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What Makes the Cello So Special?

We don’t feel it is hyperbole to say that string musicians fall in love with their instruments. The physical and energetic resonance between a professional musician and the instrument is both visible and palpable on stage. 

And yet, among all of the string instruments in the orchestra, there is something special about the cello.

Today, we’d like to shine the spotlight on cellos and a handful of the characteristics that make them such special members of the string instrument family. 

1. Remarkable tone

When it comes to tone, cellos and violas are the most similar to the human voice. For that reason, even non-classical music lovers typically appreciate the sounds of the cello. In an NYT article, 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Cello, the Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, remarks, “Even when the cello moves into its high register, the sound seems to emanate from a deep, russet realm.” 

That insight hits the nail on the head. While we are tremendous champions of the violin, we respect that its higher notes, may not be as pleasing to those who prefer listening to lower registers. The cello's “low” high register provides an alternative sound for those individuals.

2. A split personality makes the cello incredibly versatile

If you’re familiar with its history, the cello as we know it today is rooted in the 1500s when celebrated violin makers began experimenting by making larger string instruments to create lower notes and tones. The size of the cello (originally called the violine, or “bass violin,”) ranged from quite large to slightly smaller depending on the luthier. Eventually, in the early 1700s, Antonio Stradivari standardized the cello to the size it is today. 

This standardization allowed the first “cello virtuosos” to emerge. Most were drawn to the cello’s “split personality,” or its ability to produce beautiful sound quality in both the higher and lower registers. In fact, it’s one of the only instruments that can easily accommodate sheet music written in any clef — bass, tenor, or treble — making it one of the most versatile instruments in the orchestra. Eventually, recognition of the cello as a consistent bass tone, rhythm holder, and a worthy solo instrument culminated in the first major work ever to be composed for the cello: Bach’s Cello Suites.

3. The sensual shape and size

Just as the tone of the cello is similar to the human voice, so, too, is the shape of the cello. Yes, it has the same beautiful curvature of the violin, viola, bass, and guitar - but only the cello and bass are sized similarly to humans, which enhance its curvy, feminine form.

As a result, outsiders often interpret that cellists have a deeper and more physical relationship with their instrument. It is this physical relationship, the whole body experience, that makes the cello one of the most interesting instruments to audience members. Many non-musicians mistakenly assume the cello is one of the hardest instruments to play because they are able to recognize the physicality required to play it.

And, in case you’ve wondered if cellists' expressive body movements were necessary, we direct your attention to a published study, Cellists’ Sound Quality is Shaped by Their Primary Postural Behavior. The researchers assessed that not only is the resulting music more expressive in its sound (not just visually) when cellists move naturally but that those instinctual movements, from head to toe, ergonomically protect the spine, neck, shoulders, etc., of the musician because they support healthy bowing techniques.

4. The sound is genre-less

Since the standardized cello is a newer kid on the string instrument block, circa 1710, it makes sense that it is also a versatile instrument in the sense of musical genres. You can’t keep a cello in the classical box. 

The playability of the cello and the sounds that it made evolved right along with the classical and contemporary music evolution. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see sold-out concerts by groups such as 2Cellos, Apocalyptica, and Rasputina, all of whom have made the cello a hip instrument to play.

5. It loves players of all ages

You're never too old to play any instrument. Even though it looks as if the cello requires greater physical stamina, it is actually easier to hold, support, and play the cello than it is to play the violin or viola. The seated playing position, even for solo concerti, is also age-friendly and accessible. 

Consider celebrity cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and Pablo Casals. Rostropovich played publicly until he was 78 years old, and Casals played well into his nineties. No matter what age you start to play, you have many years of enjoyment ahead of you.

There is no doubt that the cello is a very special instrument. If you’re considering learning to play the cello, we say “go for it!” Monthly rental fees are very reasonable and there are all kinds of online resources to get you started.