For other uses of the word, see Viola (disambiguation).

The viola is a stringed musical instrument which serves as the middle voice of the violin family, between the upper lines played by the violin and the lower lines played by the cello and double bass.

The viola is slightly larger than the violin.
The viola is slightly larger than the violin.

The form of the viola

The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin but is larger in size and more variable in its proportions. Its body length is between one and four inches greater than the violin.

The viola's four strings are tuned in fifths: the C an octave below middle C is the lowest, with G, D and A above it. This tuning is exactly one fifth below the violin and one octave above the cello.

Playing the viola

In general, the technique for playing the viola is nearly identical to that of the violin. However, there are some unique considerations that apply to the viola:

  • Unlike the violin, there is no "full size" viola, so a viola can be as long as can be comfortably played by the violist. When a player switches from viola to violin (or vice versa), the viola will generally be longer and as such the player must use wider fingerings to accommodate the longer strings. Though the same techniques still apply, the different placement of the fingers can take some getting used to. The player must also bring their left elbow more foreward so as to reach the lowest strings. This allows the fingers to be firm and creats a better tone.
  • In addition, the viola bow is slightly longer that that of the violin, with a wider band of horse-hair, particularly near the frog (the end of the bow gripped by the hand). Bowing technique differs from violin bowing in that more weight must be applied to pull sound from the strings.
  • Since the viola is strung with much thicker strings, the resulting tones are much more melodious and deep. However, as a result of these thicker strings, an aspiring violist must learn to use vibrato a little more "violently", so to speak. The vibration of the wrist can resonate with the vibrato to cancel it out, so one must use vibrato a little more strongly to get the same effect.

See also: Playing the violin. With the exception of specific string tunings, all the techniques outlined in that section apply equally to the viola.



The front and back of a viola.

Violas are tuned by twisting the pegs in the scroll, around which the strings are wrapped. Twisting the string to the left will raise the note (make it sharper) while turning it to the left will lower the note (making it flatter). The A string is tuned first, typically to 440 Hz (see Pitch (music)). The other strings (D,G,C) are then tuned to it in intervals of perfect fifths using double-stopping. Most violas also have adjustors (also called fine tuners) that are used to make finer changes. These permit the tension of the string to be adjusted by rotating a small knob. Such tuning is generally easier than using the pegs, and adjustors are usually recommended for younger players. Adjustors work best, and are most useful, with higher tension metal strings. It is very common to use one on the A-string even if the others are not equipped with them.

Small tuning adjustments can also be made by stretching a string with the hand.

The tuning C-G-D-A is used for the great majority of all viola music. However, other tunings are occasionally employed (for example, tuning the C string up to D), both in classical music (where the technique is known as scordatura) and in some folk styles.

Viola music

The viola is almost completely limited to classical music and is less often used for solo concerti and sonatas than the violin and the cello. This is often attributed to its sound, which, being mellower and less brilliant and flexible than that of the violin, is less suited to continuous solo use or virtuoso display.

Music for the viola differs from that for the violin and cello in its use of the alto clef, otherwise little used in the orchestra. Viola music also employs the treble and, very rarely, bass clefs.

In orchestral music prior to the middle of the 19th century, the viola part is frequently limited to the filling in of harmonies with little melodic material assigned to it. A rare example of a piece written before the 20th century which features a solo viola part is Hector Berlioz's Harold In Italy, though there are also a few Baroque and Classical concerti, for example those by Telemann (the earliest known viola concerto) and Carl Stamitz.

The viola plays an important role in chamber music, though seldom a soloistic one. In the string quartet, the function of the viola is comparable to its function in the orchestra, usually filling in the inner harmonies. Mozart succeeded in liberating the viola somewhat when he wrote his six string quintets, which are widely considered to include some of his greatest works. The quintets use two violas, which frees the instrument (especially the first viola) for solo passages and increases the variety and richness of the ensemble. Johannes Brahms wrote two greatly admired sonatas for viola and piano, his Opus 120 (1894); these were, however, transcriptions of sonatas originally written for the clarinet. Antonn Dvořk played the viola, and was alleged to have said it was his favorite instrument; his chamber music is rich with important parts for the viola. Another Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana, included a significant viola part in his quartet "From My Life"; indeed the quartet begins with an impassioned statement by the viola.

In the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialised solo violists such as Lionel Tertis. William Walton and Bla Bartk have both written well-known viola concertos. One of the few composers to write a substantial amount of music for the viola was Paul Hindemith, who was a violist himself. Rebecca Clarke is a 20th century composer who also wrote extensively for the viola. However, while the amount of music in the viola repertoire is quite large, the amount written by well-known composers is relatively small, and violists often resort to arrangements of works originally written for violin or other instruments. Many solo viola pieces are transcribed from violin or cello.

The viola ("Bratsche" in German) is also an important accompaniment instrument in Hungarian and Romanian folk string band music, especially in Transylvania. Here the instrument usually has only three strings, tuned g - d' - a (note that the a is an octave lower than found on the classical instrument), the bridge is flattened and the instrument usually only plays triads in a strongly rhythmic manner.


Violas and violists are often the target of the musical equivalent of the blonde joke. This is probably the result of the mostly obsolete practice in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century orchestras of demoting to the viola section violinists who lose their playing ability as a result of age or lack of practice.

Among the great composers, several preferred the viola to the violin when playing in ensembles, including J. S. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

There are very few real viola virtuosi, likely owing to the shortage of music featuring the instrument. Among the better known violists, from earlier in the twentieth century are Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith, William Primrose, Joseph de Pasquale, Walter Trampler, and from more recently, Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian, Garth Knox, Jerzy Kosmala, Roberto Diaz, Tabea Zimmermann, Nobuko Imai, Roland Glassl, Cathy Basrak, Antoine Tamestit, and Viacheslav Dinerchtein.

The term violist is not universally used in English; some players, generally British, prefer viola player.

The viola in popular music

The viola also sees little use in popular music. It was sometimes part of popular dance orchestras in the period from about 1890 to 1930, and orchestrations of pop tunes from that era often had viola parts available. The viola largely disappeared from pop music at the start of the big band era. John Cale, a classically trained violist, played the instrument to great effect (amplified and often distorted) on two Velvet Underground albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat.

Audio Examples


See also

de:Bratsche es:Viola eo:aldviolono fr:Alto (violon) hu:Brcsa nl:Altviool ja:ヴィオラ ko:비올라 pl:Altwka pt:Viola (instrumento musical) sl:Viola zh:中提琴 ru:Альт


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