Violoncello: Over-Shadowed By the Violin But Worthy of Consideration

The violoncello is a string instrument belonging to the violin family. It comes third in terms of size after the violin and the viola. Then follows the biggest one, the double-bass. Personally I prefer the cello because it has the most mellow sound of the string family instruments. The pitch is not too high and reedy like the violin, neither too low as it is of the double-bass. It was developed in Italy, as most of the musical instruments did, at the beginning of the 16th century.

Like the other three instruments of its family it consists of four strings which are a perfect fifth apart. Those are the C, G, D, A and they sound an octave lower than the strings of a viola. The strings are usually made of gut, wire or nylon. The other main parts of a cello starting from the top to the bottom are:

  • the scroll, the decorative curve at the top of the instrument
  • the tuning pegs with which every string is attached and wrapped around; with the pegs we tune the instrument
  • the fingerboard. This is the black long part in the neck of the cello and is where we press the strings with the fingers to produce different notes
  • the bridge is the wooden little part on which the strings are supported
  • the tail-piece is the black plastic object that holds the strings at the bottom
  • the fine tuners are small metallic buttons on the tail-piece which are used for the tuning of the instrument likewise with the pegs
  • the spike is a pointed metal object underneath the cello and its function is to rest the cello on the ground so it won't slip

And of course a bow with which the instrument is played is essential. The bow is a stick with tight horsehair. We can play the cello, and all the other string instruments, by either using a bow to make the strings vibrate or by plucking the strings with the fingers. The first way of playing is called “arco,” the Italian word meaning “bow” and the second way is called “pizzicato” which means “to pluck.” These terms are to be found on the musical pieces underneath the notes to guide the player on how to perform.

A main difference of the string instruments from the keyboard, brass and woodwind instruments is that there is no key which corresponds to a note e.g. on the piano we only have to press a key and right away we hear the precise note which corresponds to that key. But on a string instrument the player has to learn precisely where to press a string so the required note will be sound. Pressing a string little higher or lower on the fingerboard will give a different note accordingly.

The reason why the four string instruments (violin, viola, violoncello and double-bass) sound different is due to the length and thickness of the strings and how much we tighten them. The shorter and tighter the higher the notes that will be produced. That's why the violin which has the shortest strings produces high-pitched notes whereas the double-bass which has the longest strings produces very low-pitched notes.

String instruments are of the most basic instruments for the function of an orchestra and chamber music, however, the violin and the double-bass are also widely used in other kinds of music like jazz and latin. In jazz and latin usually an electrical violin is used rather than an acoustic one and also the double-bass is played primarily by plucking the strings and not by using a bow. That way the effect of music is different and suits better to these kinds of music.

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