AskDefine | Define cello

Dictionary Definition

cello n : a large stringed instrument; seated player holds it upright while playing [syn: violoncello]

User Contributed Dictionary

see Cello



  • italbrac RP: /ˈtʃɛləʊ/
  • italbrac US: /ˈtʃɛloʊ/
    Rhymes: -ɛləʊ


  1. A large stringed instrument of the violin family with four strings. (From lowest to highest C-G-D-A)


Derived terms


musical instrument



  1. cello

Related terms




Related terms

Extensive Definition

The violoncello, usually abbreviated to cello, or cello, plural celli (the c is , as in the ch in "checkers", thus "Chell-lo") is a bowed string instrument. A person who plays a cello is called a cellist. The cello is used as a solo instrument, in chamber music, and as a member of the string section of an orchestra.


The name cello is an abbreviation of the Italian violoncello, which means "little violone", most probably not referring to the double bass but instead to the slightly larger (and now uncommon) instrument the bass violin which was sometimes tuned a whole step lower than the cello. Cellos are tuned in fifths, starting with C4 as the lowest string, followed by G, D, and A. It is tuned the same way as the viola, only an octave lower.
The cello is most closely associated with European classical music, and has been described as the closest sounding instrument to the human voice. The instrument is a part of the standard orchestra and is the bass voice of the string quartet, as well as being part of many other chamber groups. A large number of concertos and sonatas have been written for the cello. The instrument is less common in popular music, but is sometimes featured in pop and rock recordings. The cello has also recently appeared in major hip-hop and R & B performances, such as singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo's performance at the American Music Awards. The instrument has also been modified for Indian classical music by Nancy Lesh and Saskia Rao-de Haas.
Among the most famous Baroque works for the cello are J. S. Bach's six unaccompanied Suites. From the Classical era, the two concertos by Joseph Haydn in C major and D major stand out, as do the five sonatas for cello and pianoforte of Beethoven which span the important three periods of his compositional evolution. Romantic era repertoire includes the Schumann Concerto in A minor, the Concerto by Antonín Dvořák, and the two sonatas by Brahms. Compositions from the early 20th century include Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, unaccompanied cello sonatas by Zoltán Kodály (Op.8), Paul Hindemith (Op.25) and W.H. Squire . The cello's versatility made it popular with composers in the mid- to late twentieth century, encouraged by soloists who specialized in contemporary music (such as Siegfried Palm and Mstislav Rostropovich) commissioning from and collaborating with composers.



The cello is typically made from wood, although other materials such as carbon fiber or aluminum may be used. A traditional cello has a spruce top, with maple for the back, sides, and neck. Other woods, such as poplar or willow, are sometimes used for the back and sides. Less expensive cellos frequently have tops and backs made of laminated wood.
The top and back are traditionally hand-carved, though less expensive cellos are often machine-produced. The sides, or ribs, are made by heating the wood and bending it around forms. The cello body has a wide top bout, narrow middle formed by two C-bouts, and wide bottom bout, with the bridge and sound holes just below the middle.
The top and back of the cello has decorative border inlay known as purfling.
Cello manufacturer Luis & Clark constructs cellos from carbon fiber. Carbon fiber cellos are particularly suitable for outdoor playing because of the strength of the material and its resistance to humidity and temperature fluctuations.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) as well as German luthier G.A. Pfretzschner produced an untold number of aluminum cellos (in addition to aluminum double basses and violins). An advertisement published in N.Y. Music Service catalogue (1930) reads: "...made entirely of aluminum with the exception of the fingerboard. They have many advantages over the wood basses and violoncellos, as they cannot crack, split or warp and are made to last forever ... possessing a tone quality that is deep, resonant and responsive to the utmost degree. Violoncello $150."

Neck, pegbox, and scroll

Above the main body is the carved neck, which leads to a pegbox and the scroll. The neck, pegbox, and scroll are normally carved out of a single piece of wood. Attached to the neck and extending over the body of the instrument is the fingerboard. The nut is a raised piece of wood, where the fingerboard meets the pegbox, which the strings rest on. The pegbox houses four tuning pegs, one for each string. The pegs are used to tune the cello by either tightening or loosening the string. The scroll is a traditional part of the cello and all other members of the violin family. Ebony is usually used for the tuning pegs, fingerboard, and nut, but other hard woods, such as boxwood or rosewood, can be used.


Strings on a cello have cores made out of gut, metal, or synthetic materials, such as Perlon. Cellists may mix different types of strings on their instruments.

Tailpiece and endpin

The tailpiece and endpin are found in the lower part of the cello. The tailpiece is traditionally made of ebony or another hard wood, but can also be made of plastic or steel. It attaches the strings to the lower end of the cello, and can have one or more fine tuners. The endpin or spike is made of wood, metal or rigid carbon fiber and supports the cello in playing position. In the Baroque period the cello was held between the calves. Around the 1830s, the Belgian cellist Auguste Adrien Servais introduced the endpin and propagated its use. Modern endpins are retractable and adjustable; older ones were removed when not in use. (The word "endpin" also refers to the button of wood located at this place in all instruments in the violin family.) The sharp tip of the cello's endpin is sometimes capped with a rubber tip that protects the tip from dulling and prevents the cello from slipping on the floor.

Bridge and f-holes

The bridge holds the strings above the cello and transfers their vibrations to the top of the instrument and the soundpost inside (see below). The bridge is not glued, but rather held in place by the tension of the strings. The f-holes, named for their shape, are located on either side of the bridge, and allow air to move in and out of the instrument as part of the sound-production process. The f-holes also act as access points to the interior of the cello for repairs or maintenance. Sometimes a small hose containing a water-soaked sponge, called a Dampit, is inserted through the f-holes, and serves as a humidifier.

Internal features

Internally, the cello has two important features: a bass bar, which is glued to the underside of the top of the instrument, and a round wooden sound post, which is wedged between the top and bottom plates. The bass bar, found under the bass foot of the bridge, serves to support the cello's top and distribute the vibrations. The sound post, found under the treble side of the bridge, connects the back and front of the cello. Like the bridge, the sound post is not glued, but is kept in place by the tensions of the bridge and strings. Together, the bass bar and sound post transfer the strings' vibrations to the top (front) of the instrument (and to a lesser extent the back), acting as a diaphragm to produce the instrument's sound.


Cellos are constructed and repaired using hide glue, which is strong but reversible, allowing for disassembly when needed. Tops may be glued on with diluted glue, since some repairs call for the removal of the top. Theoretically, hide glue is weaker than the body's wood, so as the top or back shrinks side-to-side, the glue holding it will let go, avoiding a crack in the plate.


Traditionally, bows are made from pernambuco or brazilwood. Both come from the same species of tree (Caesalpina echinata), but pernambuco, used for higher-quality bows, is the heartwood of the tree and is darker in color than brazilwood (which is sometimes stained to compensate). Pernambuco is a heavy, resinous wood with great elasticity which makes it an ideal wood for instrument bows.
Bow sticks are also made from carbon-fiber, which is stronger than wood. Inexpensive, low-quality student bows are often made from fiberglass. An average cello bow is 73 cm long (shorter than a violin or viola bow) 3 cm high (from the frog to the stick) and 1.5 cm wide. The frog of a cello bow typically has a rounded corner like that of a viola bow, but is wider. A cello bow is roughly 10 grams heavier than a viola bow, which in turn is roughly 10 g heavier than a violin bow.
The bow hair is horsehair, though synthetic hair in different colors is also available. The hair is coated with rosin by the player to make it grip the strings and cause them to vibrate. Bows need to be re-haired periodically, especially if the hairs break frequently or lose their gripping quality. The hair is kept under tension while playing by a screw which pulls the frog (the part of the bow under the hand) back.


The cello developed from the bass violin, first referred to by Jambe de Fer in 1556, which was originally a three-string instrument. The first instance of a composer specifying the bass violin may have been Gabrieli in Sacrae symphoniae, 1597. Monteverdi referred to the instrument as "basso de viola da braccio" in Orfeo (1607). Although the first bass violin, possibly invented by Amati as early as 1538, was most likely inspired by the viol, it was created to be used in consorts with the violin. The bass violin was actually often referred to as a "violone," or "large viola," as were the viols of the same period. Instruments that share features with both the bass violin and the viola de gamba appear in Italian art of the early 1500s...
The invention of wire-wound strings (fine wire around a thin gut core), around 1660 in Bologna, allowed for a finer bass sound than was possible with purely gut strings on such a short body. Bolognese makers exploited this new technology to create the cello, a somewhat smaller instrument suitable for solo repertoire due to both the timbre of the instrument and the fact that the smaller size made it easier to play virtuosic passages. This instrument had disadvantages as well, however. The cello's light sound was not as suitable for church and ensemble playing, so it had to be doubled by basses or violones.
Around 1700, Italian players popularized the cello in northern Europe, although the bass violin (basse de violon) continued to be used for another two decades in France. Many existing bass violins were literally cut down in size in order to convert them into cellos according to the smaller pattern cello as developed by Stradivari, who also made a number of old pattern large cello's (the 'Servais'). The bass violin remained the "most used" instrument in England as late as 1740, where the violoncello was still "not common." The sizes, names, and tunings of the cello varied widely by geography and time. ! Average size (cm) ! Average size (in) |- | Approximate width horizontally from A peg to C peg ends | 16 | 6 - 5/16 |- | Back length excluding half round where neck joins | 75.5 | 29 - 12/16 |- | Upper bouts (shoulders) | 34 | 13 - 6/16 |- | Lower bouts (hips) | 44 | 17 - 5/16 |- | Bridge height | 9 | 3 - 9/16 |- | Rib depth at shoulders including edges of front and back | 12.5 | 4 - 15/16 |- | Rib depth at hips including edges | 12.8 | 5 - 1/16 |- | Distance beneath fingerboard to surface of belly at neck join | 2.2 | 14/16 |- | Bridge to back total depth | 26.7 | 10 - 8/16 |- | Overall height excluding end pin | 121 | 47 - 10/16 |- | End pin unit and spike | 5.5 | 2 - 3/16 |}


There are many accessories to the cello, (some more essential than others).
  • Cases are used to protect the cello and bow when traveling, and for safe storage.
  • Rosin, made from conifer resin, is applied to the bow hairs to increase the effectiveness of the friction, grip or bite, and allow proper sound production.
  • Endpin stops or straps (tradenames include Rockstop and Black Hole) keep the cello from sliding if the endpin does not have a rubber piece on the end (used on wood floors) though in many cases a rubber piece will not suffice on even a wood floor.
  • Wolf tone eliminators are sometimes placed on cello strings between the tailpiece and the bridge in order to eliminate acoustic anomalies known as wolf tones or "wolfs".
  • Mutes are used to change the sound of the cello by reducing overtones. Practice mutes (made of metal) significantly reduce the instrument's volume (they are also referred to as "hotel mutes").
  • Metronomes provide a steady tempo by sounding out a certain number of beats per minute. Many models can also produce a tuning pitch of A4 (440 Hz), among others.
  • Humidifiers are used to control and stabilize the humidity around and inside the cello and are popular with travelling cellists.
  • Tuners are used to tune the instrument.

Current use


Cellos are part of the standard symphony orchestra. Usually, the orchestra includes eight to twelve cellists. The cello section, in standard orchestral seating, is located on stage left (the audience's right) in the front, opposite the first violin section. However, some orchestras and conductors prefer switching the positioning of the viola and cello sections. The principal, or "first chair" cellist is the section leader, determining bowings for the section in conjunction with other string principals, and playing solos. Principal players always sit closest to the audience.
The cellos are a critical part of orchestral music; all symphonic works involve the cello section, and many pieces require cello soli or solos. Much of the time, cellos provide part of the harmony for the orchestra. On many occasions, the cello section will play the melody for a brief period of time, before returning to the harmony. There are also cello concertos, which are orchestral pieces in which a featured, solo cellist is accompanied by an entire orchestra.


There are numerous cello concertos - where the cello is accompanied by an orchestra - notably 25 by Vivaldi, 3 by C.P.E. Bach, 2 by Haydn, 1 by Edouard Lalo, 2 by Saint-Saëns, 2 by Antonín Dvořák, 12 by Boccherini, and one each by Schumann and Elgar. Beethoven's Triple Concerto for Cello, Violin and Piano and Brahms' Double Concerto for Cello and Violin are also part of the concertante repertoire although in both cases the cello shares solo duties with at least one other instrument. Moreover, several composers wrote large-scale pieces for cello and orchestra, which are concertos in all but name. The most important are Strauss' tone poem Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Bloch's Schelomo and Bruch's Kol Nidrei.
In the 20th century, the cello repertoire grew. This was due to the influence of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich who inspired, commissioned and/or premiered dozens of new works. Among these, Prokofiev's Symphonia Concertante, Britten's Cello Symphony and the concertos of Shostakovich, Lutosławski and Dutilleux have already become part of the standard repertoire. In addition, Hindemith, Barber, Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Myaskovsky, Walton, Glass, Rodrigo, Arnold, Penderecki and Ligeti also wrote major concertos for other cellists (notably Gregor Piatigorsky, Siegfried Palm and Julian Lloyd Webber). There are also many sonatas for cello and piano. Those written by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, Grieg, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten are the most famous.
Finally, there are several unaccompanied pieces for cello, most importantly J.S. Bach's six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello (arguably the most important cello pieces), Zoltán Kodály's Sonata for Solo Cello and Britten's three Unaccompanied Suites for Cello. Other notable examples include Dutilleux' Trois Strophes sur le Nom de Sacher, Berio's Les Mots Sont Allés (both part of a series of twelve compositions for solo cello commissioned by Rostropovich for Swiss conductor Paul Sacher's 70th birthday), Ligeti and Carter's sonatas and Xenakis' Nomos Alpha and Kottos.

Quartets and other ensembles

The cello is a member of the traditional string quartet as well as string quintets, sextet or trios and other mixed ensembles. There are also pieces written for two, three, four or more cellos; this type of ensemble is also called a "cello choir" and its sound is familiar from the introduction to Rossini's William Tell Overture as well as Zaccharias' prayer scene in Verdi's Nabucco. As a self-sufficient ensemble, its most famous repertoire is Villa-Lobos' first of his Bachianas Brasileiras for cello ensemble (the fifth is for soprano and 8 cellos). Another example is Boulez' Messagesquisse for 7 cellos. The Twelve Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (or "the Twelve" as they have since taken to being called) specialize in this repertoire and have commissioned many works, including arrangements of well-known popular songs.

Popular music and jazz

Though the cello is less common in popular music than in "classical" music, it is sometimes featured in pop and rock recordings. The cello is rarely part of a group's standard lineup (though like its cousin the violin it is becoming more common in mainstream pop).
In the 1960s, artists such as the Beatles and Cher used the cello in popular music, in songs such as "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," "Eleanor Rigby" and "Strawberry Fields Forever". In the 1970s, the Electric Light Orchestra enjoyed great commercial success taking inspiration from so-called "Beatlesque" arrangements, adding the cello (and violin) to the standard rock combo line-up and in 1978 the UK based rock band, Colosseum II, collaborated with cellist Julian Lloyd Webber on the recording Variations.
Established non-traditional cello groups include Apocalyptica, a group of Finnish cellists best known for their versions of Metallica songs, Rasputina, a group of two female cellists committed to an intricate cello style intermingled with Gothic music, Von Cello, a cello fronted rock power trio, and Break of Reality who mix elements of classical music with the more modern rock and metal genre. These groups are examples of a style that has become known as cello rock. The crossover string quartet bond also includes a cellist. Silenzium and Vivacello are Russian (Novosibirsk) groups playing rock and metal and having more and more popularity in Siberia.
More recent bands using the cello are Aerosmith, Nirvana, Oasis, Murder by Death, and Cursive. So-called "chamber pop" artists like Kronos Quartet and Margot and the Nuclear So and So's have also recently made cello common in modern alternative rock. Heavy metal band System of a Down has also made use of the cello's rich sound. The indie rock band The Stiletto Formal are known for using a cello as a major staple of their sound.
The cello can also be used in bluegrass and folk music.
The cello and the double bass are now also used in some modern Chinese orchestras.
In jazz, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Harry Babasin were among the first to use the cello as a solo instrument; both tuned their instrument in fourths, an octave above the double bass. Fred Katz (who was not a bassist) was one of the first notable jazz cellists to use the instrument's standard tuning and arco technique. Contemporary jazz cellists include Abdul Wadud, Diedre Murray, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, David Darling, Akua Dixon, Ernst Reijseger, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Vincent Courtois, Jean-Charles Capon, and Erik Friedlander.

Instrument makers

A luthier is someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments, ranging from guitars to violins. The following luthiers are notable for the cellos they have produced:


A person who plays the cello is called a cellist not a "celloist." For a list of notable cellists, see the list of cellists. See also :Category:Cellists.

Famous cellos

Famous cellos include:




  • A Musical Dictionary
  • The Early History of the Viol

External links


cello in Arabic: كمان جهير
cello in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Віяланчэль
cello in Bavarian: Violoncello
cello in Bulgarian: Виолончело
cello in Catalan: Violoncel
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cello in Czech: Violoncello
cello in Welsh: Sielo
cello in Danish: Cello
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cello in Modern Greek (1453-): Βιολοντσέλο
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cello in Western Frisian: Sello
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cello in Korean: 첼로
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cello in Indonesian: Cello
cello in Icelandic: Selló
cello in Italian: Violoncello
cello in Hebrew: צ'לו
cello in Latvian: Čells
cello in Lithuanian: Violončelė
cello in Hungarian: Cselló
cello in Macedonian: Виолончело
cello in Malay (macrolanguage): Selo
cello in Dutch: Cello
cello in Japanese: チェロ
cello in Norwegian: Cello
cello in Occitan (post 1500): Violoncèl
cello in Uighur: چوڭ ئىسكىروپكا
cello in Uzbek: Violonchel
cello in Polish: Wiolonczela
cello in Portuguese: Violoncelo
cello in Quechua: Chilu
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cello in Simple English: Cello
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cello in Finnish: Sello
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cello in Turkish: Viyolonsel
cello in Ukrainian: Віолончель
cello in Chinese: 大提琴

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

A string, Amati, Cremona, D string, E string, English horn, G string, Strad, Stradivari, Stradivarius, bass, bass viol, bassoon, block flute, bombard, bourdon, bow, bridge, bull fiddle, claribel, clarinet, clarion, concert flute, contrabass, cornet, cornopean, cromorna, crowd, cymbel, diapason, double bass, dulciana, fiddle, fiddlebow, fiddlestick, fingerboard, flute stop, foundation stop, fourniture, gamba, gedeckt, gemshorn, harmonic flute, hybrid stop, kit, kit fiddle, kit violin, koppel flute, larigot, melodia, mixture, mutation stop, nazard, oboe, octave, organ stop, piccolo, plein jeu, posaune, principal, quint, quintaten, rank, ranket, reed stop, register, rohr flute, scroll, sesquialtera, shawm, soundboard, spitz flute, stop, stopped diapason, stopped flute, string, string diapason, string stop, tenor violin, tierce, tremolo, trombone, trumpet, tuning peg, twelfth, unda maris, vibrato, viola, violin, violinette, violoncello, violoncello piccolo, violone, violotta, voix celeste, vox angelica, vox humana
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