The lowest stringed instrument that is typically played in orchestras is sometimes termed a "double bass". Is there a corresponding "single bass"?

Naively, one might think that it would be the cello, but I was under the impression that the cello was a "tenor" instrument, rather than a "bass" one. Then there's the whole stringed instrument family issue (violin vs. viola da gamba vs. ...), which may complicate what a "true" single bass is.

Is there such a thing as a "single bass", and does it (roughly) correspond to any instrument in current widespread use?

  • Couple of tenuous ideas why 'double' - doubled the cello parts; played two octaves below middle C, transposes down an octave. Similar question - 'what is double about the double bass?'
    – Tim
    Oct 27, 2017 at 17:46
  • The double bass is the bass of the viola family, not the violin family. The range of viola instruments does include a normal bass, we just don't know it very well because the entire family has gone out of fashion (except for the double bass). Oct 28, 2017 at 6:05
  • @KilianFoth - are you mixing up viola with viol? The viola is a member of the violin family. The viol /ˈvaɪəl/, viola da gamba is indeed something else. And no, the modern double bass is not a viola da gamba - in spite of its shape. It is a bass violin according to many, or its own family. There are many differences between the double bass and viola da gambas - most significantly, frets: Viola da Gamba. (And we know plenty about the viola da gamba family.)
    – Stinkfoot
    Oct 28, 2017 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


Double Bass does not imply a Single Bass instrument:

but I was under the impression that the cello was a "tenor" instrument, rather than a "bass" one.

Perhaps the cello is a tenor instrument in terms of the entire range of instruments, but until the double bass was invented, it was the bass voice relative to the rest of the violin family.

During the Baroque and Classical eras, in quartets and orchestras the cello traditionally played "bass" parts, until Beethoven made a mission of "liberating the cello", by writing more lyrical music for the cello for virtuoso players he knew personally - music that exploited its higher registers.

Still, the origin of the name Double Bass does not seem clear. Here are some ideas:

New World Encyclopedia - Double bass

The instrument's standard English name, double bass, may be derived from the fact that it is approximately twice as large as the cello, or because the double bass was originally used to double the cello part an octave lower.

It has also been suggested that the name derives from its viol family heritage, in that it is tuned lower than the standard bass viola da gamba. The name also refers to the fact that the sounding pitch of the double bass is an octave below the bass clef. The name contrabass comes from the instrument's Italian name, contrabbasso.

IMO, "the sounding pitch of the double bass is an octave below the bass clef" is the best reason offered for calling it the double bass: Its voice is in the 'bass-bass clef' range, although we use the 'single bass' clef to notate its music.

  • It sounds an octave lower than the written note in ALL the clefs that it uses (bass clef, tenor clef and treble clef), not just the bass clef.
    – Jomiddnz
    May 3, 2018 at 22:39

The violoncello has never been considered a tenor instrument, it has always been a bass. This question really is about what are considered the four main voices in voice leading, which is what all instrument families are based off of. These are of course based off of the main instrument known to humanity; the human voice. Those would be:

  • Soprano, with its main octave being from C4 (middle C) to C5.
  • Alto, ranged from F3 to F4.
  • Tenor, ranged from C3 to C4
  • Bass, ranged from F2 to F3

Of course human voices can sing around these single octave limitations, but in practice these tend to be the strongest octaves for each voice. Instruments totally eclipse these ranges, so the most important aspect comes from the timbre. This is why despite having a range that could be considered bass according to this definition, the trombone is considered a tenor instrument. In the case of strings, take a look at the string quartet: violin I as soprano, violin II as alto, viola as tenor, and cello as bass.

When looking at the string section in this way it makes much more sense why the contrabass would be nicknamed "double bass". Not only does it double the bass voice (cello), but it sounds an octave below, being doubly bass-y.

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