Violoncello, or cello for short, has arguably the most profound sound in the violin family. It’s probably the youngest member and certainly, the most recently perfected in form and proportion.

In the first half of the 16th century, renowned violin makers began to create what would later become the modern cello. Luthiers Andrea Amati (1581-1632), Gasparo da Salo (1549-1609), and Paolo Maggini (1581-1632) are credited with the first bass violin designs, dubbed “violone.” These instruments were much larger than what is known today as a cello. Probably that’s due to the fact that the lower pitches were difficult to achieve unless the instrument itself was larger.

Up until that point, vocal accompaniments and cultural tastes favored very high pitches. However, as preferences evolved, it was necessary to develop instruments that produced greater variations, specifically lower register sounds. The cello’s large size makes it particularly vulnerable to damage, but its design has given it remarkable longevity. Professional players still use and treasure cellos made three centuries ago. 

The cello construction

The cello construction begins with four tapered rosewood or boxwood tuning pegs for adjusting the strings. These tune to C-G-D-A, from low to high. The lower C is two octaves below a middle C on the piano. The pegs project laterally from a backward-curving pegbox. Proportionally, the pegbox is much broader than the violin in order to hold thicker strings. It has distinctive squared shoulders at the lower end. At the upper end, there is a scroll. The slope of the pegbox tenses the strings across the ebony nut. The latter locates and lifts them just clear of the surface of the ebony fingerboard. The player’s fingers press the strings across this fingerboard.

The fingerboard is glued to the neck, which is carved into one piece with the pegbox and scroll from maple wood. It has a curve in the cross-section, usually with the flattened area beneath the C string. This allows for a wider vibration on this string, the heaviest one.

The fingerboard increases in width as it approaches the nut to permit wider string spacing at the bridge. This allows easier movement of the bow when crossing strings. The neck joins the body of the cello at the root, which extends to the full depth of the ribs. The fingerboard extends further above the body.

Repertoire for cello

A vast repertoire including pieces with and without accompaniment, and numerous concerti, exists for the cello. The instrument often plays the bass parts, both in chamber music such as string quartets and in the orchestra’s string section. The double basses may reinforce the cello an octave lower in the latter case.

Figured bass music of the Baroque-era typically assumes a cello, viola da gamba, or bassoon as part of the basso continuo group. Additionally, cellos are found in many other ensembles, from modern Chinese orchestras to cello rock bands.