Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Of all life's great, unsolved mysteries, when a bass player should take a part down an octave remains perhaps the most puzzling.
Ok, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but there are certainly several factors that should be considered before one decides to take the plunge and belt out a low C (or any other low note). In this post, I will compile a list of reasons that explain when it might be appropriate to take things down an octave and make good use of that extension we all love some much. I'll do my best to provide supportive musical examples and personal experience from myself and other players, too.
A Little Background
The history of the double bass is one riddled with inconsistencies- regional tuning practices, fluctuating numbers of strings, and a seemingly infinite range of sizes meant that at any given time, composers in different countries were often writing bass parts for wildly different instruments. This, of course, led to discrepancies in which note composers were to regard as the bass' lowest.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that in a great deal of orchestral repertoire the basses often double the cellos an octave below. This is fine until the cellos start playing below their low E and the bass section either has to transpose those ottava bassa notes, omit them, or find some other solution to playing parts written for an instrument that still has yet to fully standardized.
Modern players, luckily, have two (common) options if they want to play those sub-E low notes: the C-extension or the five-string bass. I won't go into to all the details or pros and cons of the two, but I will say that both options represent viable, albeit very different, ways to play notes that fall below the low E. For the rest of this article I will refer to everything with regards to the C-extension but know that the same rules and anecdotes apply to five-string basses as well.
When Should I Take It Down An Octave?
If you're like me, when you first got your extension you were probably a little too trigger-happy to use it. Every Eb, D, Db, or C suddenly seemed like a good candidate to take down the octave but you soon realized dropping everything gets old quickly and ultimately causes extension notes to lose their potency. I think it's important, especially for those new to the world of extensions, to consider whether or not adding extension notes where they aren't written a) draws undue attention to the bass section and b) serves the music and is aesthetically/artistically-appropriate. I know I certainly never considered either of those basic rules and probably (definitely) made a fool of myself more than once as a result.
Don't be like Gareth.
How About Some Specific Examples?
General rules are great and all, but specific examples are even better. I have compiled a list of where I feel it is acceptable to play notes or entire passages down an octave and I will do my best to provide a good explanation for why I feel it is musically-appropriate to do so. I will also touch on some times when you probably shouldn't go down an octave and look at a few instances in other genres of music where making use of your C-extension might be a good idea.
Without further ado...
1. Doubling The Cellos (Or Another Instrument):
In most cases, if the cellos and basses are playing in octaves and the writing falls below the E natural one ledger line below the bass staff, I think it is perfectly acceptable for the basses to use their extension and follow the cellos into the abyss. There are countless instances of this in the repertoire, but one of my favorites comes from the second movement of Brahms' first symphony.
The cellos and basses are an octave apart up until the F# beginning beat 2 of measure 55 where Brahms, keeping the writing idiomatic, notates the bass part an octave higher. This sounds fine given Brahms was likely writing for a bass without access to any notes below E1, but in my opinion, the line loses a lot of depth once the cellos and basses start playing in unison. The phrase cumulates in a brooding low C# two measures later and bringing the basses down an octave adds an authoritative fundamental that would be otherwise lost playing the part exactly as written. I should also add that this excerpt is standard audition rep and I would only consider taking that line down if I was playing in a section, not at an audition.
There are several recordings with the basses going down the octave for this excerpt, but this one is my favorite:
Schumann's Symphony 2 also has a passage where the basses could easily follow the cellos below the E down to C. This occurs early in the first movement and though I like the sound of it down an octave, I think it could be argued that Schumann was trying to lighten the texture to make way for the clarinet entrance that comes right after the cellos and basses stop playing. There are recordings of it done both ways so take your pick.
There is the possibility that he was trying to keep the writing in the range of the bass, but that then raises the question of how to treat the two low D's in the third measure of the movement. Either way, this is a good ti