Viola – The Unsung Hero of the Orchestra

Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.

Did You Know?

The viola was developed about the same time as the violin – in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.

Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.

Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G, D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.

Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.

Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!

What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?

Making the Viola Popular

The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.

Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.

William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for viola.  

What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?

In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.

Similarities Differences
Both instruments are held the same way Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar
in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of
the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
  Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a
violin

Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor

The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.

Violists are a Step Above

Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?

Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.

The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)

Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.

Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can read both treble clef and alto clef?

There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!

Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!

If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.

Read Here

And Here

Also Here

And Here

And if you want to read about some other instruments, you can read about Flutes, Violins, Trumpets, and Marimba.

What is a Marimba?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone?

Do you know what a marimba is? Do you know what it looks like? What makes a marimba different from a xylophone? And who invented the marimba? Where did it come from? Let’s explore and find out about the marimba.

What is the Marimba?

Family Connections

The marimba is a member of the percussion family. All the instruments of the percussion family must be “hit”or “struck” to produce the sound. Drums, triangles, cymbals, even pianos are percussion instruments. The sound of a marimba is produced by hitting the tone plates with mallets.

Marimbas are close relatives to the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the glockenspiel. They are all like cousins. All of these have tuned bars arranged like a keyboard. The players of these instruments use mallets to strike the tone plates. You need to be able to read music to play these instruments. Marimbas and xylophones are usually made with bars of wood, while vibraphones and glockenspiels are made with metal bars.

What Does a Marimba Look Like?

Marimbas are large instruments. They have two rows of wooden bars, or tone plates, arranged like a keyboard. One row of bars is slightly raised behind the other row of bars. A large frame supports the tone plates, and then a full stand holds the frame. Here is a picture.

This is a picture of a marimba.
Here is a picture of a marimba. Notice the resonator tubes under the tone plates.

Underneath each wooden bar is a long tube that acts as a resonator. Each tube is open on the top and closed on the bottom. The lower notes on a marimba require longer resonator tubes, and the higher notes need smaller, or shorter tubes.

Sometimes you will see a marimba with a nice-looking arch in the resonators. This is just for looks – the tubes are closed, or blocked, inside at the appropriate length.

How do You Play a Marimba?

You play a marimba the same way you play a keyboard. Sort of. The person playing reads notes on a page of music. The tone plates on the instrument are arranged like the keys on a piano. Instead of using fingers on a keyboard, a marimba player uses mallets to strike the tone plates on the instrument.

Since we have two hands, you might think a marimba player uses two mallets. And, you might be wrong. A good player often uses two or more mallets PER HAND! That means playing with 4 or 6 mallets! That calls for some good coordination!

What Does a Marimba Sound Like?

A marimba produces a deep, rich, mellow sound. It is softer and darker than the sound of a xylophone. This sound blends well with other instruments. Because of the resonators under each tone plate, the sound can resonate up to 2 or 3 seconds. The length, thickness, and density of each tone plate determines the pitch, or how high or low it sounds.

How Do You Tune a Marimba?

Very Carefully! Actually, you don’t really tune a marimba. Over time, though, some of the tone plates do get out of tune. Usually, the marimba player takes the tone plates off his instrument, packs them up, and ships them off to a professional who will work with them to get them all back in tune with each other. Usually that involves carefully reshaping of the wood on a tone plate. Not really a job for most of us! From what I read it costs between $50 – $100 per octave for tuning. (Most marimbas are over four to five octaves.)

How Much Does a Marimba Cost?

A good marimba will cost at least $10,000 to $20,000. A lot, right!? The best tone plates are made from Honduran Rosewood. Problem – those trees are now on the endangered species list. That may drive up the price for good marimbas even more.

Where Do Marimbas Come From?

Most music historians seem to think that marimbas originated in Africa, but some say there is evidence of marimbas in Asia as well. Originally pieces of wood were arranged over a hole in the ground. Then people used sticks to strike the pieces of wood. The hole acted as a resonator to amplify the sound. Later the pieces of wood were elevated, and a hollow gourd was hung under each wooden piece to act as the resonator.

Marimba = “Wood that Sings”

The word marimba in the Bantu language of Central Africa means “wood that sings.” The Zulu tribe of South Africa has a legend of a goddess named Marimba who makes and plays an instrument of wooden bars with gourds underneath the bars.

Marimbas and Central America

Most likely the marimba came across to Central America with African slaves. The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

The Central American marimba maker, Sebastian Hurtado started arranging the bars of the instrument like the keys of a piano, including an additional row of keys for sharps and flats.

Over time people replaced the hanging resonator gourds with wooden tubes. By the early 1900s instrument makers started using metal tubes for the resonators. And by 1920 an American company began making marimbas.

But Who Knew about Marimbas?

But even by the 1920s not many people knew about the marimba. And not many composers were writing music for the instrument. If you loved the marimba, and wanted more people to know about it, what would you do?

A man named Clair Omar Musser had an idea. Musser both played and taught the marimba, but he wanted more people to know about the instrument. So he assembled groups of marimba players together and put on concerts around the country. Sometimes he used more than 100 marimba players together in a concert. He even had his group perform at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Here is a link to some more information about Musser.

And Who Wrote Music for Marimbas?

Because of these performances many more people became interested in the marimba. And composers started to write music for the instrument. One of the earliest compositions for the marimba was the Concerto for Marimba and Vibraphone, written by Darius Milhaud in 1947. You can listen to it here. If you watch this video, pay attention to how the tone bars are arranged on the instrument. Also, watch for when the player changes his mallets, and listen to how the sound changes with the different mallets.

By the 1950s orchestras were beginning to use marimbas as part of the percussion section. Other composers who started to write music for and including marimba include Leos Janacek, Carl Orff, Pierre Boulez, Steve Reich, Clair Omar Musser, and Olivier Messiaen. Notice how I did not mention composers like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven? The marimba was not a part of the orchestra then. All the people who wrote for this instrument lived (or still live) in the last 100 years or less.

If you find this information about the marimba fascinating, you might want to check out this video – It gives a brief introduction to the glockenspiel, the xylophone, the vibraphone, and the marimba. The presenter in the video talks about the difference between the four instruments, and also explains how they work.

Are you interested in other instruments? Check out some of out other posts about instruments.

Violin

Flute

Trumpet

Do you know the difference between a marimba and a xylophone? Do you know what a marimba is?

Where Does your Trumpet Come From?

Are you a trumpet player? Good for you! I’m not, but I have tried to play the trumpet. It is a great instrument! My brother played trumpet when we were growing up, and one of my sons plays trumpet. So I have learned some things about the trumpet from them. Do you know anything about the instrument’s history? You should.

Did You Know?

If you stretched out all the tubing of a trumpet it would be almost 5 feet long.

A pair of ancient trumpets was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun (King Tut) of Ancient Egypt.

Toyota built a trumpet-playing robot. Check it out!

The largest playable trumpet ever built is about 105 feet long! If you are traveling to Indonesia, you should look it up. But don’t think about trying to play it! It can only be played with an air compressor.

Cornets and trumpets are similar instruments. They are played the same way and use the same fingerings, but they are not exactly alike. Cornets are somewhat smaller than trumpets and have conical bores. The sound of a cornet is a bit more mellow than the sound of a trumpet. Trumpets are larger, have cylindrical bores, and have a brighter sound.

Where Did Trumpets Come From?

Trumpets have been around in one form or another for a long time – maybe about 3000 years. But those early instruments looked nothing like a trumpet of today. Historians believe the earliest trumpets were hollow pieces of wood, maybe hollowed out by insects. In time people began making some trumpets out of bronze or silver.

Move to Metal

By the 1500s trumpets were being made from metal. But there were problems with these trumpets. They were not able to play all the notes musicians and composers wanted to use. Basically, these instruments were just straight tubes with no holes or valves, no way to change notes, except by changing the embouchure and air speed. How could they make the trumpet so it would be able to play more notes?

People started thinking about solutions to the problem. The first idea they tried was to have the musicians use two or more trumpets of different lengths. When they needed to play notes that one horn couldn’t play, they would switch to a different horn. This allowed them to play more notes, but it was a rather awkward method. It also wasn’t so easy to carry around two or three long horns at a time. Time to try a new idea.

Slides on a Trumpet? Hands in the Bell?

So, they tried adding slides to the trumpet. Well, that allowed the instrument to play more notes, but it made the horn awkward to play. Scratch that idea.

Someone suggested that if a trumpet player put his hand in the bell, he could adjust his hand to produce different notes. But wait! Those trumpets were still really long! It was hard to reach the bell!

In 1777 they decided to bend the instrument to make it easier to reach the bell. This may have helped a little bit, but it caused more problems than it solved. Back to the drawing board.

In 1839 someone decided to include some valves and extra tubing on the trumpet. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What does a Valve Do?

A valve makes a way to redirect the air through different bits of tubing to produce different sets of notes. When you blow through a trumpet you can get several notes without pushing down any valves. You can get C, G, C, E, G, all without using any valves. When you use the first valve you can get B♭, F, B♭, D, F, etc. When you push down the second valve you can get a different set of notes. The valve you push down directs the air through a different piece of tubing to produce the different notes. By using different combinations of the three valves, a trumpet player can produce all the notes he needs to play his music.

What are Trumpets Made Of?

Most trumpets today are made of brass. Brass is an alloy (a combination of metals) made of copper and zinc. Sometimes the brass is either silver or gold-plated. That is how you see silver trumpets in band or orchestra. The horn itself is not made of silver, just covered in a silver coating. Many valves are now made of Monel. Monel is a very specialized alloy – it is very hard, and very resistant to corrosion and acid. The Monel alloy was patented in 1906.

The Sound of the Trumpet

How would you describe the sound of a trumpet? Your sister probably just says it is loud! Or maybe annoying. But in the music world, the trumpet sound is called high and brilliant. The sound can carry over a long distance. It is easily heard – which explains why it was often used in battles as signals for the soldiers.

Piccolo Trumpet

Have you ever heard a piccolo trumpet? Piccolo trumpets are cool! They look like a trumpet, but are smaller, and play higher than a regular trumpet. The tubing of a piccolo trumpet is half as long as the tubing of a regular trumpet. And the piccolo trumpet sounds an octave higher than a regular trumpet. The Beatles even used a piccolo trumpet in one of their songs.

Here is an example of what a piccolo trumpet sounds like. Listen Here

I hope you learned something new about your instrument. Share this with your trumpet friends!

Check out some of our other instrument history posts:

Trumpet History - What Do You Know?