The Role of the Double Bass in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

The double bass provides a unique sound in classical music. The lowest of all string instruments, the double bass (pronounced “base,” not like the fish) is enormous, bigger around than the average human being. The instrument can play much lower than anyone can sing, and it provides the foundation for the orchestra’s sound.

In an orchestra, basses are almost always way over on the right side of the stage. Bassists play sitting on a very tall stool or standing up. By the way, there’s no such instrument as a single bass. The words bass and double bass mean the same thing.

Works for bass solo are particularly rare but worth hearing. If bass concertos tighten your strings, listen to the following pieces:

  • Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf: Double Bass Concerto in E major

  • Domenico Dragonetti: Concerto in G major (actually composed by a bassist named Nanny, using a bunch of Dragonetti tunes)

  • Serge Koussevitzky: Double Bass Concerto in F-sharp minor, opus 3

And these sonatas are worth hearing:

  • Franz Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata

This is one of the most popular pieces for bass and piano — and Schubert didn’t even write it for the bass. He wrote it for an antiquated string instrument called the arpeggione, which nobody even has in the closet anymore!

  • Henry Eccles: Sonata in A minor (originally written in G minor)

Finally, listen to these famous double bass passages from classical music ­literature:

  • Beethoven: Symphony no. 9 (fourth movement)

  • Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 1 (third movement)

  • Igor Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite

    The double bass, granddaddy of the string section, plays the lowest notes.