Double Bass

Courtesy of Genevieve Helsby
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Pitch range

Double bass pitch range, courtesy of Hannah Whale

The double bass is enormous. This giant of the string section would definitely not fit under your chin or between your knees. It’s taller than a person and wider than a wheelbarrow. Players have to drag it to rehearsals and concerts, and then play all the bottom notes… but double bass players have a great time!

They perch on high stools at the edge of the orchestra and can look over the top of everyone else. And creating the root of the music – the base for all the higher sounds to sit on – is a deeply satisfying thing to do.

A double bass isn’t as heavy as you might think. Remember that the wooden body is hollow. Inside, it’s all air, like an Easter egg!

Inside the orchestra

Plan of the orchestra showing the double basses, courtesy of Hannah Whale

Plan of the orchestra showing the double basses

All the melodies from the higher instruments in the orchestra need good musical foundations underneath. There are normally eight double basses in a symphony orchestra, and they give solid support beneath everyone else’s ups and downs. They do have tunes to play sometimes, but not very often.

The powerful low notes are fantastic: they can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. If you’re very near the instrument, you can even feel the vibration. Double basses can also bring a piece of music to life, dancing rhythmically underneath the higher melodies.

The double basses are sometimes called ‘the wardrobes’ – because they line up like tall wardrobes along the edge of the orchestra!

Outside the orchestra

Concertos: More being written all the time, though the bass isn’t a natural show-off – its natural pitch is very low so it’s difficult to make notes stand out above an orchestra.

In the 18th century there was a composer called Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. Today, he’s remembered for his good double bass music and his funny name.

Chamber music: Little compared to the rest of the violin family. But Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is a famous example – one of the happiest pieces of music ever written!

Solo pieces: Not as many as bass players would like, but the number is growing all the time.

Jazz: Big part to play here – bouncy bass lines to liven things up. The player stands up and plays pizzicato (plucks the strings).

Rock music: As with jazz, the double bass can shed its classical image and get stuck into something completely different!

The name ‘double bass’ is often shortened to just ‘bass’.

A viol, an ancestor of the double bass

A viol, an ancestor of the double bass

The double bass is a bit different: one of its ancestors is an early instrument called the viol. It gave the double bass features that the other violin family instruments don’t have, like sloping shoulders, and sometimes a flat back. But the rest of the double bass – such as its f-holes, the wood and the way you play it – fits into the violin family.

The double bass is really at home with jazz! Its strings ping energetically like little drums underneath other instruments, such as the piano and the saxophone.

To play it

  1. Perch on a high stool, behind the instrument.
  2. Hold the neck with your left hand.
  3. Lean over the double bass to draw the bow across the strings, or pluck them with your right hand.

To go up or down just one note on the double bass means nearly a complete hand-span on the fingerboard. Can you imagine playing a scale? It’s not easy!

Bow Holds

There are two different ways of holding the bow for playing the double bass:

‘French’ double bass bow hold

‘French’ double bass bow hold

‘German’ double bass bow hold, courtesy of Karen Aplin

‘German’ double bass bow hold

  1. The ‘French’ way: this is the same as for the rest of the violin family, where the bow is held with the hand on the top of it.
  2. The ‘German’ way: the bow is held underneath instead of over the top.

But the way the bow makes the string vibrate is exactly the same as on the violin, regardless of how the bow is held.

 

 

Double bass player in playing position, courtesy of Tony Morrell

Double bass player in playing position

Some basses have five strings, and some have four with an extension for the bottom notes (see main image above)

For more about the double bass’s construction, how the sound is made, and its special effects, go to the String Family section.

Find out more about the development of the Double Bass in .

A Little History of the Double Bass

The double bass is a bit different from the rest of the violin family in that one of its ancestors is an early instrument called the viol. The viol gave the double bass features that the others don’t have, such as sloping shoulders, and sometimes a flat back.

But the rest of the double bass – like its f-holes, the wood, and the way you play it – fits into the violin family.

The shoulders of (from left) the violin, viola, cello and double bass

The shoulders of (from left) the violin, viola, cello and double bass

The double bass has had a lot of changes in its lifetime. Even its strings have varied in number, between three and six.

Many changes have happened because of its size: it was a challenge to make such a giant instrument easier to play. For example:

Tuning: Each string has a metal tuning key with a special mechanism because a normal wooden peg wouldn’t be strong enough.

Strings: The strings are very thick. When strings were made of sheep gut, they were even thicker. The sound wasn’t so nice and it was hard to keep them in tune. Today’s steel strings are much better.

Finger stretches: Even now, to go up or down just one whole note on the double bass means nearly a complete hand-span on the fingerboard. About 200 years ago, it was decided that the four strings should be tuned to notes that are closer together (the interval of a fourth apart instead of a fifth) because this would help the problem.

So, in the 19th century, the bass was tuned in fourths. This had two effects, one good and one bad:

  1. Music was easier to play. Good!
  2. The double bass couldn’t play as low as before. Bad!

So to solve that problem, a fifth string was added. That’s why there are some double basses with four strings and some with five. Those with four need an extension to reach the low notes; those with five can play them on their bottom string.

In the last few years, players have shown that the double bass can perform as a solo instrument. More music has been written for it, and playing has reached higher and higher standards. But in many ways, the orchestra brings out the best in the double bass.

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which early instrument seems to have influenced the shape of the double bass?

a. Sackbut
b. Shawm
c. Viol

 In which style of music does the double bass normally have pizzicato notes?

a. Jazz
b. Classical
c. Folk

 There are two different ways to hold the bow of a double bass: the French way, and which other?

a. Italian way
b. English way
c. German way

 In an orchestra, bass players sit or perch on what?

a. The floor
b. A stool
c. A bench

 Which makes the lowest sound?

a. Double bass
b. Cello
c. Guitar

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Selected Double Bass Extracts

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
The Carnival of the Animals: The Elephant (extract)

The double bass makes a good elephant in Saint-Saëns’ most famous work, The Carnival of the Animals.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335

Richard Strauss (1864–1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra (‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’): VI. Song of Science (extract)

A rare example of the double bass section of the orchestra playing on its own.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Zdeněk Košler

Taken from Naxos 8.550182

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 1: III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (‘Solemnly and measured, without dragging’) (extract)

A big moment for the double bass – if you know the song ‘Frère Jacques’, you’ll probably recognise it here… except that it’s in a minor key, which makes it sound creepy and sinister!

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550522

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’): IV. Theme and Variations: Andantino (extract)

Here is the double bass with piano, violin, viola and cello – listen for it dancing, pizzicato, in the bass!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; István Tóth, double bass; Kodály Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550658

Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)
Elegy No. 1 (extract)

Even the big double bass can sing sometimes!

Performers: Joel Quarrington, double bass; Andrew Burashko, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554002

Double Bass and Orchestra

Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)
Double Bass Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor

Giovanni Bottesini was one of the most famous double bass virtuosi of his time – he could play all sorts of complicated things on the double bass and impress people. To some he was known as the Paganini of the double bass, as Paganini was a celebrated showman on the violin. He was also a composer. This is good for double bass players, because there isn’t a lot of solo music for them to play. Bottesini made sure the instrument was used brilliantly, challenging the soloist to play high and low, fast and slow, and deliver the kind of melodies usually given to higher instruments: listen at 5.05 in the first movement (track 1): if you just heard those few seconds, would you know it was a double bass?

Performers: Thomas Martin, double bass; English Chamber Orchestra; Andrew Litton

Taken from Naxos 8.570397

Solo Double Bass & Double Bass and Piano

Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1889)
Melodia

Good old Bottesini wrote plenty of music for double bass and piano too: so you can hear the instrument very clearly here, often sounding more like a cello. The piano has a gentle accompaniment. It’s hard work for a double bass player’s fingers to play high on the instrument: the strings are thick, and the higher the notes, the harder they need to be pressed!

Performers: Joel Quarrington, double bass; Andrew Burashko, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554002

Chamber Music

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 114, D. 667, ‘Die Forelle’ (‘The Trout’)

This Quintet is unusual: a piano quintet usually has a piano plus a string quartet, but Schubert replaced one of the violins with a double bass. It seems to give the work more ‘oomph’! The ‘Trout’ Quintet is one of Schubert’s most popular works, sunny and youthful in mood. He wrote it when he was 22. The fourth movement (track 4) is based on his popular song Die Forelle (‘The Trout’), so that is why the whole work has this name: the ‘Theme’ uses the tune of the song, and then each ‘Variation’ has a different instrument from the group in the spotlight to play a new version of that tune.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano; Kodály Quartet; István Tóth, double bass

Taken from Naxos 8.550658

Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
String Sonata No. 2 in A major

Rossini became an expert at writing operas full of fun and frolics. But before that, when he was only 12, he wrote six ‘String Sonatas’ – originally for two violins, a cello and a double bass (no viola). These have wit and sparkle, giving a clue to the kind of music he’d end up putting in his operas. Right from the beginning, the wonderful deep roots of the bass can be heard: the double bass has a lower sound than the cello, and it underlines everything beautifully. Listen at 1.34 in movement 1 (track 1) for a little double bass solo – and see if you can pick out its sound in the rest of the music.

Performers: Hungarian Virtuosi; Tamás Benedek

Taken from Naxos 8.554418

Jazz

Larry Koonse (b.1961)
All Things Waltz

The double bass is often found in jazz music, usually being plucked. It gives a pleasing ‘boing’ underneath – a kind of cross between a string instrument and a percussion instrument. Here, in this soft, swinging jazz piece, a guitar plays four notes and it is immediately answered by the double bass. This pattern carries on for a while, with the high-hat cymbal coming in at 0.06 and the saxophone at 0.16. Larry Koonse is the guitarist in the jazz quartet, and based this piece on Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are.

Performers: Los Angeles Jazz Quartet

Taken from Naxos 86045-2

Jack Hammer (1925–2016)
Great Balls of Fire

The singer here has taken the song Great Balls of Fire and created this version: as she expresses the words, the instruments match her sound and mood. But listen to the beginning: it’s all double bass! This is a nice solo moment, and gives you a clear idea of how the bass sounds in jazz. Can you hear a tiny piano note at 0.40? Then the singer sneaks in, and the song gets more expressive as it goes on… still with bass plucking underneath. Listen out for it!

Performers: Barbara Sfraga, vocals; Bruce Saunders, guitar; David Berkman, piano; John Hebert, double bass; Eric Halvorson, drums

Taken from Naxos 86055-2