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I recently went to watch Mozart's The Magic Flute and saw at the orchestra that all the double bassists (I think there were 3 of them) had 5 string basses. I had never seen a 5 string double bass up close before, so it intrigued me. Then I searched some other works performed by orchestras, like for instance:

that also have 5 string basses (not all of them, but still). And this got me wondering:

Is it common for an orchestra to use 5 string double basses or is it preferred to use the normal 4 string ones?

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Extended range basses have become all but standard in professional orchestras. Lots of music uses it, so you might as well have it. In the US, the preference (for whatever reason) is for the E-string extension to C on a four-string bass, whereas in Europe they prefer the 5-string instrument.

Similarly, the bass clarinet extension to low C (the "normal" lowest note is E flat) has become effectively standard, as well as the bari sax low A.

  • Agreed here. Very common now to either see the C-extension or the 5 string bass. Tangentially, a bassist friend of mine told me about a quiet sub-culture of bassists who prefer to tune in perfect fifths instead of the standard tuning. – jjmusicnotes Jan 9 '16 at 1:11
  • This was the tuning of old Italian 3-string basses. Very resonant and loud! – Robert Fink Jan 12 '16 at 4:04

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