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Double bass music falls into three main categories, including classical, jazz and bluegrass, and rock and pop. The classical category can be divided into orchestral, chamber and solo music. Each type of double bass music puts the bass in a specific musical role and has stylistic distinctions.
The first type of music a double bass usually plays is classical. Most commonly, the bass plays as a member of an orchestra. Its role typically is to complete the bass or lowest line of the music, and in this capacity it frequently plays the same music as the cellos, just one octave lower. This, along with the fact the bass usually doubled the bass line of the harpsichord continuo part in baroque music, is why the instrument is called the double bass. Each orchestra usually only needs two or three basses, so people who want to play this type of music have to practice seriously to pass competitive orchestral auditions.
Bassists also can play in chamber ensembles. This type of double bass music sometimes places the double bass in a prominent melodic role, but more often it is a supporting instrument. String quintets are common, but orchestration is dependent on the specific sounds the composer wants. Woodwinds often are paired with strings.
Another kind of double bass music is solo music. The deep range of the double bass means that the instrument cannot be as fluid, virtuosic or as easily accompanied as other members of the violin family, simply because the instruments strings are thicker and take much longer to complete vibration cycles. Subsequently, the repertoire for classical solo double bass is somewhat limited. One of the most famous solos for double bass, however, is the “Elephant” from Camille Saint-Saëns’ larger work, “Carnival of the Animals.”
Double bass music also can fall into the jazz and bluegrass category. In this type of playing, bassists usually have much more active lines compared to orchestral works. They make greater use of specific sequences to create a “walking” part, outlining chords or moving by step or half step to create better movement and propulsion of the chord sequences. Jazz double bass players also use other techniques such as slapping to create different effects not normally found in the classical style. Even though an electric bass guitar could play the same lines, some groups prefer the double bass because of its characteristic sound.
The last category of double bass music is rock and pop music. In most groups, the electric bass guitar is the preferred instrument over the double bass, partly because the bass guitar blends well with the rhythm and lead guitars, creating a more uniform sound. When the double bass is used in rock and pop, it typically is done in a rather eclectic way, with players performing feats such as twirling the bass for visual effect. Often, double bassists who play in these genres use an electric double bass, which can be amplified and has a very minimal shape to reduce the instruments bulk and weight.
One note about the various types of double bass music is that with some exceptions, jazz, bluegrass, rock and pop forgo the use of the double bass bow, and instead, the bassist plucks the strings with his fingers. This is more characteristic to bass guitar playing and helps bridge some stylistic gaps. In classical playing, bows are the norm, regardless of whether the performer is playing solo or with a group.