The cello: what’s not to love?

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In a recent post we asked readers how playing or listening to the cello helps mental and emotional health (see Music and mental health: the cello).  What is it about the cello that people find so appealing?

One Rosella Room reader, a composer, suggested that the cello’s low register, with its mellow tones, was key to its relaxing effect.  Several players spoke of the centrality of the cello to their life, encompassing playing, practicing and performing, as well as interpreting the music.  A teacher said they’d observed time and again the positive impact on students’ mental health of studying an instrument.  Another reader, a musician, called the cello an “oasis”.

No readers claimed to be drawn by its melancholic tone, but that the cello represents sad emotions is a common perception.  There’s quite a bit of literature on the paradoxical result of people feeling better after listening to sad music, see here.

Nor did readers mention being attracted to a cheerful cello, in all its shimmering liveliness.

A range of qualities peculiar to the cello might improve mental and emotional health.  Of course, you can’t separate the cello from the music played on it – nor can you forget the critical role of an expert player, their technique and their expressive capacity.  But there might be additional factors at play.

The cello (maybe) has a human voice

It’s commonly said that the cello has a human voice.  Some nominate this human quality as the cello’s most attractive feature.

In his article ‘My Cello‘, the MIT professor, cellist, computer scientist and composer Tod Machover commented:

The cello range is identical to the human voice – that is, the male and female voice combined.

The lowest cello note is at the bottom range of a basso profundo, and although the cello can actually scream higher than any singer, it has a more normal top range that competes with a diva coloratura.

And here is the cellist Amit Peled:

I like to believe the player is more important than the instrument….But it’s true that this cello [Pablo Casal’s] allows you to find colors that you didn’t know existed. This cello has a throaty, human quality to it.

What’s the science behind the perception that the cello resembles the human voice?

According to researchers in Quebec:

the pitch distribution of the cello is uniquely similar to that of the human voice.

But there is rivalry in the orchestra.  (Who knew?)  Some say the saxophone, with its vocal texture, is the closest to the human voice – and even attribute that view to Puccini.  Others claim that honour for the violin – well, at least a Strad.

Who’s right?

According to a literature review  by Emery Schubert, Professor of Music and Psychology at the University of New South Wales, historical accounts of musical instruments do not reveal any one instrument as ‘voice-like’.  Rather, since antiquity, the aulos, glass harmonica and some woodwind (eg flute, oboe) and lip-reed instruments (eg trumpet and trombone) have all at times been labelled the most ‘voice-like’.

Schubert suggests that capacities such as pitch gliding (eg in a stringed instrument or trombone) or pitch sliding (eg in a clarinet), which allow for microtonal inflections like vibrato and portamento, may give certain instruments the potential to sound voicelike.

But those looking for hard evidence will be disappointed.  Schubert observes that despite the popularity of this intriguing question,

there is no empirical evidence that has explicitly tested what musical instrument sounds most like the human voice.

He concludes that perceptions are psychologically or culturally-determined, the player’s expressiveness is an additional key variable, and further research is warranted.

The cello engages the same neural networks as singing

Neurologists in Quebec recently published the results of a study which compares the use of brain networks in singing and cello playing.  One reason these researchers chose to compare the cello, rather than say, the piano, was the similarity of pitch distribution.

Getting people to play a (modified) cello while undergoing an MRI scan, researchers found that singing and playing the cello activated a shared set of brain areas, using many of the same neural mechanisms.

The researchers noted that a similarity between singing and playing the cello was continuous pitch mapping: both can produce and change any pitch within a range  (unlike a piano, which has discrete pitch mapping).

Another similarity was that in both singing and playing the cello, pitch and timing are de-coupled.  In the stringed instrument, asynchronous movements of the left and right hands control pitch and timing; in the voice, pitch is controlled by tension of the vocal chords and timing by the diaphragm.

We like the idea that the cello engages the same parts of the brain as singing.  Might this commonality explain the cello’s role in nourishing our mental health?

The cello has a versatile range

Alternatively, could it be the versatility of the cello which makes it so appealing?  Its range allows it to speak to so many people.  You can play the bass, tenor and treble clefs, and manage the melody, harmony and bass lines.

Again, here’s cellist Amit Peled:

It’s the only instrument that allows you to go as low as a grandpa and as high as a squeaky baby. So you really have the whole range of human expression in one instrument. And that, for me, is the beauty of it.

The cello can be embraced

But it’s not just how the cello sounds that is appealing.  Machover also wrote in his essay of the “physical intensity of cello playing (a whole of body experience, not just a finger activity)”.  He described the cello thus:

Cellos, I found, are the perfect size.  Violins are too petite, fingers stepping on fingers; the double bass is a struggle, hands stretched and muscles flexed.  But the cello is the size of a human body, reaching the ground as its scroll grazes the top of the head of the seated musician.

The tactile experience of playing the cello, with the wood vibrating in response to the bow, might be another factor.  Perhaps also because its warmth is derived from wood?

An Oxford student, Simon Riker, had this to say in the university’s blog:

All it took was one stroke of the bow across the lower strings for me to begin to appreciate the power of the instrument.  I felt its vibrations where it touched my legs, chest, and hands. Yes, I could do this, I thought to myself. I like this.

In one chat room, a cellist said: “I played piano for ages before cello and the number one reason why I migrated to cello is the tactile experience. With cello, you truly feel the music.”  He continued: “It mystifies observers how we can “find the notes” on a fretless instrument, but I tell you, once you’re decent enough to really feel it, cello almost becomes an extension of your body.”  “I love the cello because it’s big and powerful”, said another.

A related point is the apparent resemblance of the cello to the human form – whether through size, proportion, or shape.  For example, cellist Steven Isserlis wrote in The Guardian:

The cello is the most human of instruments. Even physically, one’s relationship to it is somehow similar to a singer’s with his or her voice; the cello seems to become part of one’s body, as one hugs it close and coaxes mellow sounds from it.

In an interview last year, Machover said:

Music instruments are some of the most sophisticated technologies that exist because they allow deep intentions and feelings to come out through our bodies.

If you play an instrument, you’re not thinking about where your fingers are or how your right hand and your left hand coordinate. It becomes second nature so that your body can translate what your intention is.

The cello is a tool of communication

Machover captures a key element in how music is therapeutic: music is a tool which can convey your interior world.  The great cellist Rostropovich  reportedly told Strad Magazine:

When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice – my voice.

Does the cello play a unique role in mental health?

So the sound of the cello, the sheer physicality of the experience of holding and playing it, and its perceived resemblance to the human voice and form, all seem relevant to its appeal.

We too love the sound, feel and look of the cello, but it may not be the shahanshah, the king of kings, when it comes to mental health.  Might not other instruments share that honour?

Ultimately, it’s a subjective exercise and perhaps playing or listening to any instrument that we love will nourish our emotional health.  In our case, that will always be the cello.

Rosella Room readers: share your thoughts.

Interested in mental health and music?  See Music therapy for anxiety: recipe for a chill playlist.

Image credit: ‘Cello with autumn leaves” by @traveling_orchids


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