Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the viola (but were too afraid to ask)

Inspired by all the questions I usually get asked about playing the viola, I’ve decided to write answers to the more frequently asked questions. This post has turned into a longer one than I expected, so I’ll be impressed if you make it through it all. Hopefully you’ll learn something new about the viola though!

What is a viola? What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

A viola is often described as a ‘big violin’, which is a pretty accurate, if rough, description. A viola is larger than a violin in all dimensions – it is longer, deeper and a little chunkier, but the most significant difference between a violin and a viola is that the viola’s sound is lower in pitch (a fifth lower, to be precise) than the violin, and its tone is richer, rounder and mellower compared to the violin’s brilliant, flashy sound. The viola shares its 3 highest strings with the violin, but has one string a fifth lower, so instead of the violin’s E-A-D-G strings, its strings are A-D-G-C. The viola is the second highest instrument in the violin family, coming in pitch between the violin and cello, and the viola is the middle section in an orchestra.

How do you read the alto clef?

Lots of people ask me how I can read ‘that weird alto clef’ and my answer is usually the same every time – it is no different from reading any other clef, except that fewer people know how to read it, as fewer people play instruments that use it (it is also used for the viola da gamba and the alto trombone – rarer instruments than the viola!)

It is a little known fact that violists have to read not only their own clef, but also the treble clef, as when we play high passages it is much easier to read in treble clef than read millions of ledger lines. This is fine, but it does lead to difficulties when sight-reading when the clef changes half way through a line (or even worse, at the end of a line), and also embarrassing moments when you play loudly in the wrong clef…

Why is the viola sometimes called the ‘Cinderella’ of the orchestra?

The viola has been under-represented as a solo instrument and unfairly maligned as an orchestral instrument (see below), leading to some calling it the ‘cinderella’ of the orchestra. In recent times, beginning with pioneers such as William Primrose and Lionel Tertis (who wrote books called ‘My Viola’ and I and ‘Cinderella No More’), the viola has risen to prominence as a solo instrument in its own right, with more and more works being composed for it.

The viola repertoire is relatively small compared with many instruments, but given that the instrument took a long time to be recognised as a solo instrument, many major works have been written for it such as the famous Walton and Bartok Viola Concertos, and works by Britten, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Shostakovich, Clarke, York Bowen, Penderecki and Schnittke.

Aren’t viola players just failed violinists?

Absolutely not! Contrary to popular belief, playing the viola is actually harder than playing the violin. It is a larger and heavier instrument to hold, requires a more robust bow arm as the strings are slightly thicker and require more effort to make vibrate (especially the C string), and the notes are further apart than on the violin, making it harder to stretch some notes. Overall, it is harder to make a good sound on the viola than it is on the violin because of its larger size, but the sound when it comes out is gorgeously rich and full.

The commonly held belief that viola players are ‘failed violinist’ may have come about because violinists sometimes switch to viola, especially if there are not enough viola players in a group, so if a mediocre violinist was asked to play viola then of course they would play the viola badly too. Or violinists are simply jealous of the richer sound that we as viola players make! 🙂

I find that when I switch to violin (mainly only for teaching purposes, as I am definitely a true violist at heart!) everything seems very easy and so small, like playing a toy version of my viola!

I’ve never heard of any famous viola players.

Most people if you asked them probably would not be able to name any famous viola players, but if you do your homework you’ll find that many of the most famous composers including Mozart, Bach, Haydn and Beethoven played the viola and composed music for it, if only in combination with other instruments – Mozart is said to have directed the first performance of his Sinfonia Concertante from the viola. Other composers who were viola players include Britten, Frank Bridge, Schubert, Dvorak, Rebecca Clarke and Paul Hindemith, suggesting that as a composer, the viola was a popular choice, perhaps because of its role as a harmony instrument.

Many famous violinists also play (or played) the viola, such as Nigel Kennedy, Maxim Vengerov, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin and even Paganini, so it was not nearly as neglected an instrument as most people think! The pioneers of the viola as a solo instrument included the British violists Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, and notable viola virtuosos of today include Lawrence Power, Yuri Bashmet, Nobuko Imai and Jane Atkins.

A good article about viola players is here

Why would you choose to play the viola and not the violin? Isn’t it boring not playing the tune?

There are lots of reasons to choose the viola over the violin (no offence to any violinist colleagues!):

  • The viola produces a richer, darker tone and can be more expressive than the violin
  • As mentioned before, the viola is harder to play than the violin, making it more of a technical challenge. People will often tell you that playing the viola part is ‘easy’, or easier than the first violin part, which is true to an extent as first violin parts are often stratospherically high, but there are different challenges in viola parts such as playing fast on thicker strings.
  • I personally find it very satisfying to be in the middle of the texture, both in orchestras and in chamber music, underpinning the harmony – I don’t mind not playing the tune all the time!
  • Having said that, many composers give the viola section really great bits of tune, which conductors often refer to as ‘viola moments’!

Why are there so many viola jokes?

Viola players have a hard time of it. Take the following exchange on facebook:

Q: Why would a viola player constantly go to his locker five times a day?

A: To read the instructions: instrument on the left, bow on the right

To which a viola player commented:  ‘What are you talking about? Isn’t it viola on the right?’

And 2 other comments:

‘Nonsense. Everybody knows viola players can’t read.’

‘Wrong: a viola player who would practice 5 times a day would soon become a musician and start playing the violin.’

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of viola jokes. They all draw ammunition from the assertion that violists are failed violinists (see above), so we are credited with various characteristics in the jokes: not knowing how to hold our instruments (above), playing timidly (eg How do you get a viola-player to play pp tremolo?’ – ‘Write solo in big letters over the part’), so old that we are dead (eg What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? The coffin has the dead person on the inside) and just plain incompetent (eg How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving). All I have to say is for all of these jokes, try replacing the word ‘viola’ with another instrument – the joke will work just as well with practically any other instrument.

Viola players (for the most part) tend to be friendly, approachable and long suffering – perhaps because we have been maligned for so long!

See this article  for a good description of the viola, viola players and a mention of viola jokes.

Why do violas come in many sizes?

Unlike with violins, cellos and double basses, there is no such thing as a ‘full size viola’. Violas can range in size from just larger than a violin (which has a body length of 14 inches) to massive violas with body lengths of 17 to 18 inches. Most viola players will choose an instrument in the range of 15-16.5 inches, as these are the instruments that are comfortable to play in size and produce a good resonant tone; the smaller the instrument, the smaller the sound, especially on the C string. The size of your viola is a personal choice based on what size is comfortable for you relative to the sound of the viola. I have played violas ranging from 15 to 16 and a quarter inches, and my current one is 15 and 3/8 inches – relatively small, but it produces a nice resonant sound as it is quite generously proportioned widthways.

Does anyone start playing on the viola? Why does it seem like most viola players start on the violin?

People can and do start playing on the viola itself, but due to its larger size, most small children who start playing will start on the violin and then move to the viola when their hands and arms are big enough. Having said this, you can use a small violin strung as a viola (but this really does not sound good, especially on the C string), and there are now violin-viola conversions available, which help small violins sound more resonant like violas. These are a bit drastic, as a small hole is drilled through the front of the violin and the bridge is placed in direct contact with the soundpost, but they do sound better than a simple violin strung as a viola. I cannot emphasise enough that this should never be attempted at home or with a violin other than a cheap factory made one.

Can you play fiddle tunes on the viola?

Yes, definitely! Fiddle tunes transposed down a string work well on the viola, especially slow airs, as they suit the mellow tone of the instrument. The viola can also be used very effectively to accompany fiddlers using drones and chords.

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18 thoughts on “Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the viola (but were too afraid to ask)

  1. Madoqua

    I am in awe of all you musical magicians. I have no musical talent at all, and I often envy the wonderful music made by orchestras.
    I am surprised that viola players get such a hard time, I would have thought everyone would just have mutual respect and just do their own thing!

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  2. stephanissima

    I reluctantly started on a viola (but did want to play violin like one of my friends)…glad I did though. It’s such a great instrument! I loooove the C string. How long did it take you to get used to switching between treble and alto? Years later, I’m still writing the names of the notes. *cough*

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  3. jesswyatt Post author

    Hey stephanissima! Glad you liked my post 🙂
    It took me a wee while, but I was about 10 years old and I guess kids pick these things up more easily that adults…. But it did take me a good while, so don’t worry if you have probs!!
    Just enjoy playing your viola and dont worry too much about playing the right notes! 🙂

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  4. Hayley

    Nice read, im currently trying to learn the Viola, i started (like most i guess) with the well know Violin, i love the instrument, but i never realised that the sound i loved was Viola.. Only after 2yrs of violin, and constantly cringing from the high pitched squeak and teeth tingling noise from the violin, did i finally move on. The Viola is MY instrument, the one im more at peace with and i wish i had started with first (only because i have a tendency to hesitate due to awaiting a nasty noise) Sadly i dont know of any Viola players, only my ex violinist teacher, who sadly believes i should stay with the violin, and stop being silly – it doesnt do much for ones confidence when spoken to so harshly. So, can i ask, Do you know if there are any videos, books, online teaching that can aid or help me self teach? I guess having played the Violin, it will help me, but like you state, there are differences and some guidance would be a great help 🙂 I also want to try fiddling with my Viola, so it should be good fun with that lovely mellow and deep rich tone. Loving it!

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    1. jesswyatt Post author

      Hi Hayley, thanks for your comment and I’m so glad you enjoy playing your viola 🙂 Are you over in the US? There are quite a few sheet music books you can buy over here in the UK that could help you, or you could try searching over a wider area for a teacher, as it is great to get feedback on your playing, otherwise you may develop bad habits! (we all do!) If you email me then I can help you find more info if you want: jesswyattviola@gmail.com Hope that helps! Jess x

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  5. MichaelM

    Hey! I just bought a Viola yesterday (for $75, don’t judge me!). But because of my limited money and musical talent, I was wondering whether you could offer any tips? I can’t read music, have never played strings and I’m 18 years old. Lessons are a bit expensive too. What do you think? Use youtube?

    Thanks,

    Michael

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    1. jesswyatt Post author

      Hey Michael,
      Thanks for reading my blog! It’s good to hear that you want to play the viola, and although I don’t advise buying cheap instruments, it’s always better to have something than nothing! I would be cautious about which videos you use on youtube as there are a lot and some are better than others, but I would always say that real lessons are the best way to learn- even if you just save up and have a few – but have them within good time of each other eg 2-3 weeks, as this is the best way to build on you learning. Some teachers do skype lessons too which may be cheaper. A key thing to get right which is hard at the start is the bow hold: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vh4NBfHXvhs Good luck though! Best wishes, Jess

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  6. Cynthia

    Hi Jess,
    Thank you for your blog… And perhaps we could ask for more?
    I’ve never played violin (did play alto sax in school for a couple of years) but adore the sound of the viola. Violins are of course lovely, but it’s the deeper resonance that a viola can produce that yesterday led me to buy one online. I am in the mountains of Pennsylvania, US so a real-live-in-person teacher is not a reasonable option. Plus, I love the renegade feeling of learning without the drill-sergeant-like teacher from when I was a kid.
    So, my request: would you please consider videoing and posting whatever you think would be helpful as lessons to YouTube? We don’t need perfection, but I for one would love some sympathetic guidance… please?

    Cynthia

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  7. catherinesblogs

    I just found this post and I’m loving it. I started to play the viola straightaway instead of learning violin and despite only having occasional orchestral tune, I would never change my decision to play the viola. Very well written blog post x

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  8. rachell

    It’s so wonderful to hear other people professing their viola love! I love my viola, self taught learned by playing tunes I hear and trying new things. However, although it’s great to improv and develop an ear, a person can only go so far with this method, and i wanted to learn more. Started taking lessons to be forced to read music 2 years ago. Now I’m in a civic orchestra having the time of my life trying to keep up with them. And bonus, my improv skills are catching up and I’m learning about music theory.

    Everyone, keep loving your violas!

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  9. Ciara Young

    Finally someone who understands! I’ve been playing the viola since 6th grade and I’m in a highschool orchestra and there is only two violists including myself. I will keep my head high on playing the violia knowing I’m not like the rest.

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  10. jmst1

    Hi,
    Can ask you a stupid question? Do you need to use a different bow to play the viola or wiould a violin bow be OK?
    Thanks.

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    1. jesswyatt Post author

      Hi jmst1,
      Sorry for taking so long to get back to you! Technically, yes, you should use a viola bow to play the viola: it is slightly longer and chunkier, with a heavier stick and frog and a wider band of horse hair. This is because the strings are thicker on the viola and require more arm weight to produce a good sound. Having said that, if you don’t have a viola bow, a violin bow will do to start with, but if you’re playing seriously then I would suggest getting a viola bow- you can now get fairly decent carbon fibre ones for not too much. Incidentally, you can tell violin and viola bows apart by the shape of the frog – violin ones are squared off, whereas viola ones are rounded. Hope that helps!

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  12. Crazy4ClassicalMusic

    Greetings, I am young violist in my early teens. Although I have much knowledge about the viola, I wanted to clarify what I knew. Your blog helped! I loved it! Is it bad that I have only been playing a year and I am in a symphony playing John Williams songs? Is it too much of jump from playing nothing to practicing two hours a day? Do you have any advice for me? Anyway, I loved your blog, sorry for another question, but is it ok to use this information on a 4-H poster? I loved your blog, thanks for writing it!
    P.S. I hope you don’t experience my questions troublesome, don’t reply if they are!

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