Facts About The Viola

In January I wrote about the different families of musical instruments, or ways of categorising musical instruments. You can read my post by clicking here:

Facts about Families of Musical Instruments

So for the first part of this year I want to focus on the string family, as we learned more about the woodwind and brass families last year. I have previously written about the violin and cello (links to these posts below if you want to check them out), and so following on from these posts I wanted to move on to another member of the string family – the viola.

Facts About The Violin

Facts About The Cello

A viola is leant against a wooden dresser.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

What is the viola and how do you play it?

  • The viola is a member of the string family of instruments. This family is called the string family because they are all played by either plucking, strumming or running a bow along a number of strings.
  • Often the butt of jokes, a person who plays the viola will be called a viola player, or a violist. And the reason viola players are often made fun of? Well, it probably has something to do with the hierarchy of instruments within an ensemble – the violin has the melody, the cello and double bass the bass line, with the viola having the harmony, middle line. It can be seen as just a supporting instrument. The viola is larger than the violin and so the physicality involved in being able to play the viola is different, maybe perceived as more awkward than the violin.
  • The viola is larger than the violin but much smaller than the cello. It looks like a violin and is played the same, but as a larger instrument than the violin, it has longer and thicker strings that produce lower pitched notes. The viola is tuned a fifth lower than the violin.
  • Viola strings are tuned to the notes (going from the lowest string to the highest) C, G, D and A.
  • Violas come in different sizes so that young children can learn to play, from the smallest violas measuring about 13 inches, to the largest measuring about 18 inches. Most commonly an adult sized viola will measure around 16 inches long.
  • In an ensemble the viola will play the middle, or alto range of a piece, often providing the harmony where the violin (in an orchestra or string quartet for example) has the melody.
  • The body of the viola is made out of wood, often a wood such as spruce or maple. The viola will be hollow inside to allow air to vibrate inside the body of the instrument. There are two S or F-shaped holes carved into the front of the viola to allow the air, and so the sound produced, to escape the instrument.
  • The viola has four strings that run from the scroll at the very top of the instrument, to just below a bridge under the S-shaped holes. The strings are wound around pegs that go through the scroll, and these pegs will be turned to tune the instrument. The strings, like for the violin and cello, used to be made from something called catgut, which was actually made from sheep intestines. However today they are made from metal alloys instead- much less disgusting to think of!!
  • To play the viola, you need to either pluck the strings or run a bow along them to make the string vibrate. Each string is tuned to a particular note, and to change pitch a player will press down on a string along the neck of the viola. This has the effect of shortening how much of that particular string can vibrate and producing a higher pitched note that if the string was played without pressing it down anywhere. Plucking or bowing any string without pressing a finger down on it is called playing the open string.
  • Plucking the strings produces a very short note, and playing this way is called playing pizzicato. Bowing, on the other hand, produces a smoother, longer note.
  • Violists will rub something called rosin onto their bow before playing, which helps the hair on the bow to “grip” the string.
  • The bow used to bow the strings has hair on it. While some bows are made using synthetic hair, the majority of bows are made using horsehair. The difference between synthetic hair and horsehair is down to its electromagnetic properties. Synthetic material repels dust particles, including particles of rosin dust whereas horsehair attracts it. A player will need to apply far more rosin and far more often to a synthetic bow than a horsehair bow to help the bow to grip the string.

History of the viola

  • Like our previously featured stringed instruments, the viola has been around for a long time. It dates from the early to mid-1500s, and was first seen in Northern Italy. While at first the term viola was used for all Western stringed instrument, the viola da braccio (meaning violin of the arms) was the instrument that kept the term viola. In fact the viola was the first of three stringed instruments – the violin, cello and viola – to have been developed.
  • There is a fresco located in the dome of the Santuario di Saronno near Milan dating from around 1530 that shows instruments that look rather like our modern string instruments, particularly the viola. I have said in my previous string family posts that one of the first people to make these beautiful instruments was a luthier (or violin maker) named Andrea Amati, and the viola is no exception.
  • Experiments in viola making did not end with Andrea Amati. One of the more significant developments in designing and making the viola came in the late 1700s, when luthiers found a way to make strings with much greater tension. That and the development of a new type of bow, the Tourte bow meant that all string players, including violists, could play their instruments with a much greater range of expresion.
  • At first when composers wrote music for ensembles (or groups of instrumentalists), the viola was mainly given a supporting role, providing the harmonies for the main melody.
  • Many composers were also viola players, including Mozart. And while his orchestral music largely continued the traditional of having viola players play a supporting role, he began to use them more and more, giving them more interesting music to play, in his chamber music compositions, such as string quartets.
  • As time went on composers began to give the viola more and more interesting music to play, no longer consigning them to just a supporting role, and viola concertos started to be written giving the viola the starring role in a piece.

Famous violists

  • There are a number of people famous for playing the viola including, in no particular order, Kim Kashkashian (featured in the video I have included above), Tabea Zimmermann, Nobuko Imai and William Primrose.
  • There are also some people, famous for other things, who are violists as well, including:
    • Guitarist, singer and song-writer Jimi Hendrix.
    • A lot of very famous composers actually played viola including J.S. Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonín Dvorák Paul Hindemith, Niccolò Paganini and Franz Schubert, to name but a few.

Viola World Records

  • On 19 March 2011, the World Record for the largest viola ensemble was set by the Portuguese Viola Association when 321 viola players performed together in Porto, Portugal.
  • In 2022, violist Anne Miller set the World Record for the longest tenure in an orchestra having played with the Redhill Sinfonia in the UK for more than 71 years.
  • Antonio Stradivari made some of the most beautiful, and valuable violins in the world, but did you know that the most expensive musical instrument in the world is actually one of the violas he made. The MacDonald viola is valued at an eye-watering $45million! Largely because there are so few, maybe only 10, Stradivarius violas still in existence.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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