What’s So Important About the Viola?


Most of us here in the United States know what the violin is.  A lot of us have heard of the viola, though it’s a good bet many people don’t know the difference.  But there’s a big difference.


Even though the viola is shaped like a violin and a cello, the viola’s proportions are quite different.  The result is an instrument which doesn’t really project like either of them.


The viola is subdued.  It doesn’t speak the same way.  When you listen to it by itself, you might be excused if you were underwhelmed.


It’s not only that it doesn’t go as high as the violin, or as low as the cello.  In fact, you could completely do away with the viola because the notes of the cello and violin overlap so successfully that there isn’t a hole in-between them.  So why would anyone write for viola?


Turns out if you wrote a string quartet for two cellos and two violins instead of the usual two violins, viola and cello, you’d hear a difference.  It would sound unbearably bright, very one dimensional.  You wouldn’t recognize it as the signature string quartet sound.

That’s because the viola, by being subdued, strengthens the other instruments.  It doesn’t disappear, but it fits nicely under them.  Its peculiar sound fills a sonic hole in the quartet, creates a very three-dimensional texture and, occasionally, gets featured by composers like Brahms and Schubert who are smart enough to know how to use them.


Unless you’re a violist, you don’t really hear it.  But you notice it when it’s gone.  And that’s extraordinary.


In 2016 I did a blog called “What I Love About the Police.”  Every time I listen to that band, I marvel at how Andy Summers, this flipping amazing guitar player, plays just behind his bandmates so that it’s the bass and drums you hear.  His guitar parts are signature pieces of the song, but it’s almost impossible to listen directly to them.


This idea is important, that you can be subdued, even invisible, and still be vital to the totality of what’s going on.  Not all of us are rock stars, extroverts, narcissists.  But you’d notice us if we were gone.


Maybe you like being that subdued person.  Maybe you’re the one that throws the birthday parties and everyone else immediately takes high profiles positions in them, so that they get the credit.  Maybe you don’t particularly like the spotlight and this way you get to enjoy the party, and you’re always invited!


Maybe you’d rather be the rock star though.  Sometimes I want to be the rock star.  Sometimes I get tired of being the viola.


Well, it is possible to switch back and forth between instruments.  Be Sting when you want to be, and when you find someone else that can’t be Andy Summers, back off and let them be Sting.  What’s important is to recognize the value of that subdued job and take it when it’s called for.


It’s very important.  It’s the teacher who makes sure all the students reach their full potential.  It’s the parent who works at a laundromat so their kid can become a senator.


It’s the viola, damnit.



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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.  Author, educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life.  To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit www.mymusicfriend.net


Darcy B Hamlin September 21, 2018 @06:06 am

I love the viola. I notice that a lot of the time we horn players have lots of great moments with the violas. And they are lovely people, too. :)

Katy Seib September 19, 2018 @02:19 pm

Once again Adam, you eloquently captured a wonderful analogy with many applications.

Deborah Leone September 16, 2018 @07:29 am

I adore the tone of the viola, and when I compose, I like to make sure it's heard. <3

Jason Lyon September 10, 2018 @03:58 pm

Very good observations. A lot of great composers were very handy viola players themselves. It's woefully neglected by a lot of modern enthusiasts. Incidentally, when you have to work with an orchestra, immediately make friends with the lead violist and second French horn. They know everything.

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