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The viola is a musical instrument like a large violin. Violins, violas and cellos all belong to the same family of instruments. The viola is the alto of the family. It is played the same way as a violin, tucked under the player's chin. There are four strings which are normally made from metal although they may be made from gut. The strings are stroked with a horsehair bow.
The strings of a viola are tuned to a deeper sound than those of the violin, so the instrument produces a more mellow sound. The strings are tuned to C3 G3 D4 A4, a musical fifth below those of the violin. Acoustically, the viola should be about 50% bigger than the violin to give it the extra resonance needed for the lower pitch, but this would make it impossible to hold under the chin. Violas are therefore made smaller than the ideal size, so they are rarely as loud or resonant as a violin or cello. A viola is actually only about five centimetres longer than a violin.
Viola music is written in the Alto clef, rather than the Treble or Bass clef that most instruments use.
Music for Viola
Almost all orchestral music includes harmony parts for viola. The viola section is a basic part of the orchestra, normally containing between six and ten violas. The viola is also part of the standard string quartet along with two violins and a cello. Music in which the viola plays the main part is rare. One such piece is Harold in Italy by Berlioz. Richard Strauss, in his tone poem Don Quixote gives the part of Sancho Panza to a viola while the Don himself is played by the cello. Other notable works are Hindemith's viola sonatas and Bartok's viola concerto.
Butt of Jokes
Because egotistical players like to show off by playing violin, the viola does not attract them. As a result, the sort of player who plays viola is more reserved and quiet. This makes them the butt of many music jokes, such as;
- Are violas really much bigger than violins?
- No, it's an optical illusion. They just look bigger because the players' heads are much smaller!
- How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?
- The bow is moving.
- Why do violists stand for long periods outside people's houses?
- They can't find the key and they don't know when to come in.