One of the first questions any viola player is asked when they say that they play viola is: What is a viola? Is it a smaller violin? Is it a bigger violin? Generally only those who have played in an orchestra or are a close patron of the orchestra truly know what a viola is.

In the classical string instrument family, the viola is the mysterious, underrated middle child. It sits between the violin and the cello and is often overlooked, especially during a piece where the piercing fervor of the violin and the rich magnitude of the cello tend to swallow the mellow middles. Yet, with a dark and full timbre, the viola manages very well in supporting a symphony. It fills in a piece with artless substance. Without it, the ensemble would fall flat and sound noticeably hollow. As such, the viola is often cast as a significant harmonic role rather than a melodic one by composers.

Which famous musicians have employed the use of the viola, then? Bach, Beethoven and Mozart all did, as well as contemporary artistes like The Who, The Velvet Underground, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Van Morrison. The viola has been played in many music genres, including Celtic, jazz, bluegrass and country, pop, rock and folk.

 

Parts of the Viola

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Location of Violas in Orchestra

Depending on the arrangement of the orchestra, the violas can sit in a variety of places throughout the orchestra, but the most common location is between the cellos and second violins

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Violas located between second violins and cellos

 

The Viola’s Range

The four-stringed viola is tuned in perfect fifths. Tuned at CGDA (its C being an octave lower than the middle C), it has a lower range than the violin (tuned at GDAE) and is an exact octave higher than the cello. The viola also uses its own clef, called the alto clef. The alto clef was widely used in the Baroque era, but it is infrequently used in the modern times with the exception of compositions involving the viola. In certain circumstances where violists get to play in the higher registers, they also use the treble clef. But generally speaking, the viola mainly uses the alto clef.

 

The Violin vs the Viola

Both instruments share the same appearance (albeit different dimensions), playing position and three strings. That’s where their similarities end.

Besides tuning and range, as mentioned previously, the viola embraces other exquisite differences from the violin.

  • Size: The viola is larger than the violin. The violin’s body is 14 inches, while the viola’s body can go from 15 to 18 inches, with 16.5 inches being the most common.
  • Sound: Due to the larger dimensions, the viola produces a sound that is darker and more mellow. Hence, it is often composed as a counter-melody for the bright and prominent violin melody.
  • Playing Position: The posture is the same, but the fingers placed on a viola would need to be positioned wider apart as compared to those on a violin.
  • Strings: The primary difference between a violin and viola is the addition of the low C string on a viola and the removal of the high E. Thus the viola strings are A, D, G, C, the top three strings being shared with the violin. Additionally, being larger, thus heavier, the viola’s strings have to be thicker and the violist would have to apply bolder pressure on the bow when playing.
  • Bow: The bow of a viola is also sturdier and heavier, weighing from 69 to 74 grams, while the bow of a violin is about 60 grams. The frogs of their bows are also different: the frog of a viola bow is rounded but the one on a violin bow is pointed. (*A frog is the part of the bow that is held by the hand. Check the section on Parts of the Viola.)
  • Written Music: Music for the viola is written in alto clef while music for the violin is written in treble clef.
  • Sound Production: Having thicker strings means the sound of a viola tends to be produced slightly slower. From the time the bow touches the strings till the moment the audience hears it, there is a small gap. Hence, violists need to take this gap into account when playing in the orchestra in order not to fall behind the other musicians. Also, since the viola’s sound is mellow and deeper, it can be easily shadowed or silenced by the other more dominating voices in a symphony. The violist would have to play slightly shorter strokes, or master clarity in the stop and start of his bow strokes in order to be heard and appreciated.
  • Vibrato: How the vibrato is played out is a personal preference. Usually, the vibrato of a viola is slower and wider than that of a violin.

Instrument Zoo does a nice job summarizing the differences:

 

 

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Tuning the Viola

Tuning allows a musician to train himself to grasp the sound and frequency of a particular note. For advanced violists, they may choose to tune by ear. For the rest, a peg or fine tuner, the piano, pitch pipe or digital tuner is used for tuning. When using pegs, loosening or tightening a string by just a few millimeters can make a lot of difference in the sounds.

The viola is tuned in perfect fifths at C3, G3, D4 and A4. Always tune from below the note so the string would not be intensely stretched. An overstretched string is likely to snap. As for the sequence, try tuning the A string first, followed by the D, G and C strings.

To begin, loosen the fine tuner till the end of the screw then tighten the tuning peg slowly and carefully. Play the note without stopping and listen as the string is tightened towards the correct pitch. Remember to tighten gradually by a few millimeters at a time.

Check out our handy viola tuner that you can use right in your browser!

 

Conclusion

The viola does not receive many opportunities for solo performances. Yet, despite being lesser known, it plays an undeniably meaningful role in an ensemble. Its rich, beautiful timbre makes it a captivating instrument that can mediate the string sections while filling up a symphony.