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Cello vs Bass – What are the Key Differences Between Them?


There are four instruments in the violin family: the violin, the viola, the cello, and the double bass. The violin and viola look similar, as do the cello and the bass.

When you dissect the differences between cello vs bass, you’ll learn to tell them apart. They are different sizes, and you play them in unique positions. Each instrument produces distinct sounds, with the bass being lower than the cello.

Besides these surface-level characteristics, there are more differences between bass vs cello. Let’s break it down even further.

Cello vs Bass Differences

Though the cello and the double bass look alike to the untrained eye, they differ in many ways. If you see them both standing in an orchestra, you might not know which is which. If you look closer and listen to their notes, the answer will become clear.

Size

These are the largest instruments in the violin family. The bass is bigger than a cello, measuring over six feet long. Besides being taller, the instrument’s body is much larger than that of a cello.

Cello vs Double Bass Size - the bass is on the left

Though the bass and cello are big, that doesn’t mean the player needs to be taller than the instruments. People of any size can play the bass or cello comfortably.

In Italy, they call the cello a violoncello, which means “small double bass.” The size also impacts the sound each instrument makes, so you’ll learn about that next.

Strings and Octaves

Both the bass and the cello have thick strings, especially compared to the violin and viola. The cello’s strings are longer than those of the violin and viola. The bass has the longest strings of all since the instrument is so tall.

You tune a bass in 4ths, from E, A, D, to G. They are the only string instrument played with a bow that you tune in 4ths. You tune a cello in 5ths, starting low and going high from C, G, D, to A. 

The bass E is lower than the cello’s low C. Besides having a lower range, many of the cello and bass notes overlap. With the cello’s smaller body, it can play melodies to accompany the woodwinds’ tones.

Tuning and Tuning Pegs

The cello’s scroll has metal tuning pegs coming out of the sides. You can use them to loosen or tighten the strings to get the right sound.

The bass also has metal screws sticking out, but they are on the back of the scroll. On the bass, you call them tuning machines instead of tuning pegs.

Physical Structure

Some people confuse the instruments in the violin family because they’re made of the same wood and have the same general style. If you look closely, you’ll see that the bass has more of a slope at the top of its body when compared to a cello.

Octave and Notes

Cellos cover five octaves, but the bass can only handle four. This gives the instrument a tenor voice in an orchestra that can play harmony, melody, or support. The cello sounds richer than a violin or viola.

The bass has a deeper sound than a cello and can go an octave lower. Due to its sound, it usually plays the steady bass line behind the music.

Because the cello’s sound is so diverse, there are usually 12 cellos in an orchestra. On average, there are about eight double basses. When the cello and base work together, they can set a rhythmic foundation for the rest of the orchestra.

Playing Position

It’s easy to tell the difference between cello vs viola in terms of playing position. The musician holds the viola on their shoulder, while the cello stands upright. But both the cello and the bass rest on the floor with the support of a metal endpin, which can make it harder to tell them apart. 

Musicians play both instruments with a bow, but the bass can use a French or German grip bow. Cello bows are smaller versions of the French grip bow.

The easiest way to identify the cello vs bass is to look at how the players hold each instrument.

How to Hold a Cello

A cello must be played sitting down, and is the only string instrument with this rule. You can sit on the edge of the chair or against the back as long as you sit up straight. Good posture is important for supporting the weight of the instrument.

When you’re settled in a sturdy chair, hold the cello’s neck to the left of your head. You want the C-string tuning peg to be near your ear. The cello’s body will rest against your chest. Your knees can hold the lower part of the instrument steady as you play.

As you play, you’ll find that it’s best to angle the cello slightly to the right so your bow can easily hit all the strings.

How to Hold a Bass

Since the instrument is so tall, you can play a bass standing up or sitting on a stool. Regardless of the position you choose, make sure you can hold the instrument and reach the strings. Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart is the most common way to play.

The fingerboard should be even with your eyebrows, but you can adjust the endpin as necessary. Let the bass tilt back so it rests on your left hip. This will be an optimal position to reach all the strings and play comfortably.

Wrap Up

You might find it hard to discern the differences with cello vs double bass, but this breakdown of the instruments will help. Because they are all part of the violin family, it’s easy to learn how to play the cello if you already know the bass, and vice versa.

Both the bass and cello are vital instruments in an orchestra, but you’ll be able to hear them in popular music as well. Whether you intend to learn to play one of these instruments or just appreciate the sound, you now know how to tell them apart.