The Fifths System of Tuning Through the Ages

By Paul Brün (Brun)

The system of tuning in fifths is a legacy of the violin family. For this reason, the conditions of the introduction of the tuning C G d a in late 17th-century Italy are best understood thought a rapid survey of the early development of that instrumental family.

At the time, the violin family was quite different from our familiar string quartet. Aside from the fact that it included now-extinct instruments, the dimensions of the basses had not yet been standardised. Although the common, or ordinary bass-violin, a large-pattern cello, predominated, basses came in all sorts of sizes, ranging from cello-like instruments to giant-sized versions of the modern double bass. This wide array of bass instruments did not have a specific name of their own – all of these instruments being indiscriminately designated as bass-violins in France, as violones in Italy or as rabecaõs in Portugal. (Germany is a case in point in our study.)

The most-used instrument among the bass-violins was the ordinary, or common bass-violin. In contrast, the use of the large bass-violin, a ponderous instrument producing stronger, fuller sounds, was restricted to open-air performances, to church or to special occasions when special emphasis and weight were needed.

The sparse information we have concerning ordinary and large bass-violins does not permit us as yet to establish the precise tunings of these early instrument with any amount of certainty. However, Praetorius in 1619 mentions the current cello tuning for his bass violin, to which was added a low, F string for his large bass-violin (‘Gross quint bass’).

The double bass as we know it emerged in its own right when the basses of the violin family were standardised and odd-size patterns abolished. This standardisation followed the introduction in the 1660s in Bologna (Italy) of strings wound with silver that allowed players to use shorter strings. This technological leap in string manufacture triggered a decisive steps in the development of the ordinary bass-violin, which could then be brought down to a size more convenient for holding between the knees. Pitched one tone higher, this smaller and more manageable instrument was called ‘violon-cello’ (‘smaller violone’).

The advent of a standardised 8′ instrument also created a need for a specific 16’ octave transposing instrument. Intended to double in the lower octave the bass of the harmony played by the cello, this instrument was twice its size and sounded a full octave lower thanks to the newly-introduced silver-wound C string. Alternately called double bass, when referring to size, or contrabass, when referring to pitch, this instrument was tuned to C G d a :

« Double-Bass, or Violono : A large, deep-toned bass instrument, extending in general to double C downwards, and reaching in ascent to the treble-clef note, or higher. The scale of the Double-Bass is equally perfect with that of the Violoncello, but its notes are an octave lower than they are written. » (Busby, 1791)

The tuning C G d a was used throughout the 18th century. Bassists began to turn away from it in the 1790s, when Joseph Gehot mentioned that this Italian system of tuning seemed to lose ground. Indeed, G. Jones still stated in 1818 that the double bass most commonly used in England at the time had only three strings, which were tuned in fourths, but that the Italian double bass had four which were tuned in fifths :

« The Violone, or Double Bass, is almost twice as big as the violoncello, and the strings are bigger and longer in proportion. Its sound is an octave lower than that of our bass-violin, which has a noble effect in great concertos; but this depends on the number of strings, and the manner of tuning them, some performers using four strings and others three and in the tuning of these there is a considerable difference… The double-bass now most commonly in use has but three strings, which are tuned fourths; but the Italian Violone has four, and they are tuned fifths. Their notation is as follows; but it is to be observed that the real sounds are an octave lower than they are marked :  With three strings : A d g; With four strings  : C G d a. »

Evidence suggests that orchestral players used a thick bottom string set up at a considerable distance from the fingerboard to avoid the extraneous buzz of the string vibration against the surface of the instrument. Swelled to an extravagant girth, this massive, tense, high-action string had too many undesirable traits. Not only did it tend to roll under the movement of the bow, but applying sufficient pressure to press it on the neck was difficult and painful to the point that the protection of leather gloves was often necessary to avoid the risk of injury to the left hand.

As a result, some took to replacing it with a relatively more manageable E string, sometimes raised to F (E G d a,  F G d a)

Shedding of the Fourth String

At some point, however, some pioneer experimenter, frustrated with the mediocre quality of the thick, heavy fourth string, realised that he could be better off by dispensing with it altogether. This major development possibly happened by coincidence or simply resulted from a realisation that, poorly focused and dull as they were, the few extra tones it provided were not really worth the trouble of struggling with this massive, heavily wound string bearing down on the soundboard to the point of stifling it. Besides, a three-stringer was easier to play:

« More than three strings… overload the bridge too much. As a result, the tone becomes muffled and unclear. Besides, the strings are set too close together…, so that one cannot play forcefully on the middle strings without taking the risk of also hitting a neighbouring string. »

From the second half of the 18th century, there was a general shift from four to three strings nearly everywhere in Europe. Only the Germans were using our modern, E A d g system of tuning then. The Italians and the English adopted the A d g system of tuning, while the tuning G d a was retained by the French. For this reason, we’ll now focus our attention on what happened in 19th-century France.

Admittedly, the three string double bass tuned in fifths was a strong sounding instrument and the tuning in fifths “more sonorous, ampler in its vibrations and more acoustically perfect” than its four-stringed counterpart. With all these qualities, however, it was not as facile or agile an instrument as the latter. Even for its staunchest supporters, it was a liability in the execution of the more rapid and intricate orchestral parts that had to be played at a slower tempo or simplified.

On such tautly strung instruments as were then used, an energetic attack of the bow was necessary to overcome the resistance of the coarse strings, and the necessity of bearing down hard on them to bring out the sound entailed great physical exertions that could not be kept for a long period on a stretch without running out of stamina. Such gruelling demands were apparently responsible for a want of energy observed in 1828 by Fétis, a Belgian musicologist who fumed to see bassists leave their stand unattended when they felt tired and sore and their performance was beginning to suffer:

« Besides physical strength, playing the double bass also requires an energetic willpower that is too rarely met, considering the want of vigour of most bassists in their attack of the string. In operatic orchestras, I have even seen some of them sit down and stop playing when they feel tired, without bothering about the effect resulting from their silence. A conductor who allows such corrupt practice is unforgivable. »

At the same time, Fétis was compelled to acknowledge the superiority of the bass players of the London Philharmonic Society, who, using instruments tuned in fourths (A d g), seemed to make no greater effort than if they were playing the violin or viola:

« With respect to details, after having stated the superiority of the French violins, I am obliged to allow that the same superiority exists in regard to the double basses of the Philharmonic Concerts.(…) The double basses of the Philharmonic Concerts (…) seem to use no greater effort than if they were playing the violin or viola. There can be no doubt but that these advantages are derived from tuning the double bass by fourths… »

In September 1839, the Leipzig Algemeine Musicalishes Zeitung attributed the superiority of German bassists to their tuning in fourths.  Berlioz similarly informs us that the double bass was the only string instrument to be better played in Germany than in France, the French school of bowed instruments being at that time far superior to the German one, except for the lowest-pitched among them.

When Luigi Cherubini established a double bass class at the Paris Conservatoire, he decided to switch to fourths system of tuning. However, since most of the double bassists of the French capital opposed the move, Cherubini decided to maintain the existing system of tuning in fifths and elected Pierre Chenié as professor of the three-string bass in standard French tuning, G d a.

After the untimely death of Chenié on 6 May 1832, and of his successor six months later, though, Cherubini decided to push ahead with his project to reform the double bass in France. From then on, he declared, the E A d g system of tuning was exclusively to be taught at the Paris Conservatoire. Reportedly, Cherubini took this decision after hearing a German double bass section flawlessly perform difficult passages of Beethoven’s symphonies.

But educational reforms do not translate into reality overnight. In 1842, Berlioz rightly stated that Cherubini’s decision had triggered a schism that divided the double bass community, with a few players enthusiastically supportive of the shift and most others reluctant to change anything to their routine. At this point, this influential composer decided to weigh in on a subject on which he held pronounced opinions. In a paper in the journal Le Rénovateur for 12 October 1835 he told some uncomfortable truths, venting his annoyance with the bassists’ ingrained resistance against an indispensable, overdue reform. With the system of tuning in fifths, a considerable amount of position-change was involved in the performance of the simplest diatonic runs:

« Indeed, the double basses are the weakest section of the [Musical Gymnasium] orchestra, as well as that of all French orchestras. The only reason for the inferiority of our double bassists is the system of tuning in fifths, to which they obstinately cling in spite of the difficulty this faulty system brings to the execution of the easiest diatonic patterns (it compels a shift in playing the scale). (…) In spite of what the most famous composers say on the subject, the French obstinately keep up the outdated tuning in fifths, and consequently remain on the same level as the Italians, or even lower. »

With prominent artists and composers speaking out for its adoption, a steadily increasing number of players defected to the fourths system of tuning. In the 1830s, after putting out a new type of strings – double wound with alternate spirals of plated copper and steel – intended to reach the pitch of E, the French virtuoso Achille Gouffé gradually restored the modern standard system of tuning in the double bass section of this orchestra. In 1839, he published his double bass tutor, the first comprehensive French treatise intended for the four-string bass in modern tuning. The Leipzig Algemeine Musicalishes Zeitung for September 1839 hailed this momentous publication:

« The double bass is tuned in fifths nearly everywhere in France. Many, however, recognise the advantage of the tuning in fourths, to which they ascribe the superiority of German double bassists over the French ones. Cherubini and Habenek in Paris have unreservedly declared themselves in favour of the German tuning, and a certain Gouffé has recently published a small work  entitled ‘Traité sur la contre-basse à 4 cordes’ intended for the instruction of this instrument at the Paris Conservatoire. »

By 1840, the basic E A d g tuning was the most commonly-used tuning in France. However, both systems being employed side by side in French orchestras, a number of method books published at that time included fingerings for the two alternatives. By the 1850s, four strings tuned in fourths were standard in all of France’s major orchestras.

Late 19th-century Attempts to Re-Introduce the Tuning C G d a

Forgetting many things that used to be living knowledge among their predecessors, 19th-century composers expressed surprise at finding occasional low, 16′ pitches in works written before their time. In his instrumentation treatise (1844), Hector Berlioz remarked that pitches exceeding the lowest boundaries of the double bass were to be found in many passages of Beethoven’s works. Accordingly, he advanced the hypothesis that Beethoven had been writing for an orchestra that included double basses pitched to low C, an octave below the cello.

In the following years, many works dealing with orchestration and instrumentation referred to this hypothesis, without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion:

« Beethoven’s scores, which take this instrument down to low C (for example in the Storm of the Pastorale symphony), might lead us to conclude that at the time double basses were fitted so as to actually sound the low contra-C, an hypothesis accepted by Berlioz in his treatise on instrumentation and, according to him, by a few other specialised writers. »

Although the absence of the lower 16′ register was keenly felt by 19th-century orchestral composers, they were prevented by technological problems from requiring such low pitches. Neither a careful winding of the strings, nor the use of a variety of different metals in their cover would overcome the formidable drawback of a weak and indistinct tone.

From the second half of the 19th century, double bassists tried repeatedly to restore deep 16′ tones to the orchestra. One may mention the efforts Adolphe Sax, the prolific inventor of musical instruments, who perfected in 1844 a four-stringed double bass pitched an octave below the cello. In 1875, Stone and Meeson in England obtained low C by covering a gut string with heavy copper wire (such as is used for the lowest strings of pianos). This C string was fitted on an instrument tuned to C G d a and displayed at the London International Exhibition of 1872. Revealingly, though, this pair of inventors had to address the problem of making a double bass that was strong enough to sustain the extra pressure of the string without giving way :

« But it became clear that to give the new (16’) notes a full power, and to prevent the danger of shaking the instrument to pieces, a means of strengthening the belly in the direction of strain was required, which should not unduly increase the weight of the sound-board. This requisite was ingeniously fulfilled by Mr Meeson: – Four strips of white pine are glued on to the belly, running its whole length, one on one side of the ordinary bass bar, and three on its other side, thus corresponding in number, and to a certain degree in position, to the increased number of strings. Two of them cross and intercept the usual ƒ-shaped sound-holes, thus removing a weak place in the belly, and causing it to vibrate more homogeneously. »

Unfortunately, the tension bars had the drawback of weighing down the structure of the instrument and the prototype did not gain acceptance in the orchestra.

In the closing years of the 19th century, the German pianomaker and double bass player Gustav Bushman also attempted to reintroduce the system of tuning in fifths, but, in spite of encouragements by Wagner, Von Bülow and Nikish, he had to give it up because of fingering difficulties.

In 1895, J-N. Viseur, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, tried a mixture of fifths and fourth, with the top string lowered from a to g (C G d g). Although he succeeded in convincing several other bass players to take up this system of tuning, it was abandoned shortly after his death. Henri Charpentier, his successor at the Conservatoire, briefly adopted this system before switching back to standard E A d g tuning.

Current Re-Introduction of the System of Tuning in Fifths

The system of tuning in fifths caused insurmountable fingering difficulties when used in conjunction with gut strings, as they had to be held much higher than now to allow them to vibrate freely. Nowadays, with the new, enhanced possibilities of modern strings with low-action set up, the tuning in fifths an octave below the cello once again commands a following.

The American bassist Nadja Gale, who has tuned in fifths for some time now, readily concedes that scales and thirds are no longer right across the string from each other. It’s not possible to play a scale in one position until the thumb position. Any pieces that use a lot of quick scales and fast thirds are more difficult – but not impossible. (She does a lot of ‘pivot shifting’ – the thumb stays in place on the back of the neck while the hand rocks or pivots over the thumb placement – to compensate for this.)

Another drawback she has noticed is that there is more of a difference in thickness of strings and therefore in the tonal colour between strings. The difference in the sound has to be compensated by the bow arm.

According to Nadja Gale, the bass resonates more freely with this tuning. The sound is better, fuller. Significantly, she has had four different basses that she has played tuned both ways and all of them have sounded better and more open in fifths.

As the only bassist of the Philadelphia Virtuosi – a 13 member string orchestra – she finds that another really great benefit is when playing chamber music with other string players. Tuned like the rest of the strings, it is much easier to play in tune with them, with the bass resonating easily along with the other instruments and not fighting them by being the only one tuned differently. This view is shared by Joël Quarrington, the principal bassist of the Toronto Symphony :

« The physics are different when you tune in fifths because you are in the same groove as the rest of the string section. The bass in fourths is impossible to tune – if you make the fourths perfect, your low strings will be too flat and of course will not relate to the open strings of the other instruments, just because it’s turned upside down. I thing a lot of bass players would admit they don’t understand the level of sharpness that the other strings seem to be operating on – it just seems like an irritating thing that they do. However when you tune the bass C-G-D-A, all of a sudden you understand. Also rhythmically it makes a difference. I really feel that it’s a faster speaking instrument when it’s tuned in fifths. »

In short, those who have tried the system of tuning in fifths find that it is hard not to be enthusiastic about it when one knows the difference in how it feels. Nowadays, several double bassists have adopted this system, most of them in Canada, after the example of Joel Quarrington, a strong advocate of tuning the bass in fifths. It is telling that, at first, Quarrington “just wanted to see what life was like without an extension”, but he loved the tuning so much that he switched permanently.

The late U.S. jazz bassist Red Mitchell shared a similar enthusiasm for the fifths tuning system, which he considered as the most natural solution to the problem of obtaining low C without the awkwardness of an extension or a five-stringed instrument.

Somebody gave him once an old cello, which he tuned in fourths so that he could play it like a double bass. The sound immediately dropped. He wondered if the opposite would happen if he took an instrument ordinarily tuned in fourths and tuned it in fifths. So, one weekend he was spending with Gary Karr experimenting with different strings, he tried the other system of tuning. The minute he heard the sound of his bass tuned in fifths, he shouted, “This is it ! This is the sound I’ve been looking for”.

Obviously, jazz bassists have an advantage in adopting the system because musical notation not being an issue for them, they can improvise a bass line that falls under the hand. .According to Red Mitchell, the tuning in fifths makes it easier to play certain double stops such as tenths at the expanse of losing some ease of playing in the smaller intervals (seconds and thirds in particular). Scale passages tend to be played up the strings, and this tuning facilitates open positions triads.

Gary Karr adores the sound of your bass tuned in fifths so much that, if he was younger, he wouldn’t hesitate a minute in making the switch. It is so far superior that he is amazed that not everyone is using it. The one thing that is so obvious to him is the improved intonation. Tuning the bass in fourths makes it really difficult to play somewhat pure notes… there is always an unwanted unsympathetic ringing note.

In the same way, Viseur’s fourth-fifths scordatura (C G d g) has once again been adopted by a number of performing musicians. This system is also advocated by Gary Karr, who predicts a great future for this procedure on account of its flexibility and adaptability in any and all circumstances:

« Many bassists are now tuning in fifths (rather than in fourths), and some are using one fourth on the top two strings combined with two fifths on the bottom (C G d g). The results of this new tuning in all musical situations seem very positive. The sound of the instrument is more open and free, and many intonation problems are eliminated. Also, the playing ease in handling traditional orchestral bass parts is improved. Because of the evident enthusiasm for tuning the bass all or partially in fifths, I predict that this tuning will soon gain wide acceptance. »

Admittedly, many orchestral double bass sections are reluctant to accept an innovation that still has something to prove. Somehow or other, though, with such influential artists as Karr and Quarrington taking the lead role in the campaign, the system of tuning in fifths is poised to reassert itself in the orchestra.