Orchestration and Arranging Wiki


String Instrument

Other names

Fiddle, fr: alto; de: Bratsche




Alto, also Treble

The viola is a bowed string instrument. It is the middle voice of the violin family, between the violin and the cello, and the second voice of the family of string instruments, which also includes the double bass. The viola produces sound by drawing a bow across one or more strings (which may be stopped by the fingers of the other hand to produce a full range of pitches), by plucking the strings (with either hand), or by a variety of other techniques.

Pitch Range[]

A violin without a bow.

Because of it's larger size and altered proportions, the viola has a range which is both lower and narrower than that of the violin. The compass of the viola is from C3 (C an octave below middle C) to E6 (3 and 1/3 octaves.) The top notes, however, are often produced by natural or artificial harmonics.


Conventional western tuning of a viola is based on A4(440Hz) and is in fifths. This gives the instrument the Open Strings of C3-G3-D4-A4, a fifth lower than the strings of a violin. The technique of scordatura allows this fundamental tuning to be changed in certain works or styles. For non-western variants and tuning possibilites refer to Wikipedia .

Timbre & Tone[]

The viola has a more mellow sound than that of the violin, and can sound darker in the lower registers. This tone can be adjusted through mechanical means (string choice, viola and bow construction) or through the various techniques available to the violist.


Attaching a small rubber, wooden, or metal device called a "mute" to the bridge of the viola alters the tone, softening the instrument's sound by adding mass to the bridge and so reducing its ability to vibrate freely, decreasing volume and giving a more mellow tone, with fewer audible overtones. In performances, it may give a desired dulled effect. Mutes are mostly used in orchestras with the entire string section playing with mutes, resulting in a soft, hushed sound quality. Parts to be played muted are marked con sord., for the Italian sordino or occasionally mit Dämpfer in German. (The instruction to take off the mute is senza sord., sometimes marked just senza or "ohne Dämpfer" in German.) In French, instruction is given for application of mutes at the beginning of muted passages, "mettez les sourdines", and for removal at the end "ôtez les sourdines".

Sharing the same name but with a completely different purpose, massive metal, rubber, or wooden "practice mutes" or "hotel mutes" are available. These mutes are used to drastically reduce the volume when practicing where others can be disturbed.


Left Hand Techniques[]

Double Stopping[]

Double stopping is when stopped notes are played on two adjacent strings, producing a two-note harmony. This is more difficult than normal single-string playing, as fingers must be accurately placed on two strings simultaneously. Sometimes moving to a higher position is necessary for the left hand to be able to reach both notes at once. Double stopping is also used to mean playing on three or all four strings at once, although such practices are more properly called triple or quadruple stopping. Collectively, double, triple and quadruple stopping is called multiple stopping. Sounding an open string alongside a fingered note is another way to get a harmony. While sometimes also called a double stop, it is more properly called a drone, as the drone note (the open string) may be sustained for a passage of different notes played on the adjacent string.


Vibrato is a technique of the left hand and arm in which the pitch of a note varies in a pulsating rhythm. Mechanically, it is achieved by fingertip movements which alter the length of the vibrating string. There are several different styles of vibrato ranging from the use of just the fingers, to the use of the wrist or even the whole forearm. By employing these different techniques both the speed and amplitude of vibrato oscillations can be varied for musical effect.
Vibrato is often perceived to create a more emotional sound, and it is employed heavily in music of the Romantic era. The acoustic effect of vibrato has largely to do with adding interest and warmth to the sound, in the form of a shimmer created by the variations in projection of strongest sound. A well-made violin virtually points its sound pattern in different directions depending on slight variations in pitch.
Violinists oscillate backwards, or lower in pitch from the actual note when using vibrato, since aural perception favors the highest pitch in a varying sound. Vibrato does little if anything to disguise an out-of-tune note. Violin students, especially of beginner level, are taught to use it only on extended notes and or during points of emotional tension. Vibrato can be difficult to learn and may take a student several months, if not years, to master.

Open String[]

A special timbre results from playing a note without touching its string with a finger, thus sounding the lowest note on that string. Such a note is said to be played on an open string. Open string notes (C3, G4, D4, A4) have a very distinct sound resulting from absence of the damping action of a finger pad, and from the fact that vibrato can not be produced. Other than G3 (which can be played in no other way), open strings are sometimes selected for special effects.


Lightly touching the string with a fingertip at a harmonic node while bowing close to the bridge can create harmonics. Instead of the normal solid tone a lighter-sounding overtone note of a higher pitch is heard. Possible harmonics are defined by the Harmonic Series of the string being played. A responsive instrument will provide numerous possible harmonic nodes along the length of the string.
Harmonics are marked in music with a little circle above the note that determines the pitch of the harmonic. There are two types of harmonics: natural harmonics and artificial harmonics (also known as "false harmonics").
Artificial harmonics are more difficult to produce than the natural harmonics described above. Stopping a note on one string, for example first finger "E" on the D string, and having another finger just touching the string a fourth higher, in this case on the position of the note "A", produces the fourth harmonic of the "E," sounding a tone two octaves above the note that is stopped, in this case, E.
Harmonics become more difficult to produce as you move up the harmonic series. Consequently the most found harmonics are the octave (1st harmonic), two octaves (2nd harmonic) with the fifth and third slightly less common.
Traditional notation of artificial harmonics uses two notes on one stem: the lower note employs a round note-head representing where the string is strongly stopped with the first finger, and the upper note uses an open diamond note-head representing where the string is lightly touched with the fourth finger.
Elaborate passages in artificial harmonics can be found in virtuoso violin literature, especially of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Right Hand Techniques[]


When a note is marked pizz. (abbreviation for pizzicato) in the written music, it is played by plucking the string with a finger of the right hand rather than by bowing. When the bow hand is occupied (or for virtuosic effect) the left hand can be used; this is indicated by a "+" (plus sign) in the music. This allows players to simultaneously play bowed notes while plucking on a different string. In addition, some players have acquired the trick of playing fast pizzicato passages using two alternating fingers of the right hand. Players continue playing pizzicato until there is an indication to return to arco (playing with the bow).
Violinists may also pluck a string with their left hand, denoted on written music as a "+" symbol above the note desired. Left-handed pizz in general is less flexible pitch-wise than the right-handed pizz, but allows the right hand to either stay where it is or simultaneously play with the bow or by plucking.
A snap pizzicato, first specified by Béla Bartók, and often called a Bartók pizzicato, requires the player to pull the string away from the fingerboard so that when it is released it rebounds with force onto the fingerboard, yielding a sharp, percussive snapping sound.


  • Sul ponticello - Playing close to the bridge gives a more intense sound than usual, emphasizing the higher harmonics;
  • Sul tasto - Playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard makes for a delicate, ethereal sound, emphasizing the fundamental frequency.
  • Détaché - The term détaché simply means "separated" and it can be applied to any notes not linked by a slur. Stopping the bow on the string deadens the vibrations and thus creates a muted accent, elastic détaché which covered off-the-string strokes, and dragged détaché (détaché traîné) where smooth bow changes leave no audible gap between each note. Video Example of Detaché.
  • Martelé (French; Italian martellato) - literally "hammered," is a type of détaché stroke with a lightly hammered attack. A strong attack is referred to as Martellato.
  • Collé - "stuck," or "glued," is a stroke that begins from a heavily weighted bow resting motionless on the string. Ideally, the initial weight will be almost enough to cause an undesirable scratch sound.
  • Spiccato - Technique that uses a bowing style that leaves the string clearly to produce a light "bouncing" sound. Despite major misconceptions, violinists play this technique with a horizontal stroke; the "bouncing" motion is only due to the natural resistance of the violin string and light weight of the blow. Spiccato becomes Sautillé at faster tempos, due to the lower amplitude of the "bounce". Spiccato is usually performed at the balance portion of the bow. The balance portion of the bow refers to the area of the bow where weight is distributed evenly on both sides, allowing for maximum control. Spiccato articulation is indicated by a small dot placed directly under the note.
  • Legato - Of successive notes in performance, connected without any intervening silence of articulation. In practice, the connection or separation of notes is relative, and achieved through the presence or absence of emphasis, Accent and attack, as much as silences of articulation; degrees of connection and separation vary from legatissimo (representing the closest degree of connection), tenuto, portamento, legato, portato, non legato, mezzo-staccato, Staccato (the natural antonym of legato), to staccatissimo. Some of these terms have connotations going beyond simple degrees of connection or separation.
  • Sautillé (French; Italian saltando, German Springbogen, Spanish saltillo) - A bowstroke played rapidly in the middle of the bow, one bowstroke per note, so that the bow bounces very slightly off the string. If the bounce becomes higher at this speed, it is really a flying staccato or flying spiccato. It is not indicated in any consistent manner: sometimes dots are placed above or below the notes, sometimes arrow-head strokes, and sometimes the stroke is simply left to the performer's discretion. spiccato and sautillé are sometimes used as synonyms, though spiccato tends to be applied to a broader range of off-the-string strokes. Video Example of Sautillé.
  • Jeté - Also known as "ricochet" bowing, this consists of "throwing" the bow on the string in the upper third of the bow on a down bow, so that it bounces and produces a series of rapid notes. Usually from two to six notes are sounded this way, but up to ten or eleven can be played.
  • Louré (French; Italian portato) - This bow stroke, used in slow tempo, separates slurred notes slightly to articulate them, without stopping the bow. It is used in passages of a cantabile character.
  • Arpeggio, arpeggiando, arpeggiato - A bouncing stroke, played on broken chords, so that each note of the arpeggio is played on a different string.
  • Tremolo - Chiefly used for orchestral playing, this consists of moving the bow back and forth in very short strokes extremely rapidly, not in measured rhythm.
  • Col legno - Occasionally the strings are struck with the stick of the bow ("with the wood.") This gives a muted percussive sound, and is most effective when employed by a full orchestral violin section. The eerie quality of a violin section playing col legno is exploited in some symphonic pieces, notably the "witches' dance" of the last movement of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique.
  • "Shuffle" - A repetitive pattern of slurs and accents, much used in some fiddling styles. Named shuffles include the Nashville shuffle, the Georgia shuffle, and the double shuffle, which is often considered to be a trick or showoff shuffle.
  • "Chopping" - A more modern percussive technique, in which the hair near the frog of the bow is struck against the strings with a quick scratching sound of indeterminate pitch.
  • Flautando - A light tone produced by fast bow movement with very little pressure on the string.


Classical Music[]

In early orchestral music, the viola part was frequently limited to filling in harmonies and little melodic material was assigned to it. If the viola was given a melodic part, it was often duplicated (or was in unison with) the melody played by other strings. A notable exception is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 composed by J. S. Bach, scored for 2 violas, cello, 2 violas da gamba, and continuo, in which the two violas were placed in the primary melodic role. There are a few Baroque and Classical concerti, such as those by Telemann (one of the earliest viola concertos known), Franz Anton Hoffmeister and Carl Stamitz. Hector Berlioz's Harold in Italy was written for solo viola and orchestra. The viola plays an important role in chamber music. It should also be noted that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven all occasionally played the viola part in chamber music. The viola occasionally has a major role in orchestral music, a prominent example being Richard Strauss' tone poem Don Quixote for solo cello and viola and orchestra. Other examples are the "Ysobel" variation of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations and the "La Paix" movement of Léo Delibes's ballet Coppélia which features a lengthy solo for viola. While the viola repertoire is quite large, the amount written by well-known pre-twentieth century composers is relatively small. There are many transcriptions of works for other instruments for the viola and the large number of 20th-century compositions is very diverse. See 'The Viola Project' at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where Professor of Viola Jodi Levitz has paired a composer with each of her students, resulting in a recital of brand-new works played for the very first time. In the earlier part of the 20th century, more composers began to write for the viola, encouraged by the emergence of specialized soloists such as Lionel Tertis. Englishmen Arthur Bliss, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all wrote chamber and concert works for Tertis. William Walton, Bohuslav Martinů and Béla Bartók wrote well-known viola concertos. Paul Hindemith wrote a substantial amount of music for the viola; being himself a violist, he often performed his own works. Claude Debussy's Sonata for flute, viola and harp has inspired a significant number of other composers to write for this combination. Charles Wuorinen composed his virtuosic Viola Variations in 2008 for Lois Martin. Elliott Carter also wrote several fine works for viola including his Elegy (1943) for viola and piano; it was subsequently transcribed for clarinet. Ernest Bloch, a Swiss-born American composer best known for his compositions inspired by Jewish music, wrote two famous works for viola, the Suite 1919 and the Suite hebraïque for solo viola and orchestra. Rebecca Clarke was a 20th century composer and violist who also wrote extensively for the viola. Lionel Tertis records that Edward Elgar (whose cello concerto Tertis transcribed for viola, with the slow movement in scordatura), Alexander Glazunov (who wrote an Elegy, op. 44, for viola and piano), and Maurice Ravel all promised concertos for viola, yet all three died before doing any substantial work on them. In the latter part of the 20th century a substantial repertoire was produced for the viola; many composers including Miklós Rózsa, Revol Bunin, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli and Krzysztof Penderecki, have written viola concertos. The American composer Morton Feldman wrote a series of works entitled The Viola in My Life, which feature concertante viola parts. In spectral music, the viola has been sought after because of its lower overtone partials that are more easily heard than on the violin. Spectral composers like Gérard Grisey, Tristan Murail, and Horaţiu Rădulescu have written solo works for viola.

Contemporary pop music[]

The viola is sometimes used in contemporary popular music, mostly in the avant-garde. John Cale of The Velvet Underground used the viola, as do some modern groups such as alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs, folk duo John & Mary, Defiance, Ohio, The Funetics, Flobots, Beethoven's 5th, British Sea Power, Hangedup and others. Jazz music has also seen its share of violists, from those used in string sections in the early 1900s to a handful of quartets and soloists emerging from the 1960s onward. It is quite unusual though, to use individual string instruments in contemporary popular music. It is usually the flute or rather the full orchestra appearing to be the favoured choice, rather than a lone string player. The upper strings could be easily drowned out by the other instruments, especially if electric, or even by the singer.

Viola in folk music[]

Although not as commonly used as the violin in folk music, the viola is nevertheless used by many folk musicians across the world. Extensive research into the historical and current use of the viola in folk music has been carried out by Dr. Lindsay Aitkenhead. Players in this genre include Eliza Carthy, Mary Ramsey, Helen Bell, and Nancy Kerr. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown was the viola's most prominent exponent in the genre of blues. The viola is also an important accompaniment instrument in Slovakian, Hungarian and Romanian folk string band music, especially in Transylvania. Here the instrument has three strings tuned g — d' - a (note that the a is an octave lower than found on the standard instrument), and the bridge is flattened with the instrument playing chords in a strongly rhythmic manner. In this usage, it is called a kontra or brácsa (pronounced "bra-cha", from German Bratsche, "viola").