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The word cello is actually just an abbreviation of violoncello, an Italian word meaning “little violone”.


Instrument: Cello

No 2 Cello Karen Stephenson introduces her instrument.

The Philharmonia’s No. 2 Cello Chair is endowed by Jane and Julian Langer.

The Philharmonia’s Principal Cello’s Chair is endowed in perpetuity in memory of Amaryllis (1925-1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd.

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A violone was an instrument common in the 17th and 18th centuries which evolved into today’s double bass. The cello is the tenor voice in the string section. It can play an octave lower than the viola and, as with the other Strings, the cello section sits two to a desk. There are usually between eight and twelve cellos in a symphony orchestra.

Perhaps more than any other instrument the cello sound can create a melancholy mood. Its deep tenor voice can be further enhanced by a broad vibrato which on other instruments might sound ridiculous. With its particularly wide range and powerful sound it can one minute be playing a bass line and the next a melody that is high enough for the rest of the orchestra to move underneath. Another of its useful qualities is its clarity of attack, which enables it to play crisp architectural shapes as well as driving rhythmic patterns and makes the cello a key component of the orchestra’s ‘engine room’.

Cello range

Frequency Range

65 Hz – 1.0 kHz




The viola looks like a large violin and in terms of its construction it is more or less the same. In common with all string instruments, there are no fixed dimensions for a viola and both players and makers will have their own preferences. The ‘bigness’ of the sound produced has much more to do with the woods and varnish used than the actual size of the instrument (the player makes quite a difference too!). Different types of wood such as sycamore, spruce and maple are carefully selected for their grain and density.

One of the most important factors in determining the sound quality of the instrument is the varnish, which at first comes as a surprise to many people. The reason the varnish is so important is that it covers the entire exterior of the instrument, bonds with the surface of the wood and it is from this shiny surface that the sound of the instrument resonates. So the quality of the varnish can greatly affect the way the instrument resonates.

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There are four strings on the viola which are tuned a Perfect 5th apart. The lowest is C then G, D and A is the top string. The lower strings have a richer, darker sound and to exploit this it is quite common for composers to write that a particular phrase should be played on a particular string. Writing Sul C (on the C) or Sul G above the music asks the player to continue playing on the low C or G string when they would otherwise have moved up onto one of the higher strings.

Did you know?

The viola (like the violin) was developed in the 16th century. Andrea Amati was one of the first artisans to make the instrument.