What is a Violoncello?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The violoncello, or cello for short, is a member of the string family, which includes violin, viola, violoncello, and double bass from highest to lowest. The full name, violoncello, is responsible for the standard score abbreviation of Vc. for the cello staff. There is one cello, along with a viola and two violins, in a string quartet, and a section of cellos, possibly ten or so, in large orchestras.

The cello is held between the players knees, with the neck against the player’s left shoulder.
The cello is held between the players knees, with the neck against the player’s left shoulder.

While the violin and viola are held under the chin, resting on the left shoulder, the cello and the double bass rest on the ground, with the neck held on the player’s left side. Specifically, the cello is held between the players knees, with the neck against the player’s left shoulder. The cello is a non-transposing instrument, with its four strings tuned in fifths at C2, G2, D3, and A3. The A-string is considered the first string.

In playing the cello, the hand draws or bounces the bow back and forth across the strings.
In playing the cello, the hand draws or bounces the bow back and forth across the strings.

All five fingers, including the thumb, are used for fingering the violoncello. The strings are pressed by the fingers of the left hand to control the pitch and vibrato, and to create effects such as trills, finger tremolo, glissando, multiple stops, and portamento. Both natural and artificial harmonics are also created by fingering.

In playing the cello, the right hand draws or bounces the bow back and forth across the strings, depending on the intended effect—which may include détaché, martelé, spiccato, bow tremolo, staccato and louré — or plucks the strings for pizzicato playing. In col legno playing—the term means “with the wood” — the wood of the bow is used against the strings. Col legno battuto is a tapping of the bow on the strings; col legno tratto means to draw the wood of the bow across the strings.

As the player wields the cello bow, the upstroke, which begins at the point of the bow, and the downstroke, which ends at the point, have a significantly different sound. While the upstroke is more often used on unaccented beats of a bar, it has a tendency to create a crescendo, while the downstroke, used often on the accented beats, particularly the first beat of a bar, tends to decrescendo.

The cello is used as an ensemble instrument, a solo instrument, and in jazz. There are noted cello concertos by Dmitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Sergei Prokofiev, and Benjamin Britten. Some noted cellists include Mstislav Rostropovich, Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline du Pré, Mischa Maisky, and jazz cellists Tristan Honsinger and Abdul Wadud.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I have never seen a cello in a jazz band. Is this very common? I know double basses are a typical jazz instrument. Are cellos usually just a substitute for the bass in a song, or do some combos have their own cellist?

Does anyone know if there are any famous jazz songs that incorporate a cello? I really love jazz music, but I have never heard of this before. I'd be curious to learn more about it.


@jcraig and matthewc23 - I had a friend in grade school who used to play the cello, so I have a little bit of experience playing around with them. They don't really weight all that much. He had one of the student versions, and they are made from plywood and it only weighed about 10 pounds. Once you start dealing with higher end models, they start getting heavier. The case is a lot of the weight when transporting a cello.

The better models are made from spruce and maple. The fingerboard is usually rosewood. Spruce is used because it is lightweight and reverberates sound well.

Student cellos can be pretty inexpensive. They are usually less than 1000 dollars, but you get what you pay for. I saw an article a couple of years ago about one of the few cellos made by Antonio Stradivari going on sale. It was expected to fetch well over a million dollars. Other cellos made by famous luthiers can easily pass 100,000 dollars.


What are violoncellos made of? What types of wood? I know a lot of guitars are made from maple or spruce. I'm not sure if the same thing applies to other string instruments or not.

I'm also curious about how much a cello costs. I know some violins can cost thousands of dollars. I'm sure there are different ranges depending on the quality.


I love listening to Yo-Yo Ma's cello playing. I never knew that the official name was violoncello, though. Maybe I'll check out some of the other musicians that the article listen.

I always wondered, how much does a cello actually weigh? They look pretty heavy, but a lot of the body is just empty space.

Does anyone here play the cello? How easy is it to learn? What about when compared with the other string instruments like double bass or violin or even a guitar?

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