Exploring Music's Complexities

The Modern-day Viola


What is a Viola?

The modern-day viola, like the violin, evolved from the viola da braccio and came into its own in the 18th century, when the now obsolete tenor viola began to die out (1).  The names of all the instruments in the violin family – violin, violoncello, viola – come from the term ‘viola’.  The viola is a member of the string family, falling between the violin and cello.

The viola looks like a large violin and plays in the same way as the as the violin, but it is not just a big violin.  While Andrea Amati is credited with making the first viola It evolved over the centuries and its history is older than the violin’s, as the violin was viewed as a small viola (2).

The viola is played in the same way a violin is played, holding the instrument up with the jawbone and using the fingers of the left hand.  A rosined bow is held with the right hand.  When the bow is run across a string it hugs the string and creates resistance that makes the string vibrate.  As would be expected, its sound is deeper than a violin and higher than a cello.

The sound quality has much to do with the woods and varnish used to construct it.  Woods selected for the instrument are sycamore, spruce, and maple (3).  These are selected for their grain and density. The varnish plays an important role in the process as it covers the entire surface of the instrument.

The viola is also the only instrument that uses the Alto-clef.  The viola has four strings that are tuned a Perfect 5th apart.   The lowest is C then G, D, and A with A being 440 hertz.  The lower strings have a richer, darker sound.  The viola range is about C below middle C to the C two octaves above middle C.  The upper and lower ranges will vary depending on the skill level of the performer.

Because the viola’s tone is “thicker and darker” than the violin it is often used in an orchestra to provide resonant solo passages written in the middle of the orchestra’s range (2).  Over time, the use of the viola grew from being used to fill the harmonies between the cello and the violin to providing solos for concertos.  Among these are Bartok Viola Concerto for Viola

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiIBUAprXBU) and Viola Concerto No. 1 in D by Carl Stamitz (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3K4tx6oKek).



  1. https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/viola/features/difference-between-violin-and-viola/
  2. Eurekan, Daisy. Who created Viola? https://www.answers.com/Q/Who_created_viola.  Retrieved April 6, 2019.

3.  Instruments.  Philharmonia Orchestra.  http://www.philharaamonia.co.uk/explore/instruments/viola

1 Response

  1. I wasn’t aware of Stamitz’ viola concerto, and now I call a very nice recording my own. Thank you! 🙂🎶

Translate »
Copy Protected by Chetan's WP-Copyprotect.
%d bloggers like this: