The Instruments: the Viola


The viola is the next instrument both in size and register in the string family. Despite being bigger than the violin it doesn’t get as acoustically large as it should. Consequently its sound is less powerful than it could be. However this characteristic gives the viola its unique, dark, warm, mellow and somewhat melancholic features. Additionally, like the violin, it also gets warmer as we go up through the fingerboard.

The viola, like the rest of the string instruments, has four strings: C2-G2-D3-A3. Its potential is similar to the violin however traditionally its music doesn’t explore the upper register as much. The reason for this is that its bigger size makes it harder to reach the higher positions in the fingerboard. Additionally this register is already taken by the violins, and the sound of the A string gets pretty nasally as we get higher. Therefore it is rare to see violas in an orchestral context going higher than A4.

Historically speaking the violas represent the alto voice in the string section. They can also perform accompaniment patterns, counterpoints, chordal textures, or feature melodies.


 Example of a viola section and viola solo passage in J. Sibelius's En Saga, op. 9

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