Have you always been curious about the viola? What is it? Is it a violin? What are its strings made of? Are there different types of materials you can use for your viola strings? How often should those viola strings be replaced? How many notes can you play on the viola strings?
Learning how to play the viola can be a very rewarding experience on your part, especially as you learn the history of the viola and how it was developed over the centuries, as technology and culture changed and adapted to the modern-day tastes of the time. To play the viola is to play a little bit of history, each and every day.
History of the Viola
The history of the viola is long and varied–and it begins in the sixteenth century. We don’t particularly know when the specific instrument, the viola, was created, however, we do know that instruments in the violin family were created between 1530 and 1550.
These instruments are linked closely to the eventual creation of the viola. This creation began in northern Italy, alongside some of the most infamous musicians in Italian history e.g. Antonio Stradivari, Gasparo da Salo, and Andrea Guarnieri to name a few.
To start with–all stringed instruments that were created in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are named, in some form, after the viola. There were two specific names–viola da gamba and viola da braccio. The differences in these names have to do with how the instruments are played e.g. viola da gamba means “played at the leg” and viola da braccio means “played on the arm”.
While there were many different variations in design, over the next few centuries, it was not until the eighteen hundreds that the viola would have its final design, that would change the way we look at it.
This design change was helped by the fact that by the eighteen hundreds, playing music in concerts in large halls was becoming a very popular pastime, and coupled with a stronger bow design–it was time.
Within the entire violin family, strings were made of heavier materials, their tension was increased to help boost their projection, and the neck was redesigned to be slightly lower and longer, which made it easier for the player’s arm to move up and down, and then in the body of the instruments, the bridge and the bar were reinforced with better materials.
However, it was not until the late eighteen hundreds that the viola and the violin were given the same prestige as trained musicians. It was then that composers began to write concerts and concertos made specifically for the viola, which led to even more redesigns of the instrument itself.
Considerable things for violas
This long and varied history only adds value and richness to the instrument, which is why it is perfect for any new or experienced musician to tackle. If you are interested in playing the viola, you should know everything you can about it.
Everything is important–not just the history, but also how to maintain your viola in its best condition for as long as possible. If you are aware of every inch of your viola, you will become a better player, a better musician.
Viola strings are one of the most important aspects of your viola–without them, your viola cannot be played. If they are not properly tightened, then your viola will not sound its best while you are playing it.
What is the Difference Between “Viola” and “Violin”?
You have probably had this question before–even if you are an experienced musician, you have at least had someone ask you this question. What is the difference between a viola and a violin? It can’t be that they only have a few letters difference between them.
While the viola and the violin are both stringed instruments that were created and developed roughly around the same time in history, there are a few key differences that make them two distinct instruments–even to a layperson who doesn’t know the first thing about musical instruments.
The first key difference is size. The violin is markedly smaller than the viola. It is a fairly easy difference to tell, particularly when the two instruments are side by side with each other. The violin is generally about 36 centimeters (14 inches) long, while the viola is generally between 39 and 41 centimeters (15.5 to 16.5 inches) long.
The next difference is something that really only knowledgeable musicians would know–and it deals with reading musical notes. Violin musicians read their music notes starting with the treble clef, while viola musicians would learn to read their music notes starting with the lesser-known alto clef.
The third difference is the bow frogs. Bow frogs basically indicate where you would how the bow e.g. the frog part is the end of the bow, where you hold the instrument. To indicate this, the bow frog is usually decorated with a colorful slide and a small circle.
Viola and violin bows differ, because the viola frog bow is usually slightly heavier than a violin frog bow, and sometimes the frog on the viola frog bow is curved, instead of straight (as it is on the violin bow).
Do you have an ear for the pitch? This fourth difference deals with differences in pitch–the pitch of a viola is lower than the pitch of a violin. This is because of the difference in starting notes. The first note on a violin is an “E”, which is five pitches higher than the first note on a viola, which is an “A”. Because of these differences, a viola has a much mellower sound than a violin.
The fifth difference has to do with their strings. Not only are the viola strings thicker than violin strings, but they are also arranged differently for different notes. Viola string order goes like this (lowest to highest): C, G, D, A. Violin string order goes like this (lowest to highest): G, D, A, and E.
5 Key Differences Between the Viola and the Violin
1. Size: the viola is larger than the violin.
2. Musical Notes: viola musicians read the alto clef, while violin musicians read the treble clef.
3. Bow Frogs: viola bow frogs are heavier and curved, as compared to the violin, where their bow frogs are smaller and straight.
4. Pitch: a viola’s pitch is lower, with a much mellow sound, while the violin’s pitch is higher.
5. Strings: viola strings are thicker and are arranged to form different notes as compared to the violin.
Viola versus violin (Infographic):
Types of Violas
Throughout the years, violas have been categorized differently, depending on a variety of factors that were important during that time period. However, the most important factors can be characterized by–size, time period, and musical purpose/genre.
Differences in Viola Categorizations
Viola Types: Size
While throughout the history of the viola they have been made at a fairly wide range of sizes, nowadays, there is a strict guideline that dictates the acceptable size range of violas.
This is all due to the range that you want the viola to have–if it is a lower range, then the soundbox has to be larger to create that tone, which would then not allow the actual instrument to fit under your chin.
So because of this, a lot of people experimented with the soundbox and fingerboard length of the viola. As a result, the majority of violas are either 14 to 15 inches or over 17 inches long.
Viola Types: Size Differences Between the Alto and Tenor
These two viola types–alto and tenor–are based on size. This was one of the first designs of the viola, and they have different purposes.
The tenor viola plays a lower part than an alto viola, so its body is bigger to register a lower tone of the instrument.
The alto viola is a middle to a higher tone, so it did not have to be as big as the tenor viola.
Generally, there were at least three violas played together, and as many as five in an arrangement. However, as the violin became popular, the viola became used less and less, which accounts for the wide range in sizes of the instrument.
Viola Types: Differences Between Time Periods
Pre-Baroque Time Period
Before the viola was invented, there were several instruments that were similar to the viola that was played. The term “viola” was used well before we had created the instrument the viola, yet this references different instruments–most popularly the three-stringed Violetta or the lira that was played upright during the era of the Byzantine Empire.
Baroque Time Period
This viola, known as the Baroque Viola, was the forefather of the modern viola. This instrument was created in the sixteenth century. Compared to our modern-day viola, it has a shallower angle on the neck of the instrument, thicker strings, and lower tension.
This is where the classifications of the violas come in e.g. the creation of the alto and the tenor violas. Crafting techniques allowed for more design advancements in the eighteenth century.
As new techniques allowed for stronger tension and higher range and projection of the viola, thus came the advent of the classical viola in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
This viola has a smaller, thinner neck, and higher tension in the strings, and has been adapted to be made with many different types of wood, strings, and the addition of a chin rest makes it easier to play.
Surprisingly enough, these were created and sold, starting in the 1930s, and do not contain any sound boxes of f-holes. Because of this, they are generally used as amplification devices, for other instruments. They are very rare, particularly as classical violas are not as popular as violins.
Semi Electric Viola
The difference between a semi-electric viola and an electric viola is that the semi-electric produces sound acoustically and then uses an app to project the sound out. This helps retain a more natural sound, versus an electric viola. The amp is added by using a “pick up”, and this can be added to any classical viola you want.
Viola Types: Genre
Generally, violas have only four strings, however, there is another type that adds another string (five-string viola), which blends the viola and violin styles. This type of viola easily lends itself to fiddle music and can be somewhat tricky for viola and violin players to learn.
Viola Types Overview:
-Size differences include the alto and tenor, mainly. There are also children’s violas.
-Time Periods: pre-baroque, baroque, classical, electric, semi-electric
-Genre: five strings
The Ins and Outs of Viola Strings
There are many different types of materials you can buy for your viola. It all depends on the sound that you want, and what your budget is for your strings (as they do have to be replaced, but we will get to that later).
The three main categories for viola strings are gut, steel core, and synthetic core.
Viola String Categories
Viola Strings: Gut
Gut strings used to be the only type of strings that we used to play string instruments e.g. the viola. Originally, they were either actual guts from birds (or their tendons or intestines from other animals), it was not until the eighteen hundreds that the strings were made by wrapping gut around metal strings.
For those playing baroque or renaissance-era music, gut strings are the most highly prized strings of all. However, these strings are a bit more temperamental than others, as they are very sensitive to temperature and humidity.
They are also harder to tune, go out of tune easily, and have to be replaced much more frequently than other string types.
Nowadays, silver and aluminum are mainly used as the cores of strings.
Viola Strings: Steel Core
These strings hold their pitch a lot easier than gut strings, but not as easily as synthetic core strings. They are smaller in diameter and so their tone is very bright and focused, while they also adapt easily to the musician’s style. These strings are popular with electric viola players.
Viola Strings: Synthetic Core
Synthetic core strings are composed of materials that are synthetic e.g. nylon and mixes of various fibers. These are very popular among bow players, particularly as they have the best gut tonally (a richness) and steel core strings (durability). These strings are also much denser, and stronger, which makes them less vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes.
Top Ten Viola Strings (Brands)
These strings are made with a nylon core and were created in Australia. A very popular synthetic string, it soon became the yardstick upon which all other viola strings were measured.
These are multi-stranded strings that are flexible, offer a stable sound, maintain pitch, and offer a warm tone to your playing. These strings have a long life and are offered in six different lengths, as well as three different sizes (light, medium, and heavy).
These strings are steel cored and are very responsive, as well as powerful. These are very popular with lower-end viola players. They come in light, medium, and heavy sizes.
This is a synthetic core string that is wrapped in metal. Generally, it is available in aluminum or steel. They project a warm and complex tone and are available in the following sizes: soft, medium, and strong.
This contains the same core as the Evah Pirazzi, yet offers a single enhancement–it projects an amazing tone, which can help lighten up the darker tone of the viola instrument.
This string is interesting, as it is made up of stabilized gut–which helps it not be as sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations. It is stabilized by winding it with aluminum. This helps preserve the complex tone of the gut, but also helps maintain the power of the string.
These contain a steel core, and as such are darker in tone than the Dominant strings. These will project a very powerful sound, although it will not be as complex as other string types. These strings come in heavy, medium, and light.
These strings contain a steel core, and their bright, fun tone makes them popular with folk songs and fiddlers. These are perfect strings for those who are just starting out or don’t play their viola very often, as they are relatively inexpensive. They come in the sizes heavy, medium, and light.
These steel core strings lack the power and complexity that you would find in other strings and are used to play generally the most popular types of music. Their tone is clear and easy enough to play, so it is popular with beginners. They offer four different lengths and are available in heavy, medium, and light sizes.
These strings are metal wound (usually in silver) and project a clear tone, warmth, and clear sound. They are also moderately powerful and have a surprising warmth and depth to their sounds. These strings are popular with musicians who like to mix up their string types. They are available in three sizes–heavy, medium, and light.
Low tension and synthetic core string, this is one of the most responsive strings on the list. It comes in two lengths, small and large.
Top Ten Viola Strings Overview
Viola String Chart
|Evah Pirazzi Gold||Synthetic||Pirastro|
|Peter Infeld PI||Synthetic||Thomastik|
Viola Strings Comparisons
There are many viola string comparisons you can do–ultimately it is up to you as the musician to make your own decisions and experiment with the type of music you want to play or create.
However, with some brands, you can make several viola string comparisons.
Viola String Comparison Overview
-Evah Pirazzi and Obligato
-Evah Pirazzi and Dominant
-Dominant and Larsen
-Spirocore and Larsen
-Spirocore, Dominant, and Vision
-Helicore, Kaplan, and Prelude
-Brilliant and Karneol
There are so many viola string comparisons, it would take several pages to list them all!
As with any instrument, notes on the viola are limited, out of the seven notes available. These viola notes are C, D, G, and A. The treble (or G) clef is used to read notes for a viola composition, usually when the notes start getting high. The alto clef is used much more frequently with the viola, because it is lower than the violin.
Q: How do you know if you will like the viola vs. the violin?
A: The only way you can know this is if you listen to different pieces of music played by each instrument, particularly in styles and genres of music that you enjoy. Listen to what you like, and see if you think the viola improves it or not. If you think it does, then the viola might be an instrument you are interested in learning how to play.
Q: How old is “too old” to learn how to play the viola?
A: As with all instruments, the earlier you learn how to play an instrument, the better you will be at that instrument. However, it is never too late to learn an instrument and to love music. Whether you are five or fifty, or even twenty-five, don’t let your age and lack of previous experience get you to doubt yourself and not try to learn how to play an instrument.
Q: What are the differences in “clefs” between violas and violins?
A: Viola musicians read the alto clef, as opposed to the treble clef that violin musicians read on their sheet music. However, viola musicians should learn how to read both of these notes, because they are both used in advanced compositions.
However, viola musicians read the alto clef first, and more frequently than the treble clef. This all has to do with the range and tone of the music, as violas register in a lower tone than a violin.
Q: What are the best viola strings to buy?
A: The best viola strings to buy are: Dominant, Spirocore, Evah Pirazzi, Obligato, Passione, Larsen, Prim, Helicore, Jarger, and Brilliant.
Q: What are viola strings made out of?
A: Viola string material composition has a long and varied history, starting with gut, muscles, and tendons from animals for several centuries–particularly in the medieval era. As technology and crafting techniques became more polished and were developed, so did new strings. Steel core and Synthetic core strings are the fruits of that labor.
All three strings are still used to this day, to varying degrees of success. The type of string you use depends on the genre of music you are playing, and the sound that you want to convey to yourself and your audience.
Q: What notes do you play on the viola?
A: The notes that are played on the viola are: C, D, G, and A.
Q: How many positions can you play the viola in?
A: There are seven regular positions that you can play your viola in. Beginners, those who have just started to learn how to play the viola will usually play in the first position. Intermediate skilled musicians, those who have some experience playing the viola will shift between first, second, and third positions.
Finally, advanced musicians can play anything from the first position to seven positions, and those that are even more than advanced can go into the eighth position and beyond. However, once musicians reach that skill level, they are not as enamored with positions and just choose how best to play their piece.
Q: When should you replace your viola strings? How often should you replace your viola strings?
A: Replacement of your viola strings strongly depends on how often you play it. If you play your viola frequently–every day, for instance–then you should replace your strings every three to six months. If you do not play it frequently, then you can get away with not replacing your strings. In this case, generally, you can get away with only replacing your strings once a year.
However, there are also other factors to replacing your strings–as not only are they affected by how often you play them, but also the environment they are in. Temperature, humidity, pollutants, and tension all affect how long your strings last, and the condition they stay in.
Q: What are the signs that tell you it’s time to replace your viola strings, regardless of how long you have had them?
A: There are several signs that tell you when they should be changed, regardless of how old the strings actually are. If your viola strings are dirty or grimy looking, it’s time to change them. When it is producing dull sounds and getting duller by the day, it’s time to change them.
If your viola cannot hold a pitch for a reasonable amount of time, then it’s time to change the strings. A good rule of thumb is: If you cannot remember the last time you changed your strings, you should probably change them. It wouldn’t hurt, anyway.
Has this article convinced you to start playing the viola? Have you learned so much more about the instrument than you thought you ever would, particularly about viola strings? It is surprising and shocking to see how much history and design there is and has been put into four thin strings on an instrument.
The viola string order, and the arrangement of the viola notes, matters immensely when it comes to creating sound. And we are privileged to be the recipients of several centuries worth of experimentation regarding the viola, as well as every other instrument in the viola-violin string family that built the instruments we play today.
Remember, no matter how new you are at playing an instrument, the most important thing you should do is be willing and eager to learn. It is never too late to learn how to properly play an instrument, just as it is never too late to learn about your instrument’s history or proper care for the first time.