The Viola: What You Need to Know

The viola is a string instrument in the violin family. The viola has a history of playing an important role in classical music, and it was even considered to be the “principal” instrument for orchestral compositions during the 18th century. But what does playing such an instrument entail? In this blog post, we’ll discuss all you need to know about playing the viola!

Violas are often forgotten when people think about string instruments. Violas have a rich, dark sound and exciting history. People like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all played violas! Stradivari also made violas that are worth more than his violins.

Famous bands like The Velvet Underground, The Who, Van Morrison, and the Goo Goo Dolls have used the viola on some of their songs.

Quick Picks: The Viola

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Lionel Tertis

Paul Hindemith

William Primrose


The viola is the middle voice of the string family. It sits between the violin and cello and has four strings like them. But its range is lower than those instruments: it goes down a fifth from where they go up. The villa also has its own clef: the alto clef.

Violas are played in the same way as violins. You hold them on your left side, over your shoulder, and under your chin. Violas and violins are almost the same, so it can be hard to tell them apart. The viola is a little bit different from the violin. A violin has three strings, and the viola has four strings. The viola is slightly larger, so it makes a different sound than the violin. The largest size of a violin body is 14 inches, but there is no full size for a viola. Violas found in orchestras are generally anywhere from 15 inches to 18 inches, with 16.5 being the most common. The viola’s sound is often described as being mellow and dark. My teacher once said that the viola sounds like chocolate. People are drawn to playing the viola because of its sound.


The beautiful sound of the viola has often kept it from getting as famous as the violin or cello. This makes sense if you wonder about what it’s like to sing with each instrument. The violin is the soprano voice of the strings. The cello is the tenor voice of the strings. You can hear sopranos and tenors in a choir, but what are altos doing? Altos in a choir fill-in harmonies. The violas in an orchestra also give the string sections together and also sound full. If you lose your alto voice or violas, then the whole orchestra will sound hollow and deflated. Violas are really the unsung heroes of an orchestra!


The viola is an old instrument. It’s the oldest of the string family, not the violin or cello. Musicians have been using it for hundreds of years as a harmonic instrument, but not melodic. That’s why people are less familiar with it than they are with the violin or cello. The viola is less well-known than the bass because it has less solo music written for it. The viola also does not have as much solo music written for it as the violin or cello. Usually, basses are very easy to see on stage, but they are commonly seen playing in popular groups like jazz bands and pop/rock groups.

Violas and viola bows are different than the violin and cello. Violas were not made as much as violins and cellos. That is why you can find a violin by Stradivarius or Guarnerius, but if you go to a store, you might not find a good viola like that. But there are many makers today, so it is easy to find a good viola or bow for your violist.

Famous Composers who Played Viola:

  • J.S. Bach
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Benjamin Britten
  • Antonin Dvorak
  • Joseph Haydn
  • Paul Hindemith
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Franz Schubert


Should you play the viola? It is important to question yourself if you love the sound of the viola.

Differences in Playing the Violin and the Viola

The violin and the viola are both similar instruments. The main difference is that the viola is wider than the violin, so you need to put your fingers a little bit farther apart when playing it. The instrument is also heavier and needs thicker strings and heftier bows.

A viola bow is heavier than a violin bow. You should look at the frog (the part that people hold in their hands) to tell the difference. The frog on a viola is round like the cello, but it weighs more than both violin and viola bows.

Another difference in playing the viola is that the notes are written on a different clef. The alto clef is easier to read if you know that middle C is on the centerline of the staff. Although this type of clef was used quite often in Baroque music, it is not used very often by other instruments today. Occasionally, violists use treble clef instead since they play higher registers more often than lower ones.

Some of the distinguishing factors between the two are how they make a sound; the violin speaks faster than the viola. This means that it takes a bit longer to hear the viola’s sound. Violists need to be mindful of this difference since we do not want them to be behind all of the other instruments in an orchestra! Violin players need to learn how to play shorter strokes for a different sound. It can be challenging for the viola to be heard in an orchestra, so they need to know how to stop and start playing well. Violists have a hard job! They are the middle voice in the string section. Violas are often the mediator between violins and cellos. People who play violas are usually calm and stable people. When you play the viola, it produces sound waves that vibrate slower than violin strings do. This is because you have a great instrument to produce sound with. Vibrato is different depending on who you are. A slower, wider vibrato will make the viola sound darker.


It might surprise you to know that famous musicians like Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and even Paganini played the viola. Mozart and Beethoven liked to be in the middle of all the string players when they were playing their own string quartets. Dvorak was an excellent player of viola in his life, and he played it early on. Paganini studied with a famous viola virtuoso and composer, who must have taught him about the wide technical possibilities of the viola. Paganini asked Hector Berlioz to write Harold in Italy, which features a solo viola. Paganini thought that the viola part in his piece was not flashy enough, and he decided to write his own viola composition. The result was the Sonata per la Grand’Viola, a piece in the same vein as his virtuoso violin compositions.

Violin playing has improved a lot in the last 100 years. This is because of people like the three people on this list (who played viola). There are still good violinists around and some who teach and even record music. Many young violas are playing at the highest level artistically. They are Yuri Bashmet, Tabea Zimmermann, Roberto Diaz, Kim Kashkashian, Nobuko Imai, and Helen Callus. 

Now, let’s jump forward now to three viola players who were pioneers in modern playing.

Lionel Tertis

Violin player Lionel Tertis said, “Cinderella no more!” about the viola. He wanted it to be known as an equal instrument with the violin. Without Tertis, the viola might still be seen as just a more prominent violin. Tertis was influenced by Kreisler’s violin sound and wanted to make it on the viola. Tertis played with many great musicians like Casals and Rubinstein, and Kreisler. Many composers wrote pieces for him. The most famous one is William Walton’s Viola Concerto. Tertis also arranged and transcribed music for viola, including an arrangement of the famous Elgar Cello Concerto. With Kreisler, he performed Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante on many occasions. One of the concerts inspired William Primrose to switch from the violin to viola.

Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was famous for playing the viola. But he is most remembered now for his music compositions. He wrote many textbooks on theory and composition. He was a very good teacher and composer because he knew many instruments. He wrote one of the most famous viola concertos, Der Schwanendreher, along with Viola Sonata, Op. 11 no. 4. He also performed his own compositions and gave the world premiere of the Walton Viola Concerto. The Walton concerto was written for Tertis. But Tertis didn’t want to play it, so he recommended that Hindemith play it. Hindemith wasn’t a beautiful violist, and he couldn’t play the modern sound that Walton wanted, but with his compositional skills and his strong drive to promote the viola, he has become famous.

William Primrose

William Primrose was going to become one of the best violinists, but he heard Tertis play this music. He changed instruments to the viola. It is said that he is the best at playing it. His fame comes from his great skill in this instrument. This man can play really difficult pieces on the viola. The Heifetz of the viola - he is called that because he has the pure technical perfection that Jascha Heifetz had. This man is good at playing and recording all the time with other people, like Piatigorsky and Rubinstein, who are great too. Despite it being very hard to do, this man can play musically and show how great the viola is to anyone who listens.

To learn more about the viola, click here

Frequently Asked Questions about The Viola

Is it difficult to learn to play the viola?

Playing viola doesn’t have to be complicated when you have a good teacher and some helpful tips. An essential thing you must know is that violas are heavy stringed instruments. They are harder to learn because the weight, bow pressure, and size of violas make them hard to play.

Is viola or violin easier to play?

Most people think that the viola is easier to play than a violin, but actually, it’s harder. Playing the viola is harder because it is larger, and you have to push down on the strings more. But when you do sound good on a viola, it sounds great because it has a richer, fuller sound.

How is a viola played?

The viola is the older sister of the violin. It plays the same as a violin. The left hand holds it and presses down on the strings to change pitches, and your right-hand moves the bow or plucks at them.

Why do you play the viola?

While many musicians play the melody, the viola plays the harmony. It is a good instrument for people who like to help other instruments and who don’t want to be in front of people. The viola is also a good instrument for shy people that want to blend in.

Is the violin or viola better?

Violins and violas play different notes. Violas can play lower notes than violins, but violins can play higher notes. If you want to be the lead musician or concertmaster, then a violin is better.

Is viola good for beginners?

This is the best instrument for beginners. It is perfect for people who want to try out the instrument or as a gift. This villa also comes with US-made Prelude strings, which are teachers’ favorites for students.

Which instrument is hardest to learn?

Some instruments are hard to learn. Violins are one of the hardest string instruments to learn for children and adults. Harps, French horns, and pianos can also be hard for children to learn. Accordions or organs can be difficult for adults. Is the guitar easy or tough to learn? Notable mention: The clarinet.

Should I learn violin before viola?

You don’t need to know how to play the violin when you start with the viola. You can learn from playing other instruments or from someone who knows how to play it.

Can violinists play viola?

Many famous violinists, like Janine Jansen, have recorded music with the viola. Many violin teachers recommend playing both because it will help your technique and the sound of your instrument.

Who plays the viola?

A person who plays the viola is known as a violist or a viola player.

What is unique about the viola?

The viola is a very special instrument. It’s like a crossbreed of the violin and the cello. There are several sizes and lengths that can fit your needs, depending on whether you’re a beginner, intermediate player, or professional.

What is the difference between viola and violin?

The most obvious difference between the violin and the viola is the size. The viola is relatively bigger than the violin, but both instruments come in different sizes. The smallest viola is smaller than a regular violin at just 30 centimeters long.

How long will it take to learn and play the viola?

It can take a long time to sound good on the violin or viola. Most students do not start sounding good until 3-5 years, and it takes ten years to sound like a fluent player.

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