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Viola Facts

10 Interesting Facts About The Viola

The Viola is somewhat bigger than the Violin, often considered as the Violin’s elder sibling. The Viola measures slightly over two feet and features thicker strings compared to the Violin, which results in a richer and warmer sound. The method of playing the Viola is identical to that of the Violin, with the instrument held between the chin and shoulder. The left hand is used to press down on the strings to alter the notes and pitch, while the right hand maneuvers the bow or plucks the strings. Here are ten intriguing facts about this remarkable instrument.

Viola Facts

1. The first Viola

Viola Facts

The first Viola was made by the luthier Andrea Amati in the mid 16th century. The history of the Viola is linked closely to the development of the Violin in Northern Italy. The Viola fulfilled desires for an instrument made from dark timbre. It is assumed that alto, tenor and bass versions of the Viola emerged soon after the mid 16th century.

2. Violas are made up of…

The Viola is made up of many pieces of wood which enhance its performance. The top of the Viola is made of spruce and its back and ribs are made of maple. The Viola’s neck is made from ebony because of the wood’s hardness and beauty. After the Viola is assembled and varnished its four strings, bridge and tailpiece are added, along with other small pieces.

Viola Facts

3. The world’s most expensive Viola

The MacDonald Stradivarius Viola is within the top ten most expensive musical instruments in the world. This instrument was played by the famous Amadeus Quartet co-founder, Peter Shcidlof until his death in 1987. Put up for auction for a cool $45 million, (£34.133 million) in 2014, the instrument has never actually sold. This one-off, musical treasure is still on the market, it’s a wonder why!

4. The Viola and the Orchestra

Viola Facts

There tends to be between 10 and 14 Violas in an Orchestra and they almost always play the harmony. 

5. The Viola is a complex string instrument

Playing the Viola will mean you have to learn a whole new clef, named alto clef. The Viola has a ‘C’ string, which the Violin doesn’t. The Viola is strung with C, G, D and A. Its tuning is one fifth below the Violin and an octave above the Cello. The Viola is actually pretty heavy, so get ready for one hell of an arm workout! Playing the Viola for one hour will burn off the equivalent of two glasses of wine!

6. The Electric Viola

NS Design’s Electric Viola was created in the 1970s and is an entirely unique instrument. NS Design is the company who founded Headless Guitars and Bass Guitars, also in the 1970s. Their Electric Violas are very different from standard Violas. The traditional shape of the original Viola is replaced by a solid, elongated block of maple wood. There is no headstock on the Electric Viola and tuning is done at the bridge instead. All Electronics are built into the instrument itself. The chin rest , shoulder rest and upper body segment of the Electric Viola are all adjustable. Nowadays brands like Yamaha and Stagg both have their own take on the electric viola, the former making a very elegant instrument, the latter being a bit more out-there! Regardless, the sonic possibilities of the Electric Viola are stunning and there is virtually no feedback.

7. The Viola’s impact on music

Though sometimes the butt of the Orchestral joke, the Viola is primarily used in chamber music and orchestral pieces. However, the Viola also appears in folk, jazz, rock and pop music. Famous rock and pop bands which have used the Viola include; The Cure, The WHO, Van Morrison and The Beatles. Well known Jazz musicians who have used the Viola include; Leroy Jenkins and Will Taylor. Well known Folk musicians who have used the Viola include; Mary Ramsey and Nancy Kerr.

8. Viola celebrities

The Viola produces a rich, sombre and impactful tone. Composers are keen to make the Viola shine and build its long-standing repertoire. There are more Viola soloists emerging every day. Brett Dean, James MacMillan and Mark Anthony Turnage have all recently written stunning Viola concertos. Brett Dean calls the Viola a “curiously beautiful, enigmatic instrument”. You can see Brett’s Viola skills here.

Viola Facts

9. Where does the name ‘Viola’ come from?

Viola Facts

The Viola’s name originates from the Italian ‘viola de braccio’ which translates to ‘on the arm’.