Joel Quarrington


The Double Bass Tuned in Fifths: Demanded by the Orchestral Repertoire, Allowed by Modern Technology, and Facilitated by Current Bass Pedagogy

by Matthew Perrin

“The development of the double bass is linked to two facets of musical history: the changing configuration of the violin family and the evolution of the orchestral ensemble.  As a member of the violin family, the double bass shares fully in its history, development and technique.”

The above quote by Paul Brun, the world’s leading double bass scholar, only hints at the complexity of the contrabass’ twofold history.  If only the double bass followed the seemingly linear trajectory of the violin! There would have been little room for debate on how to hold, play, and tune the instrument.  In reality, the double bass has had a relatively colourful, albeit unstable history compared to all the other modern strings.  Owing to a variety of factors, most of which distil from the sheer size of the instrument, the double bass has eluded the standardization that is common amongst the other modern members of the violin family.  The other stringed instruments were not often subjected to frequent changes in tuning, instrument size, number of strings, or playing technique, all of which have plagued double bass players since the inception of the violin family.   Owing to its size, the double bass has defied standardization.    

This lack of standardization is the result of the ongoing search for an ideal: that the entire family of violin-based instruments may produce a clear and powerful sound throughout their overlapping ranges.  Owing to their unique internal structure , the violins can withstand tremendous amounts of pressure exerted upon them by the strings without impeding resonance.  While the rest of the violin family was able to achieve equilibrium of power and playability early in life, the double bass, with its proportionally larger dimensions, faced extra challenges.   The instrument itself may infinitely expand its dimensions to accommodate the lowest pitches, but alas, our physiology is limited: the human hand is only so large.  While a violinist may easily span a perfect fourth between their index and pinkie fingers, a bass player may only be able to span a major second.  Therefore the bass player must move, or shift, their left hand more frequently than the violinist, the violist, and the cellist.  How then, is it possible to have a rapidly responding bass instrument which incorporates an ease of execution, desirable clear and powerful ‘violin’ sound, and the ability to reach the lowest register?   

Historically, there have been a series of compromises, where some of the desired traits are achieved at the expense of others.   Most commonly, and the only system which could be considered ‘standard’ in a modern context, is the practice of tuning the double bass in fourths:  
“Tuning in fourths, although it reduces the range of the open strings, has now become the generally recognised choice for the double bass.”
It allows for a four-stringed instrument, which reaches most of the desired range, to be able to execute rapid scale passages with minimal left-hand position changes (shifts). This solution, however universally applied, is still a compromise, and as such, is detrimental to some important desirable traits.  Most disparagingly, the abandonment of the tuning system used by the rest of the string family has very serious adverse effects.  Conceivably, it is very difficult to play in tune with the rest of the strings when equipped with an instrument that resonates in a fundamentally different way.    Why not then, retain the same tuning system, and find a compromise less detrimental, considering the importance of intonation in modern performance practice?

The modern tuning of the double bass in fifths is the most viable solution to the difficulty of finding a rapidly responding bass instrument which incorporates an ease of execution, desirable clear and powerful ‘violin’ sound, and the ability to reach the lowest register.   When tuned in fifths, with four strings and doubling the cello range by an octave, the double bass is truly a full-blooded member of the violin family.  In fact, when considering the orchestral repertoire, recent advents in modern string technology, and the advanced state of modern bass pedagogy, a return to fifths tuning is the next logical step in the evolution of the instrument.  A survey of the modern orchestral repertoire is the first step in understanding the need for fifths tuning: its versatility, its ability to cover parts written for similar instruments as well as itself, and its range should make it the natural choice for modern double bass players.

The Orchestral Repertoire:  a Demand for Fifths Tuning

The modern orchestral repertoire makes a compelling case for fifths.  The double bass, while providing the foundation pitches of the orchestra, 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, and is a practice continued by modern day composers.  Many examples show how fifths tuning facilitates an accurate rendition of the cello line down one octave.  Also, the range of the violin family is incomplete without the lowest notes, which occur below the low ‘E’ string of the common 4ths-tuned instrument.  Without the ability to execute these, an orchestral string section is incomplete.   Furthermore, contained within the repertoire are examples of passages originally intended for other instruments, which modern bass players are expected to perform.

The League of American Orchestras publishes a yearly report detailing the performances of its member orchestras.   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.   The florid, highly complicated bass lines of the Romantic era (which frequently double the cello line) are more suited to the fifths-tuned double bass.  Consider the following example:  

This excerpt from Beethoven’s 9th symphony  illustrates a passage 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 instruments.  With similar fingerings, the two instruments tend to err in much the same fashion, providing a more cohesive bass unit.  Consider the 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 would render the note flat in pitch, and give 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 cell/bass parts of any single composer would surely reveal a demand for the utmost cooperation of the cello/double bass duo.  
Some composers modify their compositions in order to compensate for the limitations of a 4ths-tuned bass.   Johannes Brahms meticulously scored his symphonies, writing out entire parts for the double basses.  Below are a few telling examples where the bass part deviates from the cello line : 

In each of the above three examples, Brahms has deviated significantly from his compositional intention.  Although his bass parts are florid, challenging and beautiful (perhaps because Brahms’ father played bass), they are often significantly modified in order to accommodate the 4ths-tuned instrument.  It is also 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.    

Lastly, the repertoire contains multiple examples of bass lines originally intended for other instruments.  While Bach’s first three, plus the 6th Brandenburg concerti are clearly scored for an instrument with the full contra-C range, the 4th and 5th  concerti never descend that far, and often entire sections seem to be transposed up an octave .  This is perhaps indicative of “Use of the so-called D-violone (a contrabass viol tuned D-G-d-c-a-d-g).”   The 5ths-tuned bass is well-suited to perform all the Brandenburg concertos.  Its agility in the low range (owing to its lack of extension) and ability to cover the range of both instruments makes it a perfect fit.  
Franz Joseph Haydn wrote many of his compositions with an entirely different bass instrument at his disposal: the Viennese Violone.  Not strictly a viol, this 5-stringed instrument was a modified version of a bass viol, and was tuned F-A-d-f#-a.   He included solos in numerous symphonies (numbers 6, 7, 8, 31, 72) for the instrument, and even wrote a concerto for it, its first two bars as follows:

Sadly, the concerto is lost.  This fragment is from his catalogue, a shorthand version to keep track of compositions.  Here is the opening phrase of the solo from Symphony #31, “horn Signal”:

What is most indicative about these two excerpts is the fact that both of them are written in D major, a very idiomatic key for the Viennese Violone.   When performed on a double bass in 5ths, the player has the distinct advantage of open A and D strings.  Not only will the performer be able to sing with ease up into the high range, but will profit from the shared overtones of the two closely-related strings.  A final example: in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, an aria in Act I scene II is accompanied by a cello and bass duet in F major.  This duet suffers when played by a 4ths-tuned bass, for lacking a high A-string, the intonation with the cello is a struggle at best.
The Orchestral Repertoire is best served by the 5ths-tuned double bass, with its rapid response, ease of execution of cello lines, desirable clear and powerful ‘violin’ sound, and its ability to reach the lowest register.    

Technological Advances: Facilitating Modern Fifths Tuning

“The earliest bassists used thick, uncovered sheep’s gut strings that were faulty in intonation on account of continual pitch distortions caused by the insufficient twist of their threads.”
Indeed, the greatest obstacle for the proportionally-largest violin was its thick, ungainly and rough-textured strings.  According to Brun, progress on this technological hurdle was a slow one.  Furthermore, advancements in bridge technology, tension on the soundboard, and playing technique are all dependant on the quality of strings being used, and thusly could not be advanced until the strings themselves improved.  String technology, especially that of the lowest C strings, was the Achilles Heel of 5ths tuning for much of the double bass’ history.  A duo of Dr. Stone and Mr. Meeson, two English inventors, presented a breakthrough development at the London International Exhibition of 1872.  It was a four-string double bass, tuned in fifths, with a copper-wound low C string, much like that of a piano.   This major breakthrough had a twofold impact on double bassists, according to Brun.  Composers could now feel at liberty to include the lowest pitches in their compositions , and as a result, the onus was on the bassist to figure out how to execute them, considering the technology was now available.   Most compelling is what Dr. Stone and Mr. Meeson immediately did with their newfound C string, namely, build a reinforced double bass and tune it in fifths.  Brun writes:
“The tuning in fifths is a legacy of the violin family.  It would be both logical and rational, were it not for the fact that, until Dr. Stone’s breakthrough, it was long difficult to manufacture serviceable C strings.  Besides, 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 (off the fingerboard) than now to allow them to vibrate freely.”        
  Interestingly enough, both the inventors of the copper-wound C string, and the most prolific historian of the double bass, Paul Brun, arrive at the same rational conclusion.  Now that the technology is available, it makes sense to tune the bass in fifths.  
String technology continued to advance at a rapid pace in the 20th century.  The next major breakthrough occurred in the 1930’s, when the first set of metal strings was developed in France by Pierre Delescluse.  Delescluse was subsequently hired by Serge Koussevitsky (a double bass player turned conductor) to play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra.   This appointment led to the wildfire-like spread of steel strings throughout North America.  Steel strings allowed for multiple major improvements: first, the gauge of strings could be made thinner.  With a thinner string, the tension could be reduced, allowing the soundboard to vibrate more freely.  Lastly, thinner strings allow for lower action, i.e. the strings can be placed at a lower height over the fingerboard.  This allows the bass player to use all four strings in higher positions.  The higher the position, the closer the pitches are to one and other, and the player can span more notes in a single position.  While in the lower positions, a bass player may only be able to span a major 2nd between the index and pinkie finger.  A few positions higher, the musician can conceivably span the interval of a major third.  Therefore, when all four strings are available to play in higher positions, and the player can conceivably span a major 3rd, many of the seemingly insurmountable fingering difficulties of tuning in fifths evaporate completely.  
Brun’s belief about how the copper-wound C-string placed the onus on the bass player to figure out how to execute the lowest notes  is applicable to the double bassist on a grander scale.  With the combination of steel strings, low tension, and low action, all necessary elements are in place to make fifths tuning once again viable.  Now the onus is in the double bassist to develop the necessary technique to once again tune the bass like the violin it is designed to sound like.

Modern Bass Pedagogy: Development of Virtuoso Technique

The explosion in popularity of steel strings has led to a modern-day double bass renaissance.  The impact of steel strings is not to be taken lightly:
“Metal strings are provided in factory-made sets, without flaw in their diameter throughout their entire length.  [...] they are less affected by temperature changes and stay in tune better, allowing greater accuracy of intonation.  They also have the advantage of a quicker response under the bow.  This, naturally, promotes an expanding technique and helps establish the bass as a major virtuoso instrument.”
Clearly, the table had been set for a renewed interest in the instrument by bassists themselves, but more importantly, the instrument became more attractive to newcomers.  Indeed, the latter part of the 20th century saw the instrument’s first real virtuosi since the times of Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889).  Notably, one of these virtuosi is Canada’s own Joel Quarrington, winner of The Geneva International Competition, internationally renowned soloist and chamber musician, and advocate of fifths tuning.  At first, Mr. Quarrington “just wanted to see what life without an extension was like”, i.e. to find a way to reach the low contra –C.  It turned out to be much more than that:
"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 think 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."   
Joel’s many awards, recordings and tour dates are a significant testament to his ability.  It must be noted, however, that the writer of these lines has witnessed where his greatest impact can be felt, and it is not on the solo stage.  It is when Mr. Quarrington can be heard as the member of an ensemble, with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, as a member of the Zukerman Chamber Players, or any other group that includes other string players.  He is a charismatic and forceful leader from the bottom up, as anyone who plays with him can attest.  He embodies the ideal leader: clear, even intonation, a strict yet flexible sense of rhythm, and a high musical sensibility.  
Joel Quarrington is the epitome of the double bass renaissance, a bassist who built on the wave of knowledge that rose in the latter part of the 20th century, and took it to its logical conclusion:  to tune his bass in fifths.  His highly developed left-hand technique, built upon by his experiences with 20th century masters such as Franco Petracchi  and Ludwig Streicher,  allowed him to negotiate the oft-changing positions on the fingerboard.  
One final telling example of the ascendance of the double bass can be found in the League of American Orchestras Repertoire Report .   16th on the list of Top twenty works composed within the past 25 years performed during the 2007-08 Season is a double bass concerto by John Harbison.  The work was scheduled to be performed eight times .  On the Top fifteen most frequently performed living American composers during the 2007-08 Season list, Mr. Harbison is 14th, with 14 scheduled performances.    This is quite a feat, considering Harbison is on top-twenty lists containing the likes of composers such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corgliano, to name a few.  The concerto, which is a virtuosic tour-de-force, was premiered in Toronto on April 1st, 2006 by none other than Joel Quarrington.


The clear, even-toned, and powerful bass instrument with full Contra-C range has arrived.  The demands of the Orchestral Repertoire, technological improvements, and the constantly improving abilities of modern bass players have facilitated the renaissance of fifths tuning.  Of course, with any sudden leap, there must be a period of adjustment.  Acceptance of this new method is slow.  Many bassists feel that the fingering difficulties remain insurmountable, and that the desired cohesiveness of a section of basses is threatened by this new animal, although historically there is much precedent for ‘mixed’ bass sections.   However difficult it may be for this method to gain acceptance, it will be well worth it.  For now, we can only imagine what a fully professional section of fifths-tuned basses might sound like.   




[1] Brun, Paul. A New History of the Double Bass. Paul Brun Publications, 2000, p.11

[2] “the combination of bass bar and sound post that has been called their ‘nervous system’.” Paul Brun, p. 13

[3] Paul Brun, Chapter 6, A survey of Tunings. 

[4] Paul Brun, p. 165

[5] Silvio Dalla Torre conducted a simple experiment on the resonating difference between a bass tuned in 4ths and one in 5ths.

[6] League of American Orchestras 2006-2007 Orchestra Repertoire Report,, accessed on 12/14/2008

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

[8] From The Complete Double Bass Parts of the Beethoven Symphonies, Edited by Oscar G. Zimmerman, 1976 Rochester, NY

[9] Brun, p. 146

[10] Brun, p. 147

[11] Brun, p. 115

[12] Brun, p. 115

[13] Brun, p. 100

[14] Brun, p. 103

[15] Brun, p. 209

[16] Brun, p. 150

[17] Brun, p. 150 “Thanks to this major breakthough, it now made sense to integrate low-pitched tones in new orchestral productions.”

[18] Brun, p. 150 “Double bass players could no longer look the other way. Somehow or other, it was now up to them to find practical means to produce the notes demanded by composers.”

[19] Brun, p. 151

[20] Brun, p.212

[21] Brun, p. 150 “Double bass players could no longer look the other way. Somehow or other, it was now up to them to find practical means to produce the notes demanded by composers.”

[22] Brun, p. 213

[23] Wikipedia article, Giovanni Bottesini, accessed 12/17/2008.

[24] As quoted by Barbara McDougall, Quintessential Quarrington (Double Bassist Magazine), issue 4, 1998.

[25] Franco Petracchi (b. Sept. 1937) is the author of Simplified Higher Technique for the Double Bass.  This dynamic fingering approach is indispensable to the modern bassist, especially those in fifths.

[26] Ludwig Streicher (June 26, 1920-March 11, 2003) was an influential Viennese bassist, whose forceful recordings are early examples of C20th double bass renaissance virtuosity.

[27] League of American Orchestras 2006-2007 Orchestra Repertoire Report,, accessed on 12/14/2008

[28] LAO report, p. 23

[29] LAO report, p. 26

[30] Brun, pp. 144-145

Images by Fred Cattroll