When talking about the double bass with people who are unfamiliar with the instrument there is one question that often comes up. Namely, if there is a double bass, is there a single bass too?
There is no instrument that is called the single bass. “Double” in the double bass` name refers to what role the instrument fills in an ensemble and does not imply that there is a single bass.
To properly understand why this is the case, there are a couple of follow-up questions that need to be answered.
How did the double bass get its name? Could there be a single bass, and what type of instrument would that be? And the less common, but most interesting follow-up question of them all; is there a triple bass?
Why is it called a Double Bass?
The double bass gets its name from being designed to double the bass part in ensembles by playing it an octave lower. As this doubling was the primary function of the instrument, this was reflected in its name. In its earliest stages, the double bass doubled the bass viol, and later the cello.
The double bass can be dated as far back as the 1500s. Back then, it had 6 strings. It later evolved to only have 3 before it became more common for it to have 4 strings as most double basses have today.
Despite the many changes and the long history of the double bass, its function has remained largely the same. Thus, the name “double bass” has always been fitting for the instrument, despite it changing a lot throughout history.
The double bass is also commonly referred to as the contrabass. Contra, used in a musical context, generally means an octave lower. The word is also used in several other ways, but they all refer to a low musical register.
In modern times, the double bass has been used in genres outside of classical to play bass lines that do not double a different instrument. Despite this, the name of the instrument has remained the same due to its long-lasting history.
What instrument could be considered a single bass?
There are 4 instruments that effectively serve the role of the single bass in one way or another.
While no one is using the term “single bass” for these instruments, there are arguments that can be made for why they could be considered one.
The cello was first invented in the 1500s and later popularized in Europe during the 1700s. As the cello started to become a more prominent instrument in ensembles, it also became more common for the double bass to double cello parts.
Thus, the Cello often played the “single” melody that the bass doubled. For this reason, if we had to pick an instrument to call the “single bass”, I`d pick the Cello.
With that said, while cello parts are often written in the bass clef, it is considered a tenor instrument. While it does provide low-end in string quartets and is the deepest tuned instrument after the double bass, calling the cello a bass is thus somewhat awkward.
For this reason, I find it more intuitive to say that the cello plays the single melody that the bass doubles, rather than calling the instrument a single bass.
The Bass Viol
The Bass Viol was the original instrument that early versions of the double bass doubled.
Thus, if we are looking for the original “single bass” that the double bass doubled, the answer would be the bass viol.
Similar to the cello, it would not be without issue to call the bass viol a single bass though. While it is called bass in name, its range is similar to that of a cello. Thus, the instrument has a different range than what we associate with the bass nowadays.
As it is called a bass, and it was among the first instruments that played parts an octave higher than the double bass, we could however consider the bass viol to be the closest thing we have to a single bass.
The Double Bass & Bass Guitar
Lastly, there is another way of defining what a single bass means. Namely, if the bass is not doubling any part at all, could it then be considered a single bass?
In modern genres of music, it is common to have a single double bass or bass guitar in a group. Generally, there is another instrument such as a piano or a guitar, playing a tenor part as well. However, their parts are oftentimes different from that of the bass line.
Thus, while there are many differences between the double bass and bass guitar, they both play unique bass lines that do not double a different instrument.
For this reason, they can be thought of as “single basses”, as they are no longer being used to double a different instrument. While no one is using the term in this way, it is another plausible answer to what could be considered a single bass.
Is there a triple bass?
While there is no instrument that is called the triple bass, the octobass is an instrument that is designed to double the part of the double bass. Thus, the instrument serves as a double bass for the double bass, and could technically be considered a triple bass.
The octobass was invented by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in the middle of the 1900th century. It is a massive instrument, measuring 11.4 feet, or 3.48 meters in total length.
The octobass is tuned two octaves deeper than a cello. This makes the tuning of its three strings C0-G0-D1.
The open C string rings out at a frequency of 16.35hz. Thus, it is not far from rivaling some of the deepest bass tunings that have ever been used.
Very little music was ever written to be played on the octobass. It has however seen some use, namely in Charles Gounod`s St. Cecilia Mass. Today, only two original octobasses still exist, as well as a couple of replicas.
While Vuillaume did not name the instrument the triple bass, it`s safe to say to he effectively could have. The Octobass doubles the double bass like the double bass doubles the cello. Thus, this instrument could very well have been called the “double double bass”, or the “triple bass”.
While there is no instrument that is called the single bass, there are a handful of instruments that serve the purpose of one. The Cello and Bass Viol both play the “single” part that the double bass plays an octave lower. Thus, they can be said to do “what a single bass would have done”.
Both the double bass and the bass guitar have also been used to play distinct bass lines without doubling a different instrument. It could thus be argued that they are deserving of a different name, with “single bass” being a legitimate contender.
Lastly, there is the octobass which effectively could have been named the triple bass. However, its range is so deep that some of its notes are not discernable to the human ear. Thus, thanks to the Octobass we can at least be sure that there is no need for a quadruple bass.
If you found the relation between string instruments interesting, I`ve written a whole lot more on the subject. For example, I recently wrote an article on the differences between the violin and the double bass, which I recommend checking out.