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The double bass: tuning

How is the double bass tuned?

Steve Williams playing the bass

Most double basses today have four strings and are tuned in fourths: E – A – D – G. The tuning in fourths makes the double bass different from all other modern string instruments.

Larry Bartley playing Double Bass

It was inevitable that the interval between open strings would be smaller than on other stringed instruments as the distance between notes on such a large instrument is much greater. Sometimes there is a fifth string on a double bass and this is tuned most commonly to B¢ and sometimes C¢. This extra string which some conductors require in orchestras means that every note the cello plays can be doubled an octave lower on the double bass adding a great richness to the sonority of the orchestra. Some double basses have a special lever that can lower the E¢ string down to a C¢ when required.

Part of the reason for the double bass’s tuning evolving in the way it did has to do with its ancestry. The double bass’s ancestor was the violone which has six strings, whose tuning in the early 17th century was D× – G – C – E – A – D (though it should be noted that stating any tuning as standard for the double bass at this time would be wrong as there were almost as many tunings as instruments).

In time the number of strings was halved to three, and these three-stringed instruments could still be found in the 18th century. They were tuned to A – D – G or G – D – G.

The bridge of a double bass

It was not until the 20th century that a fourth string became normal for double basses in a symphony orchestra. This was the additional E string, a fourth below the standard A¢ string. In the 19th century, despite every other instrument becoming more chromatic and being required to be able to play every note a composer demanded, the double bass remained unaffected and pitches below A were transposed up an octave. This, of course, meant that the melodic line being played at double bass pitch (an octave below the cello) was for a moment lost.

In most Haydn and Mozart symphonies the double bass merely doubles the cello, but in Beethoven and later it acquired an independent line. The scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a good example of the double bass’s new, 19th-century independence.

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