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Double bass - Sound characteristics

Heavy, weighty, dark, weightless, wafting, somber, earthy, resonant, rasping, broad, hollow, dull, mighty, menacing, violent, mellow, sustaining, aspirate.

Like the tuba, the double-bass lacks the high partials due to its great size, although the first six partials are especially prominent which makes the timbre dark, broad and dull. This broadness, while not dominant, still possesses great power and represents the essence of the double-bass’s sound. It is this characteristic that is the basis of the instrument’s principal task in the symphony orchestra – playing the fundamental bass.

It must be remembered that the double-bass produces long reverberations which are damped by the hand when necessary. The length of reverberation varies greatly. The following criteria apply:

  1. Fortissimo notes on open strings can reverberate for more than 10 seconds. On fingered notes the reverberation is a third shorter (F#1 sounds markedly shorter than E1).
  2. The higher the pitch of the string the longer the reverberation (up to 40% longer). The G string reverberates longest.
  3. The reverberation is relatively quiet (approximately 20% of the maximum volume).
  4. Open strings have limited dynamic potential.

Sound characteristics of the individual strings

B and E strings
These have a full and dark sound. Their great volume is capable of “carrying” the entire orchestra. It can be difficult to tell what the exact pitch of the lowest notes actually is. It must be remembered that the double-bass as a whole, and particularly its bottom strings, produces long reverberations which are damped by the hand when necessary.

A string
Sonorous timbre, clearer and more precise than the bottom strings, suitable for the fundamental bass.

D and G strings
These strings share the cello’s range, but on the double-bass the same notes sound fuller, more powerful and much darker. This is because they do not have the same high number of partials as they do on the cello. On the cello, these sounds are more incisive.