Instruments THAT YOU BOW

Bowed string instruments come in all shapes and sizes. The best known is the violin (also known as the ‘fiddle’, especially in folk music) and its bigger brothers and sisters are the viola (pronounced vee-oh-la), the cello (said che-low) and the double bass. The larger the instrument, the deeper the sound. Listen to these pieces of music played on the violin and cello… can you hear the difference in the sounds they create?



The violin is the smallest and most widely played of the western, bowed, stringed instrument ‘family’. Slightly larger than the violin is the viola, and it is also played by holding horizontally between the chin and shoulder. Much larger is the cello, which is played sitting down on a chair, and even larger again is the double bass – which is played either standing up or perching on a tall stool.

Nicola Benedetti is one of the world’s most brilliant and famous violinists of her generation. She won a big competition in Britain, BBC Young Musician of the Year, when she was only 16. Still only in her twenties, she works incredibly hard to ensure she is always in peak form, and has an exhausting schedule travelling around the world, playing concertos with big symphony orchestras. But she also loves to play ‘chamber music’ – that’s music for just small groups of musicians, and in Nicola’s case she plays a lot of chamber music for ‘piano trio’. That’s not a group of three pianos! It’s a trio of piano, violin and cello.



The cello is another magnificent stringed, bowed instrument. Because it is so much bigger than a violin, the pitches it creates are much lower and richer – although very skilled cellists can play very high notes if they place their fingers right at the end of the ‘fingerboard’. This is the long, straight runway for the strings traditionally made from the wood of an ebony tree.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, like Nicola Benedetti, is a previous winner of the prestigious BBC Young Musician competition. He won it in 2016, also at the age of 16. He is still at school, working for his final exams, before going to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He already has a record contract, with Decca, and has had a TV documentary made about him and his family. He has six brothers and sisters, all of whom are equally passionate about playing classical music.

Sheku is playing here a small section from a piece called Hungarian Rhapsody by David Popper, a cellist and composer born in Prague in the mid-1800s. This extract shows off Sheku’s technical mastery of the instrument, as well as the cello’s big range – from low notes to very high ones.