Transcribing Vocal Music for Cello

From Renaissance madrigals to opera to lieder to pop and folk songs, much (if not most) of the most beautiful music ever written, was conceived for the voice. The cello is possibly the instrument that most resembles the voice but this is not only because of its unique register, which goes from the deepest bass voice to the highest soprano and beyond. Both the timbre and the technical difficulty (the effort required to go from one note to the next) of the cello also resemble the human voice. Probably, most of us who have chosen to play the cello, did so because we were attracted to its rich beautiful singing sound rather than to its ability to play accompanying bass lines or to do pyrotechnics. For this reason, playing vocal music on the cello is extraordinarily satisfying.

Here, we can make the most of the singing, lyrical qualities of the cello without needing its virtuoso aspects. This is because singing is basically like playing with only one finger on only one string, which means that even the most pyrotechnical vocal music, when transcribed for cello, never comes anywhere near to the difficulties of our virtuoso repertoire (see Vivaldi’s aria Agitata da Due Venti). While most string music is not suitable for transcription for singers, basically all vocal music can be played on the cello with just a few adjustments for key and register.


We can learn a lot from both listening to singers and from playing their music. Singers not only play with only one lonely finger and on one single string (therefore connecting most notes with glissandi), they also only use only one bow direction (they can only do down bows, albeit hugely long ones). After each down bow (expiration) they need to do a quick upbow in the air (i.e. take a new breath) which obliges singers to think of the music in phrases, with breaths in between each phrase, even when no actual rest is written. Playing vocal music thus encourages us to have greater sensitivity to the “breathing” (phrasing) of the music. Likewise, when a composer writes a rest for a singer, the reason for the rest is often to allow the singer to take a breath. Because we string players can play and breathe at the same time, we may not need these “breathing rests” (see “Morgen” by Richard Strauss).

Also, because singers don’t need to change their bow, their legato is a seamless molten liquid (until they need to take a breath). Singers connect their notes much more than string players do, both in the vertical sense (glissandi between notes) as well as in the horizontal sense (legato). The use of well-thought-out fingerings to allow the connecting of notes through the use of carefully-dosed glissandi is something we can learn and practice especially well with vocal music (see Puccini Arias). Because “legato” is the “default setting” for singers, we need to be aware when playing vocal music, that the absence of written-out slurs does not mean that the music is not legato.

So, apart from being pleasurable and “easy”, playing vocal music is a wonderful way to develop our lyrical melodic musicality, our sensitivity, our musical imagination, our ability to make a beautiful sound, legato, vibrato etc.

The vocal music transcribed here is basically of two types: songs and opera arias. A notable characteristic of vocal music, and more especially of songs (as compared to opera arias), is that they tend to repeat the same melody several times. They can do this without getting boring or repetitive because the lyrics change each time the same music is repeated. We instrumentalists cannot however use new words to make the repetitions interesting, but we do have another possibility that singers don’t have, which can compensate for this lack of words: we can change voices. If we find the right key for a song, we can change octaves for the repetition(s) and thus be both male and female voices, alternating in the same song. This is a great effect which we will use a lot (see Killing Me Softly, Litanei, Lucevan le Stelle, Memory, On Wings Of Song, Summertime,).

The lack of lyrics, when we play songs on a string instrument, has two other side effects


The vocal music that has served as the source for the different transcriptions can be divided into several different categories. In the “Classical” music department we have the clearly defined categories of:

  1. Opera Arias
  2.              Classical Song (Lieder)

In the “popular” music department the categories are not as well defined because while most “pop” music is predominantly vocal, quite a lot of jazz and folk music is instrumental, with no singer(s). Here below are links to some of the cellofun transcriptions of “popular” music  that have a definite vocal origin:

  1. Bossa Nova
  2.        Pop and Jazz Ballads
  3.         The Beatles
  4.            Traditional Folk Songs

There are a great number of websites that exist from which play-along piano accompaniments for vocal music can be purchased and downloaded. Here is a list of some of the most popular. There are also an increasing number of vocal accompaniments available for free on YouTube and other video platforms.