AskDefine | Define viola

Dictionary Definition



1 any of the numerous plants of the genus Viola
2 large genus of flowering herbs of temperate regions [syn: genus Viola]
3 a bowed stringed instrument slightly larger than a violin, tuned a fifth lower

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a stringed instrument somewhat larger than a violin, played under the chin, and having a deeper tone
  2. an organ stop having a similar tone
  3. any of several flowering plants, of the genus Viola, including the violets and pansies


  • Czech: viola
  • Finnish: alttoviulu
  • Greek: βιόλα (vióla)
  • Hungarian: brácsa, mélyhegedű
  • Icelandic: víóla, lágfiðla
  • Japanese: ヴィオラ, ビオラ
  • Russian: альт
  • Scottish Gaelic: ailt-fhidheall
  • Slovene: viola



  1. viola









  1. viola, violet
  2. viola
  3. violet, purple










  1. to violate, to rape

Extensive Definition

The viola (French, alto; German Bratsche) is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the violin and the cello.
The casual observer may mistake the viola for the violin because of their similarity in size, closeness in pitch range (the viola is a perfect fifth below the violin), and identical playing position. However, the viola's timbre sets it apart: its rich, dark-toned sonority is more full-bodied than the violin's. The viola's mellow voice is frequently used for playing inner harmonies, and it does not enjoy the wide solo repertoire or fame of the violin.
The name of the instrument is properly ("vee-oh-la") but often incorrectly pronounced "vye-oh-la" as the woman's name "Viola" is spoken. Violas and violists are frequently the butt of musicians' jokes.

The form of the viola

The viola is similar in material and construction to the violin but is larger in size and more variable in its proportions. A "full-size" viola's body is between one and four inches longer than the body of a full-size violin, with an average length of about . Small violas made for children typically start at , which is equivalent to a half-size violin. Often, a fractional-sized violin will be strung with the strings of a viola (C, G, D and A) for those children who need even smaller sizes. Unlike the violin, the viola does not have a standard full size. The body of a viola would need to measure about long to match the acoustics of a violin, making it impractical to play in the same manner as the violin. For centuries, viola makers have experimented with the size and shape of the viola, often compensating by tweaking the proportions or shape of the instrument in order to make an instrument with a shorter scale length and lighter weight, but which still has a large enough sound box to create the unmistakable "viola sound."
Experiments with the size of the viola have tended to increase it in the interest of improving the instrument's sound. These include Hermann Ritter's "viola alta", an instrument measuring about intended for use in Richard Wagner's operas. The Tertis model viola, which has wider bouts and deeper ribs to promote a better viola tone, is another slightly "non-standard" shape which allows the player to use a larger instrument than normal. Many experiments with the acoustics of a viola, particularly increasing the size of the body, result in a much deeper tone of the instrument, making the instrument resemble the tone of a cello. Since many composers wrote for a traditional-sized viola, changes in the tone of a viola, particularly in orchestral music, can have unintended consequences on the balance in ensembles.
More recent (and more radically-shaped) innovations address the ergonomic problems of playing the viola by making it shorter and lighter while finding ways to keep the traditional sound. These include Otto Erdesz "cutaway" viola (which has one shoulder cut out to make shifting easier); the "Oak Leaf" viola (which has two extra bouts); viol shaped violas like Joseph Curtin's "Evia" model (which also utilizes a moveable neck and a maple-veneered carbon fiber back to reduce weight): violas played in the same manner as cellos (see vertical viola); and the eye-catching "Dalí-esque" shapes of both Bernard Sabatier's violas in fractional sizes (which appear to have melted) and of David Rivinus' "Pellegrina" model violas.
Other experiments besides those dealing with the "ergonomics vs. sound" problem have appeared. American composer Harry Partch fitted a viola with a cello neck to allow the use of his 43-tone scale. Recently, several luthiers created five-stringed violas, which allow a greater playing range. Modern music is played on these instruments, but viol music can be played as well.

Playing the viola

A person who plays the viola is called a violist or simply a viola player. While it is similar to the violin, the technique required for playing viola has many differences, although much of the fingering technique is comparable. The difference in size accounts for some of the technical differences, as notes are spread out farther along the fingerboard and the vibrato must be broader. The less responsive strings and heavier bow warrant a somewhat different bowing technique.
  • Compared to a violin, the viola will generally have a larger body as well as a longer string length, which is why more younger violists or even some old tend to get smaller sized violas for easier playing. The most immediately noticeable adjustments a player accustomed to playing violin has to make are to use wider-spaced fingerings. It is common for some players to use a wider and more intense vibrato in the left hand and to hold the bow and right arm farther away from the player's body. The player must also bring the left elbow farther forward or around, so as to reach the lowest string. This allows the fingers to be firm and create a clearer tone. Unless the violist is gifted with especially large hands, different fingerings are often used, including frequent use of half position and shifting position, where on the violin staying in one place would suffice.
  • The viola is generally strung with thicker strings than the violin. This, combined with its larger size and lower pitch range, results in a tone which is deeper and more mellow. However, the thicker strings also mean that the viola "speaks" more slowly than its soprano cousin. Practically speaking, if a violist and violinist are playing together, the violist must begin moving the bow a fraction of a second sooner than the violinist to produce a sound that starts at the same moment as the violinist's sound. The thicker strings also mean that more weight must be applied with the bow to make them speak.
  • The thicker and longer strings demand that the violist use the pads of their fingers rather than the tips, moving towards cello technique.
The viola's four strings are tuned in fifths: C3 (an octave below middle C) is the lowest, with G3, D4 and A4 above it. This tuning is exactly one fifth below the violin, so that they have three strings in common—G, D, and A—and is one octave above the cello. Although the violin and viola have three strings tuned the same, the tone quality or sound color is markedly different.
Violas are tuned by turning the pegs near the scroll, around which the strings are wrapped. Tightening the string will raise the note (make it sharper) while loosening the string will lower the note (making it flatter). The A string is tuned first, typically to 440 Hz or 442 Hz (see pitch). The other strings are then tuned to it in intervals of perfect fifths, bowing two strings simultaneously. Most violas also have adjusters (also called fine tuners) that are used to make finer changes. These permit the tension of the string to be adjusted by rotating a small knob at the opposite end of the string, at the tailpiece. Such tuning is generally easier to learn than using the pegs, and adjusters are usually recommended for younger players, although they are usually used in conjunction with one another. Adjusters work best, and are most useful, on higher tension metal strings. It is common to use one on the A string even if the others are not equipped with them. The picture on the right shows normal stringing of the pegs. Some violists reverse the stringing of the C and G pegs, so the thicker C string does not turn so severe an angle over the nut, although this is uncommon.
Small, temporary tuning adjustments can also be made by stretching a string with the hand. A string may be tuned down by pulling it above the fingerboard, or tuned up by pressing the part of the string in the pegbox. These techniques may be useful in performance, reducing the ill effects of an out-of-tune string until the arrival of a rest or other opportunity to tune properly.
The tuning C-G-D-A is used for the great majority of all viola music. However, other tunings are occasionally employed both in classical music (where the technique is known as scordatura) and in some folk styles. Mozart, in his Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra, which is in E flat, wrote the viola part in D major and specified that the viola strings were to be raised in pitch by a semitone; his intention was probably to give the viola a brighter tone to avoid its being overpowered by the rest of the ensemble. Lionel Tertis, in his transcription of the Elgar cello concerto, wrote the slow movement with the C string tuned down to B flat, enabling the viola to play one passage an octave lower. Occasionally the C string may also be tuned up to D.

Viola music

Reading music

Sheet music written for the viola differs from that of other instruments in that it primarily uses alto clef (sometimes called "viola clef"), which is otherwise rarely used. Viola sheet music also employs the treble clef when there are substantial sections of music written in higher registers.
Mnemonic devices are sometimes used to teach students to remember the pitch names of the alto clef, for example:
  • Lines: Fat Ants Catch Every Goodie
  • Spaces: Green Bay Does Fine.

The role of the viola in pre-twentieth century works

In early orchestral music, the viola part was frequently limited to the filling in of harmonies with little melodic material assigned to it. When the viola was given melodic parts in music of that era, it was often duplication in unison or octaves of whatever other strings played. A notable exception would be J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, which placed the two violas in the primary melodic role (it was scored for 2 violas, cello, 2 violas da gamba, and continuo).
An 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, such as those by Telemann (one of the earliest viola concertos known), Franz Anton Hoffmeister and Carl Stamitz.
The viola plays an important role in chamber music. 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. Mozart also wrote for the viola in his Sinfonia concertante in which of the two soloists, the viola is equally as important as the violin. Another important contribution was a set of two duets for violin and viola. From his earliest works Johannes Brahms wrote music that features the viola prominently. His first published piece of chamber music, the sextet for strings op.18 contains what amounts to a solo part for the first viola. Late in life he wrote two greatly admired sonatas for clarinet and piano, his Opus 120 (1894); later Brahms transcribed these works for the viola. Brahms also wrote Two Songs for Alto with Viola and Piano (Zwei Gesänge für eine Altstimme mit Bratsche und Pianoforte), Op. 91, "Gestillte Sehnsucht" or "Satisfied Longing" and "Geistliches Wiegenlied" or "Spiritual Lullaby," which was a present for the famous violinist Joseph Joachim and his wife, Amalie. Antonín Dvořák played the viola, and apparently said it was his favorite instrument; his chamber music is rich with important parts for the viola. Another Czech composer, Bedřich Smetana, included a significant viola part in his quartet "From My Life"; the quartet begins with an impassioned statement by the viola.
The young Felix Mendelssohn wrote a little-known viola sonata in C minor (without opus number, but dating from 1824). Given the beauty of the melodies in this early work, it is perhaps surprising that this sonata has not been played more frequently in concert halls.
The viola occasionally has a major role in orchestral music, for example the sixth variation of the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar, called "Ysobel".
While the viola repertoire is quite large, the amount written by well-known pre-twentieth century composers is relatively small. Violists may therefore be forced to choose to play solo arrangements of works transcribed from other instruments.

Twentieth century and beyond

In the earlier part of the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialized soloists such as Lionel Tertis. Englishmen Arthur Bliss, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all wrote chamber and concert works for Tertis. William Walton, Bohuslav Martinů and Béla Bartók wrote well-known viola concertos. One of the few composers to write a substantial amount of music for the viola was Paul Hindemith; being himself a violist, he often performed the premieres of his own viola works. Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp has inspired a significant number of other composers to write for this combination. Elliot Carter also wrote extensively for the viola. his Elegy is one of many fine compositions employing the viola; it was subsequently transcribed for clarinet. Ernst Toch wrote an Impromptu (opus 90b) for solo viola. Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born American composer best known for his compositions inspired by Jewish music, wrote two famous works for viola, the Suite 1919 and the Suite Hebraique for solo viola and orchestra. Rebecca Clarke was a 20th century composer who also wrote extensively for the viola. Lionel Tertis records that Edward Elgar (whose cello concerto Tertis transcribed for viola, with the slow movement in scordatura), Alexander Glazunov (who wrote an Elegy, op. 44, for viola and piano), and Maurice Ravel all promised concertos for viola, yet all three died before substantial work on them. In the latter part of the 20th century a substantial repertoire has been produced for the viola; many composers including Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli and Krzysztof Penderecki, have written viola concertos. The American composer Morton Feldman wrote a series of works entitled The Viola in My Life which feature concertante viola parts.

Contemporary pop music

The viola is sometimes used in contemporary popular music, mostly in the avant-garde. The influential group Velvet Underground famously used the viola, as do some modern groups such as 10,000 Maniacs, Defiance, Ohio, The Funetics, Flobots, and others. Jazz music has also seen its share of violists, from those used in string sections in the early 1900s to a handful of quartets and soloists emerging in from the 1960s onward. It is quite unusual though, to use individual string instruments in contemporary popular music. It is usually the flute or rather the full orchestra appearing to be the favoured choice, rather than a lone string player. The upper strings could be easily drowned out by the other instruments, especially if electric, or even by the singer.

The viola in folk music

Although not as commonly used as the violin in folk music, the viola is nevertheless used by many folk musicians across the world. Extensive research into the historical and current use of the viola in folk music has been carried out by Dr. Lindsay Aitkenhead. Players in this genre include Cath James, David Lasserson, Eliza Carthy, Mary Ramsey, Ben Ivitsky, Gina Le Faux, Helen Bell, Jayne Coyle, Jim O'Neill, Jim Wainwright, Lindsay Aitkenhead, Mark Emerson, Miranda Rutter, Nancy Kerr, Pete Cooper and Susan Heeley. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was the viola's most prominent exponent in the genre of blues.
The viola is also an important accompaniment instrument in Hungarian and Romanian folk string band music, especially in Transylvania. Here the instrument has three strings tuned g - d' - a (note that the a is an octave lower than found on the standard instrument), and the bridge is flattened with the instrument playing chords in a strongly rhythmic manner. In this usage, it is called a kontra or brácsa (pronounced "bra-cha").


There are only a few well known viola virtuosi, perhaps because the bulk of virtuoso viola music was written in the twentieth century. In this category, the name of William Primrose readily comes to mind, as he brought the virtuoso aspect of viola playing to exceptional standards.
In addition to Primrose, the most important viola pioneers from the twentieth century are Lionel Tertis, Paul Hindemith, Lillian Fuchs, Walter Trampler and Emmanuel Vardi - up to now, the only violist to have ever recorded the 24 Caprices by Paganini on viola. The contemporary well-known violists include Michael Kugel, Kim Kashkashian, Nobuko Imai, Rivka Golani, Tabea Zimmermann, and Paul Neubauer. From the younger generation, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Cathy Basrak, Jennifer Stumm, Viacheslav Dinerchtein, and Antoine Tamestit deserve a prominent mention.
Among the great composers, several preferred the viola to the violin when playing in ensembles, the most noted being Ludwig van Beethoven, J.S. Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Numerous other composers also chose to play the viola in ensembles, including Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Antonín Dvořák, and Benjamin Britten. Among those noted both as violists and as composers are Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith. Many noted violinists have publicly performed and recorded on the viola as well, among them Pinchas Zukermann, David Oistrakh, Eugene Ysaye, Yehudi Menuhin, Maxim Vengerov, and Nigel Kennedy.
The famous rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix played the viola before undertaking the guitar.
The term violist is not universally used in English; some players, generally British, prefer viola player, since the word "'violist" is used in the UK to mean "player of the viol".

The viola in popular music

The viola sees limited 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. With the Charlie Daniels Band, Charlie Daniels has played viola instead of violin for some of the fiddling "Redneck Fiddlin' Man."
John Cale, a classically trained violist, played the instrument to great effect (amplified and often distorted) on some Velvet Underground tracks, most notably on "Venus in Furs", "Heroin", "The Black Angel's Death Song", "Stephanie Says", and "Hey Mr. Rain". He also played viola on "We Will Fall" a track on the debut Stooges album which he also produced.
Producer and songwriter Don Kayvan is classically trained violist and regularly uses the viola on rap, r&b, alternative and pop songs.
Singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf is a trained violinist and viola player, and regularly uses viola in his songs and onstage.
Kansas' "Dust in the Wind", as well as other tracks by the band, features a viola melody. Robby Steinhardt played violin, viola, and cello on the song, and he or David Ragsdale play at least one of these on most Kansas songs during their membership.
Dave Swarbrick of the English Folk-Rock group Fairport Convention has been known to contribute viola among other stringed instruments to the band, most notably on the Liege & Lief album on the track "Medley..." where he plays violin with an overdubbed viola playing the same part an octave lower.
The viola has made a slight comeback in modern pop music; aided and abetted by string groups, bond and Wild. The Flobots make extensive use of the viola on nearly all of their songs as bandmember Mackenzie Roberts is a violist. In her latest album, Lonely Runs Both Ways, Alison Krauss uses the viola in many of her songs. Vienna Teng, a folk/indie artist, used the viola as a solo instrument in two of her songs from her recent album Dreaming Through the Noise (2006).
Norwegian noise rock band Noxagt had a viola player until very recently; this musician left the band and was replaced by a baritone guitarist. New indie pop band The Funetics, use two violas and guitar for its instrumentation. The Six Parts Seven also used a viola. Neo-new wave indie rock band The Rentals features classically trained violist Lauren Chipman.

Electric violas

Amplification and equalization can make up for the weaker output of a violin string tuned to notes below G3, so most electric instruments with lower strings are violin-sized, and as such, are called "violins." Comparatively fewer electric violas do exist, for those who prefer the physical size or familiar touch references of a viola-sized instrument.
Instruments may be built with an internal preamplifier, or may put out the unbuffered transducer signal. While such raw signals may be fed directly to an amplifier or mixing board, they often benefit from an external preamp/equalizer on the end of a short cable, before being fed to the sound system

Audio examples


  • Dalton, David. "The Viola & Violists." Primrose International Viola Archive. Retrieved Oct 8, 2006
  • Chapman, Eric. "Joseph Curtin and the Evia". Journal of the American Viola Society, Vol.20, No.1, Spring 2004, pp.41-42.
  • Curtin, Joseph. "Otto Erdesz Remembered". The Strad, November 2000. Retrieved July 30, 2006
  • Curtin, Joseph. "Project Evia" (Retrieved Oct 8, 2006). American Lutherie Journal, No. 60, Winter 1999.
  • Maurice, Joseph. "Michael Balling: Pioneer German Solo Violist with a New Zealand Interlude." Journal of the American Viola Society, Summer 2003. Retrieved July 31, 2006.

See also

viola in Bosnian: Viola
viola in Bulgarian: Виола
viola in Catalan: Viola
viola in Czech: Viola
viola in Welsh: Fiola
viola in Danish: Bratsch
viola in German: Bratsche
viola in Estonian: Vioola
viola in Modern Greek (1453-): Βιόλα
viola in Spanish: Viola
viola in Esperanto: Aldviolono
viola in Basque: Biola
viola in Persian: ویولا
viola in French: Alto (violon)
viola in Western Frisian: Altfioel
viola in Korean: 비올라
viola in Croatian: Viola
viola in Icelandic: Víóla
viola in Italian: Viola (strumento musicale)
viola in Hebrew: ויולה
viola in Kannada: ವಿಯೋಲ
viola in Hungarian: Brácsa
viola in Dutch: Altviool
viola in Japanese: ヴィオラ
viola in Norwegian: Bratsj
viola in Polish: Altówka
viola in Portuguese: Viola
viola in Romanian: Violă‎
viola in Quechua: Wiyula
viola in Russian: Альт
viola in Simple English: Viola
viola in Slovak: Viola (hudobný nástroj)
viola in Slovenian: Viola
viola in Serbian: Виола
viola in Serbo-Croatian: Viola
viola in Finnish: Alttoviulu
viola in Swedish: Altfiol
viola in Thai: วิโอลา
viola in Vietnamese: Vĩ cầm trầm
viola in Ukrainian: Альт (музичний інструмент)
viola in Chinese: 中提琴

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

A string, Amati, Cremona, D string, E string, English horn, G string, Strad, Stradivari, Stradivarius, bass, bass viol, bassoon, block flute, bombard, bourdon, bow, bridge, bull fiddle, cello, claribel, clarinet, clarion, concert flute, contrabass, cornet, cornopean, cromorna, crowd, cymbel, diapason, double bass, dulciana, fiddle, fiddlebow, fiddlestick, fingerboard, flute stop, foundation stop, fourniture, gamba, gedeckt, gemshorn, harmonic flute, hybrid stop, kit, kit fiddle, kit violin, koppel flute, larigot, melodia, mixture, mutation stop, nazard, oboe, octave, organ stop, piccolo, plein jeu, posaune, principal, quint, quintaten, rank, ranket, reed stop, register, rohr flute, scroll, sesquialtera, shawm, soundboard, spitz flute, stop, stopped diapason, stopped flute, string, string diapason, string stop, tenor violin, tierce, tremolo, trombone, trumpet, tuning peg, twelfth, unda maris, vibrato, violin, violinette, violoncello, violoncello piccolo, violone, violotta, voix celeste, vox angelica, vox humana
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