Out of the 4 instruments of the Violin Family (Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass), the bass is the only instrument tuned in fourths.

Wikipedia states

The double bass is generally tuned in fourths, in contrast to other members of the orchestral string family, which are tuned in fifths.

Why is it so, when the other three are tuned in fifths?

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    Just speculation, but were it tuned in fifths reaching the fourth of an open string in first position might require an uncomfortable hand span, I guess. Not a problem with the violin. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 24 '15 at 16:21
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    Part of the reason is it's not in the violin family! While it is in the string section, it is technically a viol and not a scaled up violin like the viola and cello are. One name for it is "contrabass viol". Viols are tuned in 4ths. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viol – Todd Wilcox Jun 24 '15 at 16:50
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    @ToddWilcox it's not clear if it is in the viol or the violin family. See the first paragraph – Shevliaskovic Jun 24 '15 at 16:54
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    Ok: telegraph.co.uk/inluxury/66245/1427731731835/unnamed-4jpg/… Notice in particular the f-holes. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 24 '15 at 17:04
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    Without a clear lineage, we can only guess at reasons why it is tuned the way it is. Playability is probably the best guess. – Todd Wilcox Jun 24 '15 at 17:07

It is because the double bass, essentially, comes from a different family of instruments than the cello, viola and violin.

This is a controversial assertion among music historians, as these things evolved continously, but many scholars do not consider the double-bass to be a part of the violin family at all.

The argument goes like this:

About two centuries before the violin, viola and cello were invented, there was the viola da gamba family: the violone (the double-bass viol), the viola da gamba, the tenor viol, and the treble viol. These instruments came into prominence in the late 1400s, after originating in Spain. These were instruments of six strings, tuned in fourths, like the modern guitar. (and they had frets, too.)

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Instruments of the viol or viola da gamba family, from the violone on the left to the treble viol on the right.

The violin, viola and cello were newer inventions that came along almost 200 years after the first appearance of the viola da gamba family. The violin family of instruments came from Italy, and as they were originally conceived, there was no bass instrument in that family. The lowest-pitched instrument of the violin family was the cello.

Violin-family instruments have four strings tuned in fifths. They also have structural differences which give them a much stronger, louder sound than the relatively quiet viola da gamba family instruments. Once the newly-designed violin, viola and cello came on the scene, the viola da gamba family fell out of usage, because they could not compete with the loud, cutting sound of the violin, viola and cello.

Since there was not originally a bass member of the violin, viola and cello family, luthiers adapted the existing design of the violone (the bass viol, six strings tuned in fourths) to make it better able to accompany the new violin-family instruments.

Along the way the violone became longer in scale length, to increase string tension, tone and projection, and it lost its two highest strings. It also lost its frets. This became the modern double-bass. The structure and design of the modern double-bass still has more in common with the earlier viola da gamba than with the cello -- even if, superficially, they look similar.

The Wikipedia article on the history of the cello explains the relationship of the older, lower-pitched Spanish violone (tuned in fourths) to the younger Italian cello (tuned in fifths).

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  • Side note: "violoncello" means exactly "small violone", "violone" in turn means "large viola". A "violoncello" is thus a "smallish large viola". One would assume a "small large viola" to be just a "viola", except that as you point out the instrument changed a bit in the meantime :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Jun 26 '15 at 15:08
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    Informative answer overall, but one small point of contention: The viola is acoustically imperfect and does not harbor the resonance or the volume of the cello or the violin. Although a lovely instrument in its own right, it is by an large considered to be a "weaker" instrument because of its acoustical traits. – jjmusicnotes Jun 26 '15 at 17:01
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    Brilliant - I read once (I think in a note in the RCM museum) that one of the ways of telling something in the violin family from something in the viol family was how the body joins the neck. Violins join perpendicular while viols slope in. It's always bugged me that double-basses seem to break this rule. But they don't! – dumbledad Nov 17 '15 at 11:33
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs and "violin" means "small viola," too. The original family distinction is between "gamba" and "braccio." – phoog Feb 9 '16 at 18:20
  • That's all fascinating, but the tuning isn't an inherent characteristic of the instrument. A double bass can be tuned however you'd like (within limits), and some actually do tune in fifths: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifths_tuning. So I'm more sympathetic to the argument based on left-hand fingering concerns. Though this: joelquarrington.com/tuning-in-fifths also suggests technical limitations of older instruments may have been a factor. – Bruce Fields Feb 13 '17 at 17:18

With long open strings, the span to reach notes especially at the nut end would be too much for a lot of players if it retained the 5ths pattern of tuning. Making the tuning in fourths means that the left hand can encompass three notes in a scale and then move across to the next string in the same hand position. That said, it's not difficult to slide up a couple of inches, but accuracy is compromised when this happens.

Here is a video by Adam Neely that briefly says the history of Double Bass and its tuning, stating the same:

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    +1 because this is the likely root cause. The fact that the double bass comes from a long line of instruments that were already tuned in fourths is true but misleading; if that family had never existed and the violin family had included a native bass instrument, it would have had exactly the same fingering problems, and I believe that it would have had to implement the same solution, i.e. different tuning. – Kilian Foth Jun 25 '15 at 7:20

I can think of two reasons:

  1. Bass is difficult enough the way it is. If you were to play it like a cello, you would need a) much more frequent position changes, and/or b) a strong, independent and wide-reaching (much wider than on cello with its shorter scale) pinky. I think most bassists never use the pinky on its own at all (or do they?), because a bass requires so much more force than cello. That would get very troublesome in fifths tuning.
  2. In the bass' register, polyphonic playing is largely just usable as a special effect: often it simply sounds to muddy-undefined. So you wouldn't really benefit from the mandolin-like chord capabilities the cello and violin have. (Of course, fourths tuning is excellent for chords too as the guitar demonstrates – but these chords really don't work very well on fretless fingerboards. Chords on fretless guitar are rather more difficult than on cello!)

One could also argue that the bass doesn't “need” such a wide range as cello and violin. But I'd say, why not? Violin and cello also don't really need such a wide range, they just happen to have it. And the viola clichee-wise uses an even narrower range than the bass, despite its fifths tuning...

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    The pinky is one of the most used fingers :P the ring finger isn't used that much. At least in Simandl's method which is one of the most common methods – Shevliaskovic Jun 24 '15 at 16:56
  • I thought Simandl's method always grouped the pinky together with the ring finger? – leftaroundabout Jun 24 '15 at 20:17
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    Yes, but you press with your pinky. the ring finger just supports – Shevliaskovic Jun 24 '15 at 20:46
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    Well I don't play upright bass so I can't really judge, but to me it sounds like you might as well say “you press with the ring finger, the pinky just supports and defines the exact spot”. Anyway, my point was that the pinky is never used on its own, certainly not stretched out away from the ring finger. Isn't this more or less true? – leftaroundabout Jun 24 '15 at 20:53
  • Yes, that is true – Shevliaskovic Jun 24 '15 at 20:58

The early history (from about 1500 to 1850) of bass tunings are very variable, with anything from 3 to 6 strings and tunings in anything from thirds to fifths. Reference.

In the classical period, the virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti played a 3-string bass tuned C G D an octave below the cello, which was more or less the standard instrument that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wrote for.

The current "standard" (E A D G tuning with a string extension down to low C) is a relatively modern invention.

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  • But, why is the modern tuning invention in fourths? That's the question – Shevliaskovic Jun 24 '15 at 18:20
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    "Relatively modern invention"? No way. The current E A D G tuning, in fourths, was used by the violone almost two hundred years before the invention of the cello. What we have today with the modern double-bass is a return to the original tuning of the violone, which is older than the cello, viola and violin. See my answer. – user1044 Jun 24 '15 at 19:15
  • @user1044- I've never heard of the modern E A D G tuning being used by violone at all- the most common tuning was an octave lower than the bass gamba, that is D G C E A D. Do you have a source for the E A D G tuning being used in the Renaissance? – Scott Wallace Feb 12 '17 at 21:03

The reason for tuning an instrument a certain way is always for playability reasons (and instrument construction/design/purpose). One could certainly make the argument that a particular instrument belongs to a certain family but it doesn't fully answer the question- the same question still applies- why does that family get tuned a certain way. "Just because" isn't an answer.

I often tune my guitar to standard tuning (E A D G B E) and sometimes curious students ask why. I don't know who invented this tuning but we can make observations.

  1. Alternate tunings are completely valid. I can tune my sixth string E down to D and the reason is to get a low D in the bass for a fuller sound when playing in D. The next D is a bit high.

  2. Standard guitar tuning is all fourths except for between strings 3 and 2 which is a major third. Why? Not because it's in the guitar family. If I were to tune in all fourths, major scale shapes would become symmetrical across all the strings making playing melodies a bit easier. However if I wanted to play full chords, I quickly find that I don't have enough fingers and fingering becomes impossible. I have a low E and and now a high F and a C on the second string. So we tune asymmetrically and sacrifice the ease of melody playing slightly since we can shift one note and still play chords well. Symmetrical tuning is not so practical for everyday use.

Last year I played Golijov's Ayre at a music festival and my solo was original written for ronroco. Playing this on guitar was extremely difficult even though the music wasn't "extremely difficult". I altered one string's tuning, used a capo and everything fell into place fingering wise. I did this for purely functional reasons.

So why might a bass instrument tune in fourths instead of fifths? First we need to understand the reason for multiple strings in the first place. If I have only one string (a bass string for example) I can only move lengthwise up and down that string. Moving from root to fifth or root to fourth is a fairly large distance and requires some energy in hand movement. If I now add a string next to it, tuning the string to the same note gives me no advantage fingering wise. Let's say I decide to tune that next string to a fifth higher. This creates a situation where the next string is simply a continuation of the original string but starting at the fifth. This means less hand energy is needed to play from the root to the fifth. I simply move a shorter distance to the next string. This is analogous to teleportation. In open position I don't even need to use the left hand, just the right. However if I also need a fourth I still need to move up that E string to get the A. Considering that our key system is based on I, IV and V, tuning a fifth isn't so great. Tuning the two strings to fourths gives me those three notes within a short distance of each other. I can move from root to fourth very easily and now the fifth is just little further away. This will be mirrored in every position on every string. This is desirable for any instrument expected to play bass notes. This is the same reason a guitar tunes its bass strings in fourths normally.

When you begin to shorten the scale length and expect your instrument to mainly play melodies this distance from root to fourth becomes less of an issue technically.

Lastly, six string electric basses usually tune all in fourths. The reason is the same as above and also because playing chords like a guitar isn't that great- the instrument is big and those low notes can get muddy quickly. In that case symmetrical fingerings are preferable.

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  • Heads up that you have to use two line breaks to get Markdown to make a new paragraph. – user28 Jun 25 '15 at 20:50
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    Good answer, though I wouldn't say fourths tuning is necessarily ideal “for any instrument expected to play bass notes”. Cello is used a lot for bass lines too and it works just fine in fifths-tuning, because the scale is shorter and you need much less force than on double-bass. I'm pretty sure fifths tuning would work well on electric bass too – only, it wouldn't really have much advantage over fourths either; habit (electric bassists are rather more likely to also play guitar or double-bass) has established the fourths tuning. – leftaroundabout Jun 26 '15 at 20:05
  • It's already fairly difficult to get the 9th on (electric) bass. I wouldn't say "fifths tuning would work well on electric bass" ... having the root, 5th, and octave easily reachable with a hand-span and two frets away is extremely convenient. – Kevin_Kinsey Jul 14 '16 at 22:12

I play the double bass and I know if it were tuned in fifths it would require a lot more shifting. No double bass player has the finger span to have the strings tuned in fifths. I say no double bass player because the instrument goes up in sizes to fit the player. It may be possible to tune in fifths if someone who normally played a full-size were to play an eighth size double bass because their finger span would be too large for the instrument, but they would probably be playing the instrument like a cello anyway.

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It was common in the French Schools of the 19th century to tune in fifths. At that time the German and English bassists were switching to fourths. It was noted that the German and English bassists didn't need to work as hard as their French counterparts. The French were reluctant to leave fifths as they felt fifths tuned basses blended better with the cellos violas and violins as their harmonic series was similar. I don't know what time the switch was made. Here is an American bass method book from 1891 that is for three string basses tuned low to high, C, G, D. http://imslp.org/wiki/Method_for_the_3-String_Double_Bass_(Fischer,_Carl) I have strung my bass CGDA an octave lower than cello. I love it! Also check out Joel Quarington's website to learn more about fifths tuned contract bass. http://joelquarrington.com/

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The bass waltzes composed by Dragonetti have a lot of paired notes that go from 1st to 4th finger across strings to minimize shifting. The same can be said for the 6 Vivaldi sonatas and Benedetto Marcello sonatas. It seems that composers in that period took into account the tuning in 4ths and made pieces that fascilitated the playing to bassists. (I'm aware Dragonetti played a 3 string bass, But I believe the tuning was still in fourths.) The pieces in question would have been annoying difficult to play at speed if the bass were tuned to 5ths. I'm not a really experianced bassist, but that it how the pieces seem to be structured. I might be totally wrong, but this is how I see it.

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It seems the Spanish decided the fourth tuning best suited their guitar that was an instrument that mainly provided chords to backup dancing or singing. Playing the chord positions on the double bass would be more difficult on an instrument tuned in fifths. The Italians had a different point of view.

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    Do you have any evidence of this? – musarithmia Feb 24 '16 at 3:34

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