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Double bass - Notation

The double-bass is a transposing stringed instrument. Because of its deep pitch, notation for it is written an octave higher than it sounds in bass clef.

Until Beethoven the double-bass and cello played their parts from a shared “bass” part. The double-bass played the same part as the cello, automatically doubling it an octave below. On older or four-stringed double-basses (lowest note E1) the cello’s lowest notes (to C2) could not be played an octave lower (C1). The double-bass usually played these notes an octave higher, in unison with the cello.

Historical notation variations

In Viennese Classicism (from Joseph Haydn) until the second half of the 19th century, passages in which the double-bass came to the fore and was distinctly audible were written in treble clef – Anton Bruckner also used tenor clef. Such passages, which amounted to solo passages, sounded two octaves lower than written. The same practice also applied to the cello (which sounded one octave lower than written). In most cases, the following detail applies to this historical notation: If a phrase began in treble clef or came immediately after one in bass clef, the double-bass sounded two octaves lower. If, however, the treble clef phrase was a direct continuation of one in tenor clef the sound was only one octave lower than written, as with bass clef. The widespread use of treble clef for solo passages had the advantage of rendering frequent changes of clef or the use of many ledger lines unnecessary. The score was therefore easier to read, since the profile of the melody line was recognizable at a glance.

In Italy solo passages were written as they sounded.

Bowing notation (right hand)

As a rule many bowstrokes which come under staccato are not notated but played in the appropriate manner by the violinist. If the composer desires a particular kind of bowstroke he writes it into the score.

Melodic phrases which are to be played with a single stroke are linked by a phrasing slur. The change of bowing can occur on a single note.


Détaché / Detached
Non–legato technique, strokes alternately up and down without the bow being lifted from the string.

  1. Détaché or detached is often written explicitly into the score.
  2. Strong détaché is indicated by a dot above the note.
  3. The strongest détaché consists solely of downstrokes. The bow is lifted from the string after every stroke.

Hammered stroke (in Italian martellato = hammered).

Every stroke, whether up or down, is ended abruptly, the bow remaining on the string.


Sul tasto and sul ponticello
Because of the effect it has on timbre the place where the bow should make contact with the string is often written into the score. Sulla tastiera (or sul tasto, sur la touche meaning on the fingerboard), sul ponticello (on the bridge).

Most playing techniques are possible both sul ponticello and sulla tastiera.


Changing from pizzicato to arco
The change from bowed (arco) to plucked (pizzicato) and back is always written in full. (The part is to played pizzicato until arco is written).

“Bartók pizzicato” (“snap” pizzicato)
The string is lifted with two fingers of the right hand so that it snaps back onto the fingerboard when let go. This produces a very resounding sound which is used for percussive effects. Notation: a circle with a tail pointing either upward or downward above each note.


Measured bowed tremolo
The repetition of a note with no accent or rhythm by means of very fast up and downstrokes at the point.

The impression given is of a “trembling” sound, which is used especially for dramatic effect and tonal intensification. Double stops can also be played tremolo. The bow tremolo is usually measured, i.e. the number of strokes corresponds exactly to the notated division of the whole note value which determines the length of the tremolo. This kind of tremolo must be played in absolute synchronization by all the violinists. Freely playable tremolo also exists.

Tremolos have been part of the strings’ standard repertoire of effects since the beginning of the 19th century.

Unmeasured bowed tremolo


Col legno (with the wood, French: avec le bois)
Hitting or bowing the string with the wood of the bow. The first technique produces a hammer effect and is used for repeated figures. The latter sounds cracked, rough and dry and is of indeterminate pitch.

Behind the bridge
The string is bowed between the bridge and the string tuner.

An X is written on the staff at the pitch levels corresponding to the open strings which are to be played. The pitch heard is indeterminate, the different strings produce various pitches.

Notation for fingering (left hand)

Harmonics can be notated in one of two ways:

  1. Either in treble clef at the actual pitch (not an octave higher than it sounds as with fingered pitches in bass clef). Often the words “actual pitch” or “sounding” are added in the score. This type of notation, which avoids ledger lines, is generally preferred by composers.
  2. Or in bass clef, the sound then being an octave lower than written (as with fingered pitches).

An audible slide of the finger along the string with accompanying change of position. The effect is of two notes being joined together in a suggestion of a glissando.


Con sordino
Con sordino (with mute) calls for the use of the mute, which is not to be removed until instructed to do so by the term senza sordino.

Double stops
Are hard to play and rarely called for.

Pizzicato with the left hand is indicated by a “+” above the note.


Finger tremolo
Two notes are played as a tremolo on the same string as follows: the finger in the lower position fingers the string and keeps it pressed down while the other finger quickly and repeatedly stops and releases a higher note. In contrast to the bow tremolo, when rapid up and downstrokes produce the tremolo effect, bowing here is smooth and even over the string. The result is a kind of trill.


Su una corda
The instruction to play a cantilena on a particular string (e.g. sul G). Su una corda means “on one string”.