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What Is a Viola?

Mozart preferred playing the viola over the violin in orchestras.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 August 2014
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The viola is a string instrument that is cousin to the violin. It plays at a deeper timber and is considered an alto to the violin’s soprano. Though most assume the viola is a great deal larger than the violin, this is not the case. On average, most are about 16 inches (40.64 cm) in length. This is only 2 inches (5.08 cm) longer than a full-sized violin.

The minimal size difference results in a richer and mellower sound than that produced by the violin. To replicate the acoustics of a violin, the viola would have to be at least 21 inches (53.34 cm) long. However, that would prove impractical for the violist. However, experiments have been made to produce violin-like acoustics on the viola. Some have been nearly 19 inches (48.26) long. This is the case with the instrument initially used for many of Wagner’s operas.

Most are happy with the traditional size however, and many violinists make the jump to viola. The instrument may be more comfortable to play for people with larger hands. As well, the instrument is not a first choice for many. In fact, many violinists learn the viola to qualify for musical scholarships that they would otherwise be unable to get as violinists. It is certainly true that players are in much higher demand because of the instrument’s lesser popularity.

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This does not mean that some people are not strictly viola fans. For example, J.S. Bach and Mozart both preferred playing it in orchestras to playing the violin. In fact, Bach and Mozart wrote some of the most important early work for the instrument. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos features extensive viola harmony. Mozart’s string quintets, featuring two violins, a viola, and a cello, are excellent challenges for violists.

There are fewer solos for this instrument, though many violin or cello solos have been transcribed for the viola. Most often, its parts are harmony rather than melody. However, a few stand out pieces like Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp can give the violist a starring role.

The viola is often considered slightly more challenging to play than the violin. The bow is longer and the arm must be held a little farther away from the body. Music must be bowed slightly quicker than violin work in order to achieve the appropriate sound at the appropriate time.

Like the violin, the strings are four in number and tuned, in most cases, into major fifths. The strings are C, G, D, A, as compared to the violin’s G, D, A, and E. Most music is also written in alto clef. This clef is quite uncommon and can give the violinist switching to viola quite a headache. However, the lower C of the instrument would make it challenging to read and learn the bottom notes of the viola in treble clef.

Some music written for the higher strings may occasionally be written in treble clef, but it can be difficult for the inexperienced musician to switch back and forth between clefs. Seasoned musicians are usually familiar with both clefs, and bass clef, particularly if they have had any experience conducting.

Modern players like Cathy Basrak, the principal violist for the Boston Pops and the Boston symphony are well worth hearing. Further, viola music is not exclusively the province of symphonic music. One can hear the instrument in Kansas’ great hit Dust in the Wind and the Velvet Underground featured them on two albums. Violas are also popular in folk music and country music.

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