The range of a viola is three and one third octaves. The range goes from one octave below middle C to the E note that is two and a half octaves above middle C. This range is considered a moderate one for a stringed instrument.
An octave is a series of 12 notes which are referred to as a combination of whole steps and half steps. Musicians label notes in an octave starting with the letter A and extending to the letter G. After G, the octave starts over at A. The twelve half steps in the octave are A, A sharp or B flat, B, C, C sharp or D flat, D, D sharp or E flat, E, F, F sharp or G flat, and G.
The three and a half octaves of the viola constitute a portion of what musical experts call the chromatic scale. Another way to assess this range is with full note steps, from A to G, disregarding the sharps or flats, in what is called the diatonic scale. Various modal scales also use the half steps in the octave in similar ways.
To compare the viola's range or other similar instruments, it helps to take a look at one of the most common stringed instruments in this family of instruments. The range of the violin is four and a half octaves. It starts at the G note below middle C, and extends to C four octaves above middle C. Therefore, the range of the violin is slightly greater than the range of the viola, and the two ranges overlap significantly.
Another stringed instrument, the guitar, provides another useful contrast. The guitar also has a four octave range, starting with a low E and ending up several octaves above middle C. All of these stringed instruments have a fretboard that shows the musician how the notes are set up in the actual range of the instrument. For even more contrast, students can assess the range of a viola against the ranges of largely obsolete instruments like the lute, or specialty stringed instruments like the mandolin.
To get a more detailed idea of the range of a viola, look at representations of the viola fingerboard, and learn where each note is placed. This will also help beginners to understand the structures of chords, and to further improve their ability to follow note progressions. Understanding the range of a viola and its fingerboard is a major part of the beginning process for learning this instrument.