Joel Quarrington


A Compelling case for fifths tuning

by Don Quartz

Ideally, the largest member of the violin family produces the same clear and powerful sounds as the smallest member.  As the double bass is proportionally larger, so are the length of the strings, and therefore the distance between notes on a fingerboard.[1]  Herein lies the perennial challenge of the double bassist: to be able to execute the lowest notes in the repertoire (on the largest instrument) while retaining the clear, powerful sound and rapid articulation of the violin.  The double bass has suffered a violent history of constant mutilation and adjustment in search of this ideal.  One solution has been to reduce the interval between the open strings from a fifth to a fourth, in order to reduce the number of shifts (changes in left-hand position) before switching to the next string.[2]  Not only does this model reduce the range of the instrument, but fundamentally changes the way it resonates[3], catastrophically ending  its relation to the other members of the string family.  Historically, this lamentable compromise has long been the choice of professionals.  20th Century advancements in string technology (i.e. the practice of making them out of metal instead of gut) has allowed the bassist to make frequent shifts easily and accurately[4], obviating the sole reason for tuning in fourths.  I intend to argue that a modern return to fifths tuning[5] is the next logical step in the evolution of the instrument, while providing numerous examples from the repertoire that show how it is the most natural tuning scheme for the double bass.   The ‘fifths’ solution presents no compromise of range, powerful sound, or ease of execution, and should become the preferred choice of bassists everywhere.  

A compelling case for fifths tuning can be deduced from examples taken from the orchestral repertoire. The double bass, while providing the foundation pitches of the orchestra, most often doubles the cellos at the distance of one octave. This long-standing tradition, with its roots in the earliest music written for the violin family, is a hallmark of double bass playing[6].  In order to fulfil this doubling role, the bass must be able to render all pitches down to the low 16’ C.  Without the ability to execute these, an orchestral string section is incomplete. Fourths tuning only permits playing down to a low E, and although sometimes modified to compensate for this shortcoming (either with an awkward mechanical extension device, or the addition of a fifth string, which impedes resonance and requires an even larger-sized instrument), it falls well short of the violin-like ideal.  Fifths tuning facilitates the most accurate rendition of the cello line down one octave[7]. The florid, highly complicated bass lines of the Romantic era are among the most difficult for the double bassist to execute, and also happen to be the most often performed by professional orchestras.  To show how the fifths-tuned double bass best suits the most often performed compositions, I have chosen to limit my research mostly to compositions of the Romantic era.

The League of American Orchestras publishes a yearly report detailing the performances of its member orchestras.[8]  It’s highly revealing data shows the frequency of composers, genres, and specific pieces performed over the course of a North American season.  The top 2 ranked compositions for the 2006-2007 season were both Beethoven symphonies (5th and 7th), the most often performed composer was Beethoven (1044 scheduled performances), and the top five performed pieces were all from the Romantic era.[9]  Consider the following example:

This excerpt from Beethoven’s 9th symphony[10] illustrates a passage typically doubling the cello line.  Two bars before D, the 5ths bass must only cross one string in order to execute the passage, rather than two strings crossed in 4ths.  Crossing more than one string, repeatedly in this case, would break the slur beyond recognition.  At letter D, the immense changes in range (from a high Ab to a low F four bars after D, for example), are more easily executed in fifths. In fact, the 5ths player has the advantage of sharing very similar fingerings with the cellists, as the intervals are the same “shape” on both the cello and bass.  With similar fingerings, the two instruments tend to err in much the same fashion, providing a more cohesive bass unit. The following excerpt is a melody fragment from Mozart, K.V. 550, the G minor symphony’s 1st movement:

At the apex of the fragment (G, the tonic key), both instruments (cello and bass, tuned in 5ths) would execute it with the same fingering.  When played in fourths, the G would undoubtedly be played as a harmonic, the 1st overtone of the 4th string.  The result of playing a harmonic renders the note flat in pitch, and gives it an undesirable hollow tone quality, unbecoming of the top note in a melodic phrase.  The repertoire is filled with similar such examples, and an extensive study of cello/bass parts of any single composer reveals a demand for the utmost cooperation of the cello/double bass duo.

            Many composers modify their compositions in order to compensate for the limitations of a 4ths-tuned bass.  Often, blatant modifications can be identified, and it is easy to see what the composer actually intended for the bass group.   Johannes Brahms meticulously scored his symphonies, writing out entire parts for the double basses (most other composers pre-dating Brahms never bothered doing so).  Below are a few telling examples where the bass part unnecessarily deviates from the cello line:

In each of the above three examples[11] [12], where the bass is clearly supposed to be doubling the cello precisely one octave lower, Brahms deviated significantly from his original compositional intention to compensate for the limitations of basses tuned in fourths.  His bass lines are florid, challenging and beautiful (perhaps because Brahms’ father played bass), and deserve to be executed in a way that is faithful to his compositional intentions.  Imperative to note that in the piano score reductions of the four Brahms symphonies, these modifications are absent, revealing his true intentions for the bass group.[13] Lastly, these small examples reveal only a drop of the sea of modifications present in the four Brahms symphonies.  Having played all four of them in both tuning schemes (first in fourths and later in my young career, fifths), and then modifying them (where appropriate and according to the cello part), the difference of effect is astounding.  When performing the Brahms symphonies tuned in fifths, the revelation of being able to accurately execute the bass line, according to what was ostensibly the composer’s original intention, is both vindicating and liberating.     

In Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, a duet (in Act I, scene II) is accompanied by a cello and bass duet in F major:

The excerpt[14] shows a single solo cello and solo double bass accompanied by the rest of the strings, the solo bass doubling the melody an octave lower (keeping in mind the bass is a transposing instrument sounding an octave lower than written).  On the cello, this melody is played on the two higher strings, the D and A.  This duet suffers when played by a 4ths-tuned bass, for lack of a high A-string; it must be played on the G-string. In this scenario, the intonation with the cello is a struggle at best.  The high G-string causes numerous problems: first, the fingerings will not be similar to the cellist’s, the interval ‘shapes’ across the two strings will differ greatly, and shifts will not be executed to similar positions on both instruments.  Second, the G-string lacks the requisite brightness to match the tone quality of the melody played on the cello, resulting in a disparaging difference of colour.  Lastly, the combination-D-G-strings do not share the same overtones or resonance with the D-A-string pair of the cello.  The end result sounds like two instruments who aren’t speaking the same language.


            Considering numerous examples from the repertoire, along with the pedagogical advancements of modern double bassists and a clear acoustical advantage of fifths tuning over other systems, the next step in the evolution of the double bass is a return to fifths tuning.  It is the most natural form of a true bass instrument, which has henceforth defied the standardization enjoyed by the other members of the string family.  Important to mention is the fact that tuning in fifths also opens up an enormous amount of repertoire to the modern bassist.  In choosing solo music, the bass has a relatively small amount to choose from, and has therefore always relied on transcriptions of works written for other instruments (often written for the cello).  Fifths tuning makes accessible an enormous amount of cello music, from the Bach suites to Brahms Sonatas, even concertos, which were never thought possible to be performed on the bass.  Even music written for the violin and viola (because of the shared 5ths tuning system), can be performed.  While this may seem like a minor point, consider how many more beautiful melodies a young cellist or violinist will have studied by the time they reach university, compared to a young bass player.  This is a pedagogical crisis of no small consequences: the young bassist can come of age without acquiring firsthand the knowledge of how a simple melody functions.  Imagine melismatic and contrapuntal Beethovenian bass lines in the hands of a musician who cannot execute a melody: no one would make the same error with an auditioning violinist.  Does it make sense to deprive young bassists of beautiful melodies written by the masters?

            One final point: as I have depended so heavily on the evidence laid out in Paul Brun’s book A New History of the Double Bass, it is interesting to note that we have not come to all the same conclusions about playing the bass in fifths.  He writes:

            “The production of low-pitched tones creates problems to which there is no one forthright, entirely satisfactory solution. The tuning in fifths, the most rational answer and the one that comes first to mind, has some tempting advantages: its use would avoid the grafting of an unsightly attachment to the bass and it would be in keeping with the four-string tradition of the violin family.  It would also help silence the voices claiming the double bass is little more than a coarsened viol that ‘seems on the road to recovering some of its lost strings.’ Unfortunately, instrumental art is an empirical art which is not to be simplified by any theory: the system of tuning in fifths is very awkward, due to the inadequate span of the hand when a written bass part has to be followed.  For these reasons, the tuning in fourths, although it reduces the range of the open strings, has become the generally recognised choice for the double bass.”[15]

With respect to the span of the left hand: it is only inadequate when trying to apply an antiquated, low-shifting, three-finger technique to a bass tuned in fifths.  The span of the average person’s hand is more than adequate when they have taken the time to develop a fluid, dynamic and powerful left hand technique.  In truth, no bass player, before picking up the instrument for the first time, makes a conscious choice to tune the instrument in fourths or fifths: every musician is a product of the system in which he or she was musically raised.  Mr. Brun is a product of a system that prescribes 4ths tuning, and he tunes his bass in fourths accordingly.  The bonds of tradition, especially with something so historically celebrated as music, can be particularly difficult to sever (not to say that fifths tuning has no historical precedence –it does).  The only choice any bassist has is whether or not to change.  Now is the time, with all the elements in place, where one can take the necessary leap from tradition and land safely.




[1] Consider that a violinist can reach a minor sixth even in the lowest positions, where a bassist can only manage a major second (!).

[2] Brun, Paul. A New History of the Double Bass, 165. “Tuning in fourths, although it reduces the range of the open strings, has now become the generally recognised choice for the double bass.”

[3] Silvio Dalla Torre, a Dutch advocate of fifths tuning, presents an interesting resonance comparison between a bass tuned in fourths and one tuned in fifths.  The resulting visual depiction somewhat quantifies the incredible aural difference one can easily hear between the two tuning systems.    

[4] Brun, 92. Interestingly, the 20th Century has witnessed an unprecedented explosion of talent on the instrument, the latter half often referred to as the ‘double bass renaissance’.

[5] Brun, “A Survey of Tunings”, 114-170. Tuning in fifths was the norm for quite some time, lasting well into the 19th century in France.

[6] Brun, 114.

[7] Brun, “CGDA tuning (..) allowed the double bass to answer its primary function of doubling the bass at the lower octave” (114).

[8] League of American Orchestras 2006-2007 Orchestra Repertoire Report 2007-2008 Season,, (accessed 02/10/2009).

[9] League of American Orchestras 2006-2007 Orchestra Repertoire Report, pp. 20, 21.

[10] From The Complete Double Bass Parts of the Beethoven Symphonies, Edited by Oscar G. Zimmerman, 192.

[11]   Brahms, Johannes. Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Ed. Robert Pascall. Munich: G. Henle Verlag 1996.

[12] ---- Symphony no. 2 in D major Op. 73. Ed. Robert Pascall, Michael Struck. Munich: G. Henle Verlag 1996.

[13] Brun, p. 147

[14] Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto (melodramma tragico in three acts), Act I, Scene II.

[15] Paul Brun, 165-165.



Beethoven, Ludwig van. Symphony no.9 in D minor, Op. 125. Ed. Jonathan Del Mar. Kassel: Barenreiter-Verlag 1999.  

Brahms, Johannes. Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Ed. Robert Pascall. Munich: G. Henle Verlag 1996.

----. Symphony no. 2 in D major Op. 73. Ed. Robert Pascall, Michael Struck. Munich: G. Henle Verlag 1996.

----. Symphonien für Klavier zu 2 Händen. Ed. Otto Singer. Leipzig : C.F. Peters 19--?

Brahms, Johannes.  German Requiem, Op. 45; Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68. Munich Philharmonic.  Sergiu Celibidache. (P) 1999 EMI records Ltd.  CDS 5 56843 (2 compact discs).

----. Symphonies nos. 2 in D major, Op. 73; 3 in F major, Op. 90 . Munich Philharmonic.  Sergiu Celibidache. (P) 1999 EMI records Ltd.  CDS 5 56846 2 (2 compact discs).

----.  Symphony no. 1; Triumphlied (arr. Piano 4-hands).  Christian Kohn; Silke-Thora Matthies. (P) 2000, Naxos.  CDS 8.554119. catalogue/item.asp?cid=8.554119#.

----.  Symphonies nos. 2; 3 (arr. Piano 4-hands).  Christian Kohn; Silke-Thora Matthies. (P) 2000, Naxos.  8.554822.

Brun, Paul. A New History of the Double Bass. Villeneuve d'Ascq : P. Brun Productions 2000.

----. Histoire des contrebasses à cordes. Paris: La Flûte de Pan 1982.

Cohen, Irving Hersch. The Historical Development of the Double Bass, PhD. Diss., New York University 1967.

Greenberg, Michael D. “Perfecting the Storm: The Rise of the Double Bass in France, 1701-1815.” The Online Journal of Bass Research, Vol. 1, no.1. July 2003.

League of American Orchestras 2006-2007 Orchestra Repertoire Report 2007-2008 Season,, (accessed 02/10/2009).

McDougall, Barb. “Quintessential Quarrington.” Double Bassist Magazine, March 1998.

Verdi, Giuseppe. Rigoletto (melodramma tragico in three acts), libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, ed. Martin Chusid, 17 vols., The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, ser. 1, Operas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Milan: G. Ricordi, 1998.

Zimmerman, Oscar J., Ed. The Complete Double Bass Parts of the Beethoven Symphonies. Rochester, NY: Oscar Zimmerman Productions 1976.

Images by Fred Cattroll