound. The most common way of playing is using the bow. A cellist glides the bow across the strings with his right hand while exerting pressure on those same stings with his left hand against the fingerboard. The various finger placements and combinations create individual notes and melodies. A cellist can also opt to pluck or even simply tap the strings in a technique called pizzicato, similar to the way one plays guitar or bass.

What Is an Electric Cello?

Musicians today can also opt for an electric cello. Electric cellos tend to be thinner and lighter than their acoustic counterparts as they do not need a body to amplify their sound. They are usually made of aluminum as well as other metals and need to be hooked up to an amplifier to make sound. The electric cello may look very different from the classical cello, but the playing principals are mostly the same.

What Does the Cello Sound Like?

The cello’s sound is highly unique with a large range. Cellos can play up to five octaves, from C2 (the octave below middle C on a piano) to C6, a larger range than any other instrument in the string section. Because of its range, the cellos is used both for the baseline in an orchestra as well as for the main melody. In fact, musicians often equate the range and sound of the cello with that of the human voice. The cello can convey emotion incredibly well, especially when using a strong vibrato (a wavering sound produced by a cellist rotating his hand).

What Kind of Music Can Cellos Play?

Cellos are incredibly versatile. They are a fixture in orchestras globally but can be found across all genres of music. For instance, cellos are often used in jazz ensembles. In many cases even Pop and Rock music featured cellos, such as The Beatles’ song “Yesterday” or Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother,” which includes a predominant cello solo. Popular R&B and Hip hop artists Ne-yo and Rihanna featured the cello in their 2007 American Music Awards performance as well. It is evident, therefore, that the cello is an indispensable sound to our musical world.

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Bobby is a viola player who currently lives in Seattle. He has been playing viola for over 20 years in various orchestras.


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