16 Fun And Interesting Facts About The Viola You Should Know

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Written by Izaak Walton
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The Viola is a member of the violin family, but unlike its popular cousin, not many people know about this unique stringed musical instrument.

Whether you’re interested in playing the viola or you want to know more about it, this article has got you covered!

In this article, we’ll walk you through 16 of the most interesting facts about the viola that you can find out there. So without further ado, let’s dive right in!

1. The First Viola Was Created in the 16th Century

Let’s kick off the list by going back in time to the origin of violas and how they were created.

The viola’s history is heavily interlinked with several other string instruments that belong to the violin family.

The modern-day viola dates back to the early to mid 16th century when it was first developed and played in Northern Italy.

While some history behind the viola is vague, there were two people who contributed heavily to the creation of the modern-day versions.

These two are Andrea Amati and Gaspare da Salo, who belonged to the Cremona region and the Brescia region respectively.

As we all know, members of the modern orchestral string family have names that are based on the word “viola da braccio”, which is translated to “on the arms”, a term used to distinguish between the violin and viol.

2. Violas Have an Interesting Design

The process of making a traditional viola remains almost unchanged to this day.

One of the things that make the violas special is that they’re made from a variety of materials and pieces that are carefully chosen to maximize the performance of the string instrument.

The top is usually made of spruce while the neck is made from ebony or maple, which is similar to the back and rips of the viola. 

Ebony and maple give the viola its distinctive beauty and provide it with hardness and sturdiness.

The pieces are then carved and glued together before they’re varnished.

After that, the four strings of the viola are added in addition to the tailpiece, the bridge, and other optional and smaller parts, such as the chinrest.

3. They’re Great a Workout to the Fingers and Arms

While violas are only slightly larger than average violins, there’s a noticeable difference between the weight of the two instruments.

Bearing this extra weight can actually increase your arms’ strength!

In addition to the weight, violas are known for their relatively intricate style of play that can work a variety of muscles, including the fingers, the wrists, the biceps, and the triceps. 

For that reason, many parents who want their children to strengthen their arms while playing music encourage them to play the viola!

4. Viola Players Are Scarce

Viola is often underrated and forgotten, which is why viola players are pretty rare.

On the plus side, this means that anyone that learns to play it has less competition and more lucrative career opportunities ahead of them.

5. It Takes Years to Learn The Viola

Since the viola is pretty difficult to learn, it can take a beginner anywhere between 3 to 5 years to start playing the viola decently and about 10 years to play fluently.

6. The Viola Has a Unique Pitch

The viola has a remarkable pitch that makes it stand out among other instruments.

Its pitch is higher than a cello (about one whole octave higher), so it doesn’t create the mournful effect of cellos.

Yet, its pitch is a bit lower than a violin (one fifth below) with a mellower and earthier tone, which is why many people regard it as a middle ground between the two to achieve harmony.

7. They Can be a Bit Pricey

Like other string instruments of the violin family, buying one can be relatively more expensive than other instruments.

This is because these instruments require years of craftsmanship and experience to perfect the manufacturing process.

Ideally, a beginner viola may set you back anywhere between $300 to $700, and you can typically find it on both brick and mortar as well as online stores.

Yet, you should know that this is the entry-level range of violas.

The most expensive one in the world was sold for $45 million!

This viola was made by Stradivarius MacDonaldone, who is one of the best master luthiers in history.

9. Many Famous Musicians Played the Viola

Niccolò Paganini

While the Viola isn’t as popular as its stringed cousins, many famous composers of the last few centuries have played it.

This includes many names, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Paganini, Dvorak, and Mendelssohn.

In addition to classic composers, there are a number of famous viola players too such as Niccolò Paganini and even Jimi Hendrix, who started his career in music playing the viola.

10. The Player Goes by Many Names

A lot of music players have distinct names that are agreed upon within the musical community, such as guitarist, pianist, drummer, saxophonist, etc.

Despite that, it seems that the music community has failed to settle on a specific word to call a musician who plays the viola.

For instance, some people might call them “violists” while others call them “violaists”.

Yet, there are others who succumb to the frustration and call them “viola players” to avoid offending any of the two sides of the argument!

11. The Viola is Always a Part of Large Ensembles

The fact that the viola isn’t as popular as the violin doesn’t make it any less important.

In fact, the viola is regarded as a vital member of large chamber classical music ensembles as well as string quartets to this day.

In March 2011, the world record for the biggest viola ensemble was achieved in Porto, Portugal by The Viola Association of Portugal at the Sala Suggia concert hall of the House of Music (Casa de Musica). 

The ensemble consisted of 321 players and played Jean-Loup Lecomte’s “Bratchy Mambo” and Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Mirlitons”.

On the other hand, the largest viola caipira ensemble was achieved in October 2017 by a Brazilian group, which included 661 viola players.

12. There Are Electric Violas Too

A lot of string instruments are known for having an electric counterpart, especially the guitar.

Surprisingly, there are electric violas too!

While old-school acoustic violas are usually made of wood and have organic wood colors, such as reddish-brown as well as dark or light brown, electric violas usually have bright colors to make them distinct, such as green, red, or blue.

Moreover, they can also use plastic rather than wood in construction.

Since electric violas rely completely on amplification, there’s no need for soundboxes.

For that reason, they’re usually smaller with little to no soundbox.

13. The Viola D’Amore is Not a True Viola

A lot of instruments that are close to each other are usually bridged through a rather uncommon hybrid instrument. 

There’s a hybrid instrument between the violin and viol, called the “viola d’amore”.

This unfretted instrument has its origin dating back to the 18th century belongs to the viol family, which is completely different from the viola family.

The viola d’amore has multiple sympathetic strings with 6 to 7 melody strings, which is different from the 17th-century instrument with 5 strings that used to go by the same name.

14. There Are Plenty of “Viola” Jokes

We all know that the interest can be a rough place, and when it comes to music, the viola gets the lion’s share of jokes!

In fact, you won’t have to scour the internet to stumble across one, as there is a specific Wikipedia page that is dedicated to the topic under the simple title of “viola jokes”.

The jokes about the viola most likely have to do with the viola being awkward and difficult to play while the jokes about the violists are usually regarding their difficult choice for an instrument.

Alternatively, there are jokes that make fun of people who tell viola jokes!

15. It Was Created Differently in the Past

Violas are made in several sizes and many instrument makers are experimenting with the size of the viola to this day.

In fact, the first violas were slightly wider and larger than modern-day ones and used a slightly shorter bow that was curved.

16. You Don’t Need a Strong Reason to Learn the Viola

Ending on a high note, it’s fairly obvious that learning the viola is fairly difficult and can be a true challenge for some. 

However, the sole fact that you’re enjoying your time while learning and playing the viola is more than enough reason to pick this interesting instrument. 

Despite that, you should always remember that the Viola is a truly classic instrument that is always essential in orchestras.

In fact, while tens of violinists are battling for the front spaces in an orchestra, a viola player always takes the front desk space!


There you have it!

A quick guide with 16 interesting facts about the Viola that will help you learn more and appreciate the instrument!

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Izaak Walton is a violinist and violin teacher based out of Denver, Colorado. Izaak received a Master’s in Violin Performance at the University of Denver, and a Bachelor’s in Violin Performance from the University of Georgia. Exposed to a variety of violin methods and musical styles, Izaak built passions for music history, literature, and violin technique.