Anatomy of the Viola
Violas are probably the oldest of today's orchestral stringed instruments, most likely predating the violin, cello and string bass. They fill a vital role in arrangements, with a dark, deep tone and a range perfectly balanced between that of a cello and a violin. The viola's range is a perfect fifth below that of the violin and one octave above that of the cello. The instrument's size is about 30% larger than the violin and requires slightly more hand strength to play.
The viola's role in compositional history is mostly as a harmonic instrument rather than a solo one. However, great viola players and great solo viola repertoire are in plentiful supply today. Historic violas by famous makers such as Guarnerius and Stradivarius actually command higher prices today than their violins because of their relative rarity.
If you know how to bow a beautiful note on a viola, then you might already know all the parts and pieces of a modern viola listed below. Combined into one, the viola produces a sound that is like no other instrument in the orchestra.
To be the best you can be at your viola playing, you should know all the common names of the parts of the viola and what function they perform. You should also know how individual viola parts can be removed and replaced, how viola parts should be serviced and maintained and what to do if you think a part of your viola is damaged or broken.
Let's learn about the anatomy of a typical viola from end to end. If you'd like to jump ahead, use the anatomy chart above to click a part you'd like to read about first.
WHAT IS THE BASS BAR?
A strip of seasoned spruce hidden inside the viola that enhances the instrument's bass tone and its lower register.
The viola's bass bar is a thin strip of seasoned spruce which is mounted in an upright position under the left side of the top. It is mounted in line with the strings and reaches almost from one end of the viola body to the other.
The bass bar shapes the sound waves inside the viola to produce deeper, more resonant bass.
WHAT ARE THE BOUTS AND WAIST?
The viola is shaped with bouts and a waist to maximize its sound production and make room for the bow.
The terms "bouts" and "waist" or "c-bouts" describe various parts of the viola body's distinctive shape. When the instrument is held standing on end, the waist or c-bouts are the cinched-in area you see in the middle, cut out of the curve of the wood of the top along its edge. This waist allows the bow to pass over the strings at a variety of extreme angles without hitting the side of the body.
Above the waist, you will see two upper bouts, while below are the two lower bouts. The distinctive hourglass shape made by the bouts makes the viola instantly recognizable as a part of the violin family.
WHAT IS THE BRIDGE?
The bridge is a small piece of carved maple to hold the strings away from the top of the instrument and transfer vibration to the body.
The bridge is positioned on the top between f-hole notches and holds the strings away from the viola's top surface. This allows the strings to vibrate freely while transferring that vibration to the resonant cavity of the viola's body. It also provides a spacer between the strings so they rest evenly above the fingerboard. Interestingly, the bridge is not permanently attached to the viola. It holds its position firmly under the tension of the strings alone.
The height of the bridge can be adjusted by a luthier within standard specifications to suit the style of any player.
WHAT IS THE CHINREST?
The chinrest allows the viola to be balanced between the chin and shoulder and reduce tension on the player's neck and shoulder muscles.
The chinrest is an accessory that is usually made from a variety of hardwoods, plastic or composite materials. It is generally attached to the lower lefthand side of the viola by brackets that clamp on to the ribs, and it allows the player to rest the viola comfortably between the left side of the jaw and the shoulder. However, there are many playing styles and cultural differences when it comes to chinrests.
Viola players have widely varying tastes, so there are dozens of types of chinrests to choose from today. There is a small but passionate group of players who insist that the viola sounds better without a chinrest at all, but most players find that comfort and convenience makes the chinrest a virtual necessity.
The end button holds the tail gut and tailpiece firmly in place on the viola body.
The end button is found at the end or bottom of the viola body. It is usually made from a hardwood like ebony or rosewood.
The tail gut of the modern viola attaches at the end of the tailpiece and loops around the end button so it has a secure anchor point to hold the tailpiece in place.
WHAT ARE THE F-HOLES?
F-holes help shape and direct the sound of the viola.
F-holes are openings carved into the top of the viola for the purpose of increasing the power of instrument's tone. They allow some sound from the resonant interior of the viola to escape to the listener, but that is not their primary purpose. In fact, most of the tone provided by the viola comes from the vibration of the top and the back transferred directly to the air.
The placement, size and effect of sound holes on stringed instruments was in a state of constant experimentation for centuries. Acoustic research suggests that f-holes allow more freedom of movement between the top and back and help focus the production of sound. The tone quality is affected more than would be expected if their sole function was to allow sound waves to escape.
WHAT ARE THE FINE TUNERS?
Fine tuners allow for more precise tuning of each string.
Fine tuners are found on the tailpiece of the viola, most commonly on the A string. However, some instruments have fine tuners installed for all four strings. The fine tuning is done by a small lever that is adjusted by a small thumb screw. Fine tuners can either be individual pieces that are affixed to the tailpiece at the end of each string or they are built-in to the actual tailpiece.
WHAT IS THE FINGERBOARD?
The fingerboard provides a stable surface for the strings to be pressed down upon by the finger so notes can be played.
Viola fingerboards are mostly made of ebony, a very hard black wood. Other hardwoods are sometimes used on lower quality instruments and are artificially blackened to look like ebony.
The viola fingerboard does not have frets like a guitar to delineate one pitch from another, so the player must have a strong ear and sense of pitch to play in tune confidently. A viola fingerboard must be planed professionally with the proper curve and "scoop" in order for the strings to vibrate freely without buzzing against the surface.
WHAT IS THE NECK?
The neck reaches out from the body to hold the strings and fingerboard.
The neck is an extension of the body of the viola that holds the strings and fingerboard. It ends at the pegbox and scroll and is typically carved from maple.
WHAT IS THE NUT?
The nut (or string nut) holds and directs the strings down the fingerboard to the tailpiece.
The nut is found at the top end of the fingerboard, holding the strings in perfect alignment. It also determines the strings' exact height from the fingerboard to maximize the viola's tone and playability. Four small grooves or notches are carved into the top of the nut, into which the strings are placed before winding around the pegs.
WHAT ARE THE PEGBOX and TUNING PEGS?
The pegbox holds strong tuning pegs for the strings to wrap around so they can be tuned.
The pegbox houses four strong tuning pegs for the strings to wrap around so they can be tuned. The other ends of the strings are anchored at the tailpiece. Each peg is slightly tapered in shape, allowing the player to adjust the hold of the peg by applying more or less pressure and turning. Often, the pegbox and the scroll of the viola are carved out of a single piece of maple.
To make the pitch of the string higher, the pegs are twisted to tighten the tension of the string. A looser tension results in a lower pitch. An inexperienced player should be very careful when using the pegs to tune because it is very easy to over-tighten the string, causing it to break.
WHAT IS THE PURFLING?
The decorative edge looks good and keeps the viola from developing cracks.
Around the edge of the top and back are seen a decorative edging known as "purfling." This inlay has decorative appeal and also helps reduce the chance of cracks developing in the viola's top and back.
WHAT ARE THE RIBS?
The ribs (or sides) are carefully crafted to hold the viola's top and back apart, creating the space for the sound to develop.
The viola's ribs (or sides) are carefully shaped wood pieces that run around the entire outer edge of the viola body, between the top and back. The ribs hold the two plates apart, creating the resonant cavity that harbors the viola's sound.
WHAT IS THE SADDLE?
The saddle helps spread the force of string tension away from the viola's center toward the chin rest.
A viola saddle is a small, fitted rectangular block of wood, often crafted of ebony, which helps relieve pressure exerted on the viola's body by the force of string tension.
The saddle is found at the end of the viola under or next to the chin rest and supports the tailgut.
WHAT IS THE SCROLL?
The scroll is a decoratively-carved wood piece at the end of the viola.
The scroll is a decorative carved wood piece at the end of the viola, usually carved out of the same piece of wood forming the pegbox. The most common carving is a delicate scroll shape knows as a "volute" that dates back to the Baroque period.
WHAT IS THE SOUND POST?
The sound post bridges the top and back of the viola on the inside, allowing the two pieces to vibrate together more harmoniously.
The sound post of a viola is a small dowel-shaped piece of wood (made usually of spruce) that is positioned inside the viola with the tip touching just below the right foot of the bridge. It runs between the top and back of the viola, transferring vibration from one surface to the other to maximize the tone of the viola. This simple invention greatly increased the resonance of the viola when it was discovered.
WHAT ARE THE STRINGS?
The strings vibrate and transfer that vibration to the body for amplification and resonance.
There are four strings on the standard viola, typically tuned to G, D, A and E with the G being the lowest in pitch. The player draws a horsehair bow across the strings or plucks them while fingering notes on the fingerboard to produce single notes, chords and other sound effects.
The classic string was made of sheep's gut, though few strings are made of this material today.
Every player has differing opinions on how often the strings should be changed, but when the string snaps or loses the ability to stay in tune or produce a pleasing tone, it should be replaced.
WHAT IS THE TAIL GUT?
The tail gut holds the viola's tailpiece to the end button.
The tail gut of a modern viola is threaded at either end and attached to the tailpiece with a small adjustment screw. These vital pieces are made of both metal and nylon materials today, though traditionally they were crafted from twisted strips of animal intestine.
The precise adjustment of the tail gut has a major effect on the sound quality and tone of the viola. When it is new, it may require occasional adjustment to be sure the instrument in playing at its best. Eventually the viola's tail gut will settle and not need as much attention.
WHAT IS THE TAILPIECE?
The tailpiece anchors the strings to the body of the viola on its lower end.
The tailpiece is an anchor holding the strings to the body of the viola on its lower end. Many instruments have an individual fine tuner on the tailpiece for at least the A string, if not for all the strings. Some tailpieces have built-in fine tuners on the tailpiece for all the strings. The tailpiece can be made of several types of wood or composite material and is seen in other wood colors besides the typical black.
WHAT ARE THE TOP and BACK?
The top and back of the viola resonate to provide much of its tone and volume.
The viola body is constructed of two large, arched pieces of single wood held apart by two shaped wood strips called ribs. When the viola is resting on its back, the soundboard or "top" is seen on top, cut through in two places with two distinctive "f-holes." The back is one large expanse of resonant wood without any hole or blemish.
The quality and age of the wood in the top and back of the viola have a large impact on its sound. Violas are very subject to their environment, including heat and humidity. A well-made, frequently-played viola will improve markedly with age if cared for properly. The age, type and condition of the varnish used on these pieces also affect the sound.
The typical wood used for tops is spruce, while the back & ribs are generally made of maple.
Around the edge of the top and back are seen a decorative edging known as "purfling." This inlay has decorative appeal and also helps reduce the chance of cracks developing in the top and back.