In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cello

  • Introduction
  • General Resources
  • Period-Specific Historical Studies
  • Legacy Works
  • Repertoire Lists, Indexes, and Databases
  • Research on Particular Repertoire
  • Autobiographies and Biographies

Music Cello
Sophie Benn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 June 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0293


An instrument with remarkable stylistic range and timbral affordances, the violoncello (referred to in this Bibliography by its common English and German abbreviation, “cello”) is a bowed lute that is fretless, has four strings usually tuned in fifths (C-G-d-a), and is played between the legs. As the lowest member of the violin family, the cello serves a bass function in many standard ensembles, including string quartets and piano trios. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the instrument was a cornerstone of many continuo sections, and treatises attest that accompanimental playing was a foundational skill for any aspiring cellist. In 19th- and 20th-century orchestral writing, it filled a variety of roles, switching between bass and middle lines, punctuated by moments of melodic prominence. The cello is also prized as a solo instrument, due in part to its middle and upper registers, which are celebrated for their sweet tone and emotional immediacy. Attempts to establish the origins of the cello are complicated by the highly regional terminology used to describe a number of similar bass bowed lutes that proliferated throughout the late 16th and 17th centuries. The first use of the term “violoncello” was by Giulio Cesare Arresti in a publication from 1665, and by the beginning of the 18th century, the term was in frequent use. By the mid-18th century, the cello had become the dominant instrument of its kind and range throughout most of Europe. It found earliest success in Italian- and German-speaking lands, but was slower to infiltrate France, where there was competition from the basse de viole through the 18th century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the cello was frequently employed as a solo instrument in concerti and sonatas, while still functioning as a bass instrument in chamber and orchestral ensembles. Research on its function outside the Western classical tradition is quite scarce and deserves further development; however, the cello has found a growing place in many styles, including jazz, popular, and non-Western musical traditions.

General Resources

Several sources aim to provide a holistic overview of the cello, from its origins to organology to notable performers. The Grove Music Online entry, Bonta, et al. 2001, boasts comprehensive research and an excellent bibliography, while Stowell 1999 features digestible chapters by numerous scholars on repertoire, organology, and notable performers. Cowling 1983 is an approachable, if old, resource, and the CelloBello website is a gathering place for articles on practicing, pedagogy, repertoire databases, and books that may be of interest to cello students and teachers.

  • Bonta, Stephen, Suzanne Wijsman, Margaret Campbell, Barry Kernfeld, and Anthony Barnett. “Violoncello [cello].” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root, 2001.

    Published in 2001, a thorough source on the history and repertoire of the instrument, including information on organology, technique, and prominent performers. The bibliography is also extensive and excellent, although it should be supplemented with more recent sources.

  • CelloBello.

    Based in the studio of Paul Katz at the New England Conservatory, this expansive website includes practicing and technical tips, a repertoire database, a blog, and more. It has the advantage of having a wide range of contributors, with a particular orientation toward pedagogical advice from established cello teachers of university and conservatory-level students.

  • Cowling, Elizabeth. The Cello. 2d ed. New York: Scribner, 1983.

    Intended as a resource for students and the “interested layman.” Includes sections on organology, early history, and literature. Much historical information has been updated by Vanscheeuwijck 1996 (cited under Cello in Historical Performance), Stowell 1999, Walden 1998 and Kennaway 2014 (both under Period-Specific Historical Studies), and others, but the included repertoire lists and brief biographies of 20th-century cellists may be of interest to some.

  • Stowell, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Cello. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Particularly useful for performers as an introduction to research on the instrument, this multiauthor volume offers insight into a wide range of topics. Includes chapters on 19th-century cello virtuosi, which can be found in other sources, as well as overviews of cello literature, organized by genre.

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