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 wayViolas 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 bowSize of violins is standardized, but not violas
 Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a

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.

Buying a String Instrument

Is buying a string instrument for your child on your to-do-list yet? If your child is playing a violin, viola, cello, or bass, sooner or later you will have to look into buying one of these instruments. Believe me, it can be a daunting task! And I am not just talking about the amount of money you will have to invest! I have gone through this process four times and learned a lot along the way! Let me help you through this!

First, you need to know what size instrument your child needs.

That’s right – string instruments come in different sizes. Most other instruments just come in one standard size, but string instruments come in a variety of sizes. String players need to be able to hold their instruments up. They also need to reach the fingerboard in order to place their fingers correctly. Size is a very important factor in choosing the right instrument. Your child’s teacher or orchestra director will tell you what size instrument to look for.

Very young beginner violinists may start with a 1/32 size violin. As they grow, the students need to get larger violins until they reach the full-sized violin. Most high school students and adults play 4/4 or full-size violins.

Violas are a different story. They do not come in nice, standardized sizes like violins and cellos. Violas are measured in inches, by the length of the body of the instrument. A full-sized viola does not exist. The size of the person determines the size of the instrument. Most adults play 16 – 16.5 inch violas, but a smaller person might only be comfortable with a 15 inch viola.

Cellos are sized like violins – standard sizes starting at 1/16 and going to 4/4, or full-size. Again, the size of the student determines the size of the cello needed. Middle school or high school students generally need to move up to full-sized cellos.

Double Bass or String Bass instruments also come in sizes – from ¼ to full-sized. Again, size needed is determined by the size of the person playing. The student must be able to lift the instrument and reach the fingerboard correctly! Again, ask the instructor for the right size.

String Instruments
String Instruments

To Rent or to Buy? That is the Question!

Many music stores will give you the option of renting an instrument and then just trading it in for the next size you need. Your rental fee might increase slightly as you move up in size. Sometimes if you purchase an instrument the store might buy it back from you and apply the cost towards a larger instrument. Another option is to buy an instrument, then buy the next size when you need it and sell the first instrument. Several possibilities here – choose what will work best for you.

Where to Find your String Instrument?

Again, there are many options available. When your child is just starting out, you can probably do just fine with a rental from the local music store. This won’t be too expensive, the instrument will come with everything you need, life is good. But if your child really loves to play and plans to pursue music more seriously you will need to look at buying a better instrument. Let’s face it – rental instruments from music stores are not high-quality items. A better instrument will give your child a better sound and a much more enjoyable experience.

So, where do you shop for this upgraded instrument? My best recommendation is to first find a reputable string instrument repairman. He may also make violins, etc. Violin makers are called luthiers. They are highly trained, very knowledgeable, and hopefully, honest. But I won’t guarantee that part! I have stories to tell…. Get recommendations from teachers, orchestra directors, other parents. Compile a list of different shops. Plan to visit several! It is a good idea to give call the shop before your visit. Let them know when you plan to come, and what you are looking for, and usually they will have a selection ready for you to try. Let them know what instrument you are looking for, what size you need, a general price range.

A good shop will give you a space to try the instruments. And this is really important! Have your student play the instruments. Be prepared to spend at least an hour – probably more – in just one shop. Every instrument will feel differently, will sound differently, will respond differently. Take notes on what your child likes or doesn’t like about each instrument. After he/she has played on all the instruments, then he can start eliminating the ones he doesn’t like, or like the least. Continue the process at multiple stores until he finds an instrument he loves! If you don’t find something at the first shop, go visit another one and repeat the process.

When your child finally finds the instrument of her dreams (or maybe two or three in close competition) arrange with the shop to borrow the instruments for a few days. Most will let you take one to three instruments for a several days, so your teacher can see and hear the instruments. Let the teacher critique the instruments under consideration. Have your child play the instruments in different settings – at home, in an auditorium or other large space.

It is also possible to buy string instruments from private parties, but you need to do some research to know what to look for. You also need your child to play any of these instruments. Some private sellers even give you the option of taking the instrument for a few days, so the teacher can listen and inspect it. We had that experience once, and it was quite helpful.

Old or New?

Should you buy a brand-new instrument, or an older one? Again, preference plays a role. Generally, a new string instrument requires a lot of playing to “break it in.” Older instruments that have been well-cared for have already gone through that process. They are already “opened up,” their sound is “mature.” Again, the teacher may give some input here. When we purchased a violin from my youngest daughter, her teacher told us not to buy a new instrument, and not to buy one from China. We went to one shop, tried a few violins, but all they had in our price range were new violins from China. We moved on! Others may like the process of “opening up” a new violin and finding its potential.

What about the Label?

Don’t let labels fool you. Most violins have a label in them telling where they were made, when they were made, and possibly the name of the maker. Many of these labels also include something about Stradivari (or maybe Amati or Guarneri). In case you don’t know, these were three of the most famous violin makers, from the late 1600’s. I can guarantee that you will not find one of these listed on eBay, or even in your violin shop. I believe the most recent Stradivarius violin on the market sold for about $15 million. And there are only about 500 of them in existence. If you see his name, or any of the others, listed on the label, it means that the instrument was built in the style of Stradivarius, or patterned after one of his instruments.

Key Things to Look For

You want to look for an instrument that has been well-cared for. You should not be able to see cracks in the instrument. All the seams should be closed. The bridge should be straight. You should be able to see the sound post inside the instrument. The instrument should have real purfling (the decorative black inlaid design close to the edges). Lower quality instruments tend to have that design painted. The better instruments have the top of the instrument made of spruce, the rest of maple. The best wood is mainly European, grown in cold climates, and aged. The luthier we have worked with showed us his collection of wood that he brought back with him from Germany when he was doing his training. Wood grown in colder climates is denser and more resonant.

If you are looking at basses, know that the lower priced and lesser quality basses are made of plywood. Many student and smaller-sized basses use plywood. But as a student progresses, he needs to get a better instrument. The intermediate basses are often a hybrid – a carved top, and laminated sides and backs. Professional models are all carved.

What Else do You Need?

Be sure you have a good case for your instrument! The case needs to protect your investment! If you buy from a violin shop, be sure you ask if the purchase includes a case. It might be a good idea to consult with your child about the case as well as the instrument. While some kids don’t care much about the case, others are very opinionated. We had to recently replace a violin case, and my daughter was adamant about the color inside the case. It had to be the right color green. Often it is helpful if the case has outer pockets for music, pencils, etc.

A Good Case is Important!
A Good Case is Important!

Each of these instruments requires a bow. Be sure your child has one! We will address buying bows in another post. But again, ask your teacher for advice.

Check your homeowner’s or rental insurance policy. Be sure they cover full replacement value of your instrument. When you buy your instrument, the shop should give you a statement of the value of the instrument (or an appraisal) which you can use for insurance purposes. You may have to purchase a special rider for your policy to cover the full value of the instrument. All the insurance company requests is a listing of each instrument, the name, make, model, serial number (if there is one), and a valuation or appraisal. At one point, we had a dozen musical instruments in our home. I made a table of all the information for the insurance company. I think I may have shocked them a bit. Pictures of the instruments are also a good thing to have.

Finally, take your time. Give your child time to try instruments until he finds just the right one! I am sure my son tried at least 30 different cellos, in four different shops, before he found just the right one. And we did the same thing with violins – twice! You can really learn a lot in the process also. And don’t be afraid to go back to the same store a few weeks later and try again. Violin shops are continually getting new instruments – next month they may have just what your child wants.

Here are some websites that have good information for you:

Sizing for String Instruments

Specific to the Violin

More on the Violin


Double Basses

Looking for different instruments? Check out our other guides: Brass Instruments   Woodwind Instruments   Pianos

Buying a String Instrument
Buying a String Instrument