What is a viola?

The violin family is large, with a slight difference between each member. This makes it hard to figure out which instrument is which exactly. And it is only natural to ask oneself what is a viola? It looks a lot like a violin. What is really the difference between the two?

Much like the violin, a viola is a stringed instrument, most often played with a bow. But the main difference is in the size between the two instruments. The viola is slightly larger than the violin. The sound that it produces is slightly lower and deeper than the sound of the violin. Its forms and sizes have varied a bit over the years, but since the middle of the 18th century, it has become the alto voice of the violin family. But now, the average viola is between an inch and four inches longer than the violin. This makes its average length around 16 inches. This is the first big difference between it and the violin. While the violin has a standard size, the viola might vary.

violin vs viola size
Source: WikiHow

History of the Viola

Throughout its history, it has seen many name changes in the countries that had a tradition of developing and making bowed instruments in the violin family. Those countries were Italy, Germany, and France. The word viola itself is Italian and means of the arm. They also used to call it Brazzo. This lead to the German nickname for the viola Bratsche.

On the other hand, the French had two different types of violas, each with its very own name. The Cinquisme was a smaller version of the viola and the Haute Conte was a larger iteration of this stringed instrument. Nowadays the French just call it alto, similar to its place in the violin family and the sound it produces.

One of the most famous violas was constructed in Germany in the 18 century. Hermann ritter produces a very special, and unusually large viola (19 inches) for the productions of many of Wagner’s operas. Another big creator or maker of violas was A.E. Smith, who worked during the 20th century. Some even hailed him as the Stradivari of the viola. The majority of his violas now reside in Australia and are being used by the Sydney philharmonic.

But the experimentations with the viola and its size, and the tone it produces didn’t end there. Even today, there are many people who try to create a lighter version of the instrument while keeping its tonal range the same.

This instrument reached the height of its popularity in the 18th century. It was a core instrument in a five-part harmony set up, popular during the age of the Enlightenment.

The Viola Player

The violist is what you call a viola player. Since it is longer than the violin, the tones are more spread out. This means that if you want to play the viola, you will need slightly different fingering compared to the violin. The bowing of the instrument is also quite different. The strings of the viola are less responsive, which means that the bow will be heavier. The bow is also used in a different way than with the violin.

The Music and Clef

Music written for the viola is very different from other instruments for one big reason. unlike other instruments, the music for the viola is written in alto clef. The only other instrument that uses the alto clef is the trombone, but it doesn’t use it all the time, just in some instances. Because of the way it is tuned and for its use of alto clef, many cello musical pieces can easily be transcribed for the viola as well.

The violin is a staple of both modern and classical music, but the viola is not far behind. Numerous modern bands use the sound of the viola for their music. Some notable examples include. The Velvet Underground, in a song like Venus in Fur, Imagine dragons, The Gorillaz in their smash hit Dirty Harry, Van Morrison, Nick Cave, and the Bad Seeds, Brian Eno, The Doobie Brothers and many more.

The viola might not be as popular as its sister the violin. But slowly, with time, it is becoming more and more popular, both with those who play classical, but also modern music.

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