The Open Octave Project: The Composers Toolbox: Viola


The viola is the alto or tenor member of the string family. It is pitched a perfect 5th below that of the violin, and is a longer instrument with a deeper body, than that of the violin. The player uses a slightly heavier bow, that in proportion to the greater size of the instrument, is not that much bigger than that used by a violin player. The viola has more subdued, or ponderous sound, but can be, in the hands of a good player, nearly as agile as the violin.

The viola is held by the player in the same way as the violin, with the instrument help in a grip between the jaw and shoulder, freeing the hands to range across the instrument in an unhindered fashion. Viola players are frequently responsible for rhythm passages in the modern orchestra, but it also adds body to the violins, and is particularly useful as a 'bridge' between the strings and woodwind and horns sections, when playing similarly written passages. There is much music written for violas, clarinets, bassoons, and horns in various combinations, and the viola serves this purpose particularly well.

The Viola has 4 strings, being C (the lowest), G, D, and A (the highest). Each string is numbered as follows:

C string = 4 (lowest)

G string = 3

D string = 2

A string = 1 (highest).

The C string on a viola has a dark, thick sound, and when played strongly, or loudly, it has vitality and considerable presence in the overal sound of an orchestra. When played softly, the C string sounds delicate, but retains a rich quality that serves a composer well when that quality is required, but not in such a resonant fashion as the Violincellos.

The G string, although still rich in quality, is less so when compared to the C string, and is useful for rythmic passages that require a certain deftness of aural quality, without the more resonant presence.

The D string on a viola is best known for it's quiet warmth, and this string in particular, when added to violins, brings a 'thicker'  tone that compliments the sound. This string can also be played in an agile fashion, and is highly suited to answering a brief phrase started by the violins, or upper woodwinds, as it gives audible contrast without sounding too thin in response to brighter sounding instruments.

The A string is markedly different to the other three in that it has a penetrative sound, with more brilliance, and a reedy tone that suits a harmonic partnership with oboes, clarinets, and violins.

The viola, like the violin, is capable of a considerable range of articulations, and has a noted place in the string family for it's versatility. Whether reinforcing a cello line, playing it's alto or tenor role in a string family chord, or doubled with the violins, either in unison or octaves reinforcing a melodic line, the viola has it's importance in providing 'inner' voices in chords, and sweetening the combination of strings and brass, or strings and woodwinds. with it's heavier bow, the viola has a capacity to emphasise rhythmic passages, and provide more weight in the overall sound of the orchestra, be it loudly written short note passages, or long sonorous harmonic stacks, so frequently found in much European based late 19th, and early 20th century, classical music.