Baroque viola

Also:       viola      alto      Bratsche      

Contextual Associations

The ‘Baroque’ viola is a bowed box-lute chordophone that originated in northern Italy in the mid-16th century and remained in use throughout Europe and beyond through the end of the 18th century when it evolved into the ‘modern’ viola. As was the case with most types of European Renaissance instruments, the viola was one of a family (called a consort) of variously sized instruments of the same design, the other two members being called the violin and the violoncello. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries violas were made in a wider range of sizes than has been customary in more recent centuries. In those earlier times, the viola was used to cover both the alto and tenor ranges of the violin family, leaving the violin to work within the treble range and the violoncello the bass register. Although tuned alike, smaller ‘alto’ violas were constructed to cover the upper-middle register parts of ensemble music, and a larger ‘tenor’ viola to perform in the lower-middle range. Pictured on this page is one alto-viola and a tenor-viola built in 1999 by the Canadian luthier Dominik Zuchowicz, the first (the alto) after an early-18th century instrument by the famous Italian maker Antonio Stradivari, the second (the tenor) after a late-16th century instrument by the Italian maker Gasparo da Salò. During its early history the violin consort, of which violas were a part, had two primary uses: the doubling of vocal parts (which could also be done with other consorts); and the accompanying of dance whether for nobility at court or commoners in the village. Especially in this latter usage violas were played by professionals and both the performers and the instruments were held in low social esteem. Unlike the violin, the viola did not attract the interest of composers in the Baroque era, so very little solo repertoire for the instrument exists from that period. This changed around the mid-17th century when a modest repertoire, still played today, of viola concertos and sonatas began to accrue. The viola has also been a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra from that time forward, and an indispensible member of chamber music configurations such as the string quartet. Starting in the mid-20th century the interest in period-informed music performance--the early music movement--rekindled interest on the part of some professional players in earlier forms of the viola. A few such performers today play on extant instruments or copies thereof, presenting solo recitals, playing in early music ensembles, and recording. Baroque violas are also played today by amateur enthusiasts and college students in early music ensembles.


The resonator of the viola is a curvaceous, somewhat figure-8 shaped wooden box consisting of arched top (‘belly’) and bottom plates glued to a narrow side band (‘ribs’). The ribs are reinforced internally at their four corners (where they come to points) and at their top and bottom with blocks--the top block is used to anchor the neck to the resonator, the bottom one to anchor the end-pin, which has to withstand the full force of the instrument’s string tension. The belly is made of thinly-shaven spruce, the back plate and ribs of maple. Two stylized f-shaped soundholes (‘f-holes’) are cut into the belly. Several coats of varnish are applied to the resonator exterior. The neck (including the pegbox and scroll) is fashioned from a piece of maple the bottom end of which is joined to the top internal block of the resonator. An arched, slightly angled, fretless fingerboard of ebony wood is glued to the topside of the neck and extends several inches over, but without touching, the resonator belly. At the top end of the fingerboard is a horizontally positioned ivory nut. The pegbox has four laterally mounted wooden tuning pegs, two per side. The scroll at the top end of the neck is purely ornamental. The four strings are made of gut, however the two lowest-pitched are wound with very fine silver wire to add to their mass. The bottom end of each string is tied to one end of a wooden tailpiece, which in turn is tied to the end-pin that is anchored into the resonator ribs. The strings then run over and make contact with a high, thin and arched bridge, which is a separate component that stands on the resonator belly and that is held in place by the downward force of the string tension. The strings then ride over the full length of the fingerboard, make contact with the slightly higher nut, and are then wound around the tuning pegs with which their tension can be controlled. Each string has the same active vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut), which is slightly longer on the tenor viola (14.3 inches) than on the alto. They are set into vibration with rosined horsehair stretched the length of an in-curved wooden bow. The energy of the vibrating strings is transferred to the resonator through the bridge, an action that is enhanced by a soundpost and a bass-bar inside the resonator (the former is wedged between the two resonator plates below one of the bridge’s feet, the latter is glued to the bottom side of the belly, runs nearly the entire length of the resonator, and passes beneath the other foot of the bridge).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

A violist emulating period practices holds the instrument in one of three basic ways: with the bottom edge of the back plate resting on their left breast; with the same edge resting on their left shoulder; and with the ribs at the bottom end of the resonator touching the player’s neck and the bottom end of the resonator lightly pinched between the left side of their chin and their left shoulder. In all three positions, the thumb of the left hand is hooked around the bottom side of the neck, and the scroll is lower--sometimes a good deal lower--than the bridge. The performer alters the vibrating length of the strings by pressing them against the fretless fingerboard with the fingertips of their left hand. Harmonics can also be produced on the strings by lightly touching them at specific points. The strings are tuned to: C3 - G3 - D4 - A4 (interval pattern of P5 - P5 - P5). The practical range of the instrument is C3 to A6, a little under four octaves. The strings are generally set into vibration with a rosined horsehair bow held at its frog end by the performer’s right hand, though they are sometimes plucked with the right hand fingers (called pizzicato) instead. The viola has tremendous expressive potential in that it has a wide dynamic range, all sorts of articulations from voice-like connected phrasing to fast staccato passages are possible, a wide variety of ornamentations can be produced on it, two strings can be sounded simultaneously and arpeggiated chords can be produced by sounding notes on three or four strings in quick succession, and sliding pitch inflections, including vibrato, are easily produced.


Precisely how, when, where, and by whom the early viola came into being from a variety of other Renaissance period bowed lute chordophones is unclear, but, by the mid-16th century, instruments that we would today clearly recognize as violas were being produced in northern Italy. Extant instruments survive starting from as early as the 1560s (see National Music Museum: Viola by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1560). Many ‘Baroque’ violas made from the latter half of the 16th century through the end of the 18th century are still in use, though more likely than not in modified form with re-worked or new necks added in the 19th or 20th centuries. Subtle changes were being made to the earliest design of the Baroque viola over the course of its 250 years of use that included a lengthening of the fingerboard (18th century), less arching of the resonator’s belly and back plate, and the introduction of wire wound strings (c. 1700). The pace of design modifications increased toward the end of the 18th century, leading to the establishment of the modern viola around the year of 1800.

Bibliographic Citations

Boyden, David D., and Ann M. Woodward. 1984. “Viola,” NGDMI v.3: 753-759.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Douglass, David. 2007. "The Violin," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. 2nd edition, ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 156-169.

National Music Museum. Viola by Andrea Amati, Cremona, ca. 1560, accessed June 28, 2014:


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Southern Europe

Nation: Italy

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: bowing (direct) and plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretless fingerboard)


27 in length (first instrument) 9.6 in. greatest width 1.3 in. height of ribs 28.7 in length (second instrument) 10.2 in. greatest width 1.4 in. height of ribs

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - wire-wound gut


Dominik Zuchowicz (violins) H. F. Grabenstein (bows)


after Antonio Stradavari (first instrument)

Entry Author

Roger Vetter