Viola facts


Find out more about the viola, the middle voice of the string family.


Viola history

The viola dates from around the same time as the violin, its smaller brother, in the early 16th Century. It has evolved over the centuries, becoming prominent in the 18th Century. Its role as a supporting instrument began to change, with composers beginning to write solo concertos for it. English violist Lionel Tertis was one of the first players to find achieve international fame.

Range of notes played on a viola

Violin notes range

A violin can play from the C below middle C, known as C3, up to a high E, three octaves above middle C, known as E6. Each of the four strings is tuned a fifth apart, making up the notes C, G, D and A. The sound is made when vibrations from the strings resonate inside the instrument's wooden body.

How to play the viola

Changing the length of the string by pressing down on it changes the frequency of the vibration - and so makes a different note.

  • The viola is a slightly larger version of the violin, and sounds vastly different as a result.
  • The bow is distinguishable from the violin's bow by the 'frog'. This is the area where the bow is held; on the violin's the frog is at a 90 degree angle, whereas on the viola's, it is characterised by a curved angle.
  • It's not just the bow that makes a sound on the viola. A player can use their right hand to pluck the strings, known as playing 'pizzicato'.
  • The technique of playing the viola differs slightly to that of the violin. As the viola is bigger, the notes are spread out in larger intervals along the fingerboard, and thus require different fingerings. 
  • The tone is deeper and more mellow than that of the violin due to its thicker strings.

How to play the viola

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