The viola is a member of the “violin family,” along with the violin and the violoncello. The viola’s sound or “voice” lies between the other two, with the violin being the higher, and the violoncello being the lower. All are four-stringed instruments, played with a bow. The name “viola” is the oldest in the family, originally being a generic Italian name for any stringed instrument.
The viola and violin are similar in appearance, although the viola is somewhat larger. A full-size modern violin has a standard length of about 14 inches; a full-size modern viola is often about 16 inches. Unlike the violin, however, the viola does not have a single standard size.
Many of the early luthiers who were famous for making violins – such as Andrea Amati (c. 1505 – c. 1578), Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737), and Giuseppe Guarneri (1698-1744) – also made violas.
The viola was originally assigned a supporting role, providing harmonies. Over time, however, composers became more interested in possibilities for the instrument. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 6 is an early example. The 18th-century chamber music repertoire also expanded opportunities for the viola. Composers in the romantic and modern eras have continued the trend.