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The History of the Viola


by Kerrick Sasaki

When thinking of string instruments, the viola often is forgotten amongst its smaller and larger cousins, yet its rich, dark timbre and interesting history make taking a closer look worthwhile. Did you know, for example, that Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all played the viola? Or that famed instrument maker Stradivari also made violas that are worth more than his violins? In the popular realm, bands including Velvet Underground, The Who, Van Morrison, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Vampire Weekend have featured the viola prominently on various songs and albums.

How to Read Alto Clef

Alto clef may seem unusual, but it is just as easy to learn as the treble or bass clef. The middle line, pictured below, indicates middle C. Once you know this, you can simply follow the lines up and down to find the other notes.



The viola is the middle voice of the string family, sitting comfortably between the violin and cello. More specifically the viola's range is a perfect fifth below the violin's, having the same A, D, and G strings as the violin with the addition of a C string (an octave below middle C). It has the same four strings as the cello (C, G, D, A), but is one octave higher. As the middle voice in a string section, the viola similar to the alto voice in a choir. In fact, the viola uses its very own clef, called the alto clef.

Violas are held almost exactly the same way as violins: to one's left side, over the shoulder, and under the chin. In fact, the two instruments are so similar that many people have trouble telling them apart! This makes sense considering that they share the same playing position as well as three strings, but the viola's slightly larger size creates a unique sound. A full-sized violin has a body length of 14 inches whereas there is no official full size for a viola. Violas found in orchestras generally range in size from 15 to 18 inches, with the most common size being 16.5 inches. While a couple of inches may not seem like a big deal, that extra size is the crucial element in the creation of the viola's unique sound, which is often described as being mellow and dark. A teacher of mine once described the viola's sound as being chocolaty! It is this chocolaty sound that draws people to play the viola.

Would you believe that the beautiful tone of the viola has often prevented it from achieving the same fame as the violin and cello? This makes sense if you think again about the vocal equivalents of each string instrument. The violin is the soprano voice of the strings and the cello is the tenor voice of the strings. It is very easy to hear sopranos and tenors in a choir and even basses for that matter, but what are the altos up to? Much like altos in a choir, the viola often fills in harmonies in an orchestra. Its dark and chocolaty sound blends the string sections together and gives body to the orchestra as a whole. You may not notice them at first, but should you lose your alto voice/violas, your ensemble would sound hollow and deflated! Violas really are the (pardon the pun) the unsung heroes of the orchestra!

The viola is hundreds of years old. In fact, some reports say that it is the oldest of the string family. The viola has been utilized as a harmonic (as opposed to melodic) instrument by composers for hundreds of years. This is the main reason that people are less familiar with it than the violin or cello. The viola has less solo music written for it than the violin and cello, and while it does have more solo music written for it than the string bass, the viola is still less recognized than the bass. Besides being visually hard to miss on stage, basses are regularly seen performing in various popular music groups such as jazz ensembles and pop/rock groups.

This lack of star power has also contributed to something curious amongst violas and viola bows. Because of their role as harmonic instruments, violas were not made in as large numbers as the violin and cello. Great old violas and bows are extremely rare and thus a viola made by Stradivarius or Guarnerius is worth many times more than a violin of the same condition. Fortunately, there are several viola makers today that specialize in producing great violas, making for many happy violists.


Tuning of the viola (c, g, d, a) and its range


From left to right: violin and viola. The viola's larger size gives it a darker tone.