Dropping the bass like it’s 1850
By Adam Waltz
PHOENIX – Standing at an impressive 12-feet-tall is one of the largest and rarest string instruments in the world, but don’t let its grandeur fool you. Its sound is best described as the opposite of a harp.
The massive three-string “octobass” narrowly misses the ceiling at the Musical Instrument Museum, towering over smaller six-string counterparts.
“The last time we moved this one into this building it took ten people,” said Colin Pearson, curator at the MIM.
It takes a step stool to reach the octobass. You’ll also need a custom bow that weighs more than a pound and giant levers that press the notes for you to play it. Despite all that work, the sound is not what you’d expect.
“This was never meant to be a solo instrument. It’s not a nice sounding instrument,” said Colin.
With a low rumbling bass, the octobass produced long and low notes, meant to act as a subwoofer in a larger orchestra, adding rumble and drama when needed.
The octobass at the MIM is a replica of the originals created in the 19th century by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume.
It’s meant to be heard from farther away, and there is a science lesson to be learned here as well.
“As a player, because the wavelengths are so long, I don’t get to hear them,” said Colin.
The length of the string creates a note so low that it’s inaudible by human ears.
This one goes down to what we call “C-Zero” or a little bit below the range of human hearing,” said Colin.
You can see the octobass at the Musical Instrument Museum all summer long.