The Octobass Is an Instrument Nearly Too Big to Play – Or Hear

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You might never have seen an octobass in person – but if you have, there’s no way you’ll ever forget it.

The wooden instrument is 12 feet tall and capable of producing sounds so low the human ear has trouble detecting them. And even though it otherwise resembles its smaller cousins (a bass, cello, violin, or viola), even a professional basketball player would need to stand on something to reach its neck.


The octobass produces sound in the same manner as other string instruments: the player holds down certain strings in specific patterns, drawing out or shortening the sounds by plucking, strumming, or bowing the strings. In addition to knowing which strings to push, though, someone learning the octobass must also become familiar with a series of levels used to press down the strings.

Then they handle a (very heavy and large) bow, drawing it across the strings.


The instrument was designed and constructed by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1850, and for a long time, two musicians worked together to play it. Modern uses are few and far between, partly because there are only three playable replicas in the world – one in Phoenix, one in Paris, and another in Oslo.

Nico Abondolo, principal bass player with the LA Chamber Orchestra had the opportunity to play one, and called it “a surreal experience.”

It tunes to two full octaves below a cello and one octave below a double bass (or the lowest note on a piano), extending to a C note pitched at 16 hertz – lower than the normal range of human hearing, which ends around 20 hertz.


Colin Pearson, curator of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, explains why he’s so excited to have one nearby.

“It’s wonderful for demonstrating how sound waves work, and how a string vibrates. These strings are so large and so massive that the vibrations are slow enough for us to actually see them.”

Science project or not, there’s one thing the octobass can do that nothing else can in quite the same way – play the theme song from Jaws.

So even if you’re not a science or music buff, there’s still a good reason to keep one around.