She is the less-well-known cousin of the ubiquitous violin. Slightly larger and with a deeper voice, she hardly ever gets to sing the melody or a solo if a violin is around.
She is one of the only instruments whose music is notated in alto clef (sometimes called viola clef), which looks like a bracket with its point centered on the third line of the staff. (When the viola has a whole chunk of notes in its high register, the notation switches to treble clef.) The strings are tuned a fifth below the violin’s, and an octave above the cello’s.
Just because a person can play a violin does not mean they can play a viola. Because of its size, it requires a greater reach of fingers and arms. The notes are spread out farther along the fingerboard, so they may have a different fingering than on the violin. The strings are less responsive, so the bow is heavier and the violist needs to use more pressure. Smaller models are made for smaller musicians. Amihai Grosz plays the Brahms F minor Sonata:
Kim Kashkashian premieres György Kurtág’s In memoriam Blum Tamás:
Debussy, Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, 1st movement:
The size and shape of the viola has been tinkered with for centuries, and innovations have been tried, such as electrification:
Another design tweak is adding a string and cutting away parts of the body: