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Alternate uses: Viola (disambiguation)

The viola is a stringed musical instrument which serves as the middle voice of the violin family, between the upper lines played by the violin and the lower lines played by the cello and double bass.

The form of the viola

The viola is similar in materials and construction to the violin but is larger in size and more variable in its proportions. Its body length is between one and four inches greater than the violin.

The viola's four strings are tuned in fifths: the C an octave below middle C is the lowest, with G, D and A above it. This tuning is exactly one fifth below the violin and one octave above the cello.

Viola music

The viola is almost completely limited to classical music, and even so is less often used for solo concerti and sonatas than the violin and the cello. This is often attributed to its sound, which, being mellower and less brilliant and flexible than that of the violin, is less suited to continuous solo use or virtuoso display.

Music for the viola differs from that for the violin and cello in its use of the alto clef, otherwise little used in the orchestra. Viola music also employs the treble and, very rarely, bass clefs.

In orchestral music the viola part is frequently limited to the filling in of harmonies with little melodic material assigned to it. A rare example of a piece written before the 20th century which features a solo viola part is Hector Berlioz's Harold In Italy, though there are also a few Baroque and Classical concerti, for example those by Telemann and Carl Stamitz.

The viola plays an important role in chamber music, though seldom a soloistic one. In the string quartet, the function of the viola is comparable to its function in the orchestra, usually filling in the inner harmonies. Mozart succeeded in liberating the viola somewhat when he wrote his six string quintets, which are widely considered to include some of his greatest works. The quintets use two violas, which frees the instrument (especially the first viola) for solo passages and increases the variety and richness of the ensemble. Johannes Brahms wrote two greatly admired sonatas for viola and piano, his Opus 120 (1894); these were, however, transcriptions of sonatas originally written for the clarinet.

In the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialised solo violists such as Lionel Tertis. William Walton and Béla Bartók have both written well-known viola concertos. One of the few composers to write a substantial amount of music for the viola was Paul Hindemith, who was a violist himself. Rebecca Clarke is a 20th century composer who wrote almost exclusively for the viola. However, the amount of music in the viola repertoire remains quite small, and violists often resort to arrangements.


Violas and violists are often the target of the musical equivalent of the blonde joke. This is probably the result of the mostly obsolete practice in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century orchestras of demoting to the viola section violinists who lose their playing ability as a result of age or lack of practice.

Among the great composers, several preferred the viola to the violin when playing in ensembles, including J. S. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

There are very few real viola virtuosi, owing to the shortage of music for the instrument. Among the better known violists, from earlier in the twentieth century, as well as Tertis are Paul Hindemith, William Primrose and Walter Trampler, and from more recently, Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian and Tabea Zimmermann.

The term violist is not universally used in English, some players, generally British, preferring viola player.

The viola in popular music

As could be expected, the viola also sees little use in popular music. It was sometimes part of popular dance orchestras in the period from about 1890 to 1930, and orchestrations of pop tunes from that era often had viola parts available. The viola largely disappeared from pop music at the start of the big band era. John Cale, a classically trained violist, played the instrument to great effect on two Velvet Underground albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico and White Light/White Heat.

See also