StringSection Blog

Posts Tagged ‘viola’

Bring on the viola….

Friday, May 21st, 2010

The viola (like the cor anglais) is one of those often neglected instruments that has such a unique tone in its own right that it’s a surprise that it is not written for more often. Its sound is warm, mellow, thick and less penetrating than the violin. A viola is also capable (in the right hands!) of being immensely passionate and powerful and not just an instrument to ‘fill out’ the string quartet sound or provide chords whilst a violin or cello gets all the glory.

Sometimes when we are approached by clients to arrange strings for a pop track, they ask for ‘violins and cellos’ and seem to be oblivious to the many possibilities which are opened up by using a viola effectively. Just like a violin, a viola can be played virtuosically with rapid scales and arpeggios, or with double stops such as octaves, thirds and sixths. Up on the A string (this is the highest string with the D, G and bottom C string below it) the viola can soar with a beautiful, high register that despite only being a fifth below the violin nevertheless takes on a completely different quality.

As a string arranger, if I were looking to create a thick sound that shared most of the range of a violin but could sing out in a slightly lower register I would write primarily for the viola (or viola section) with the other strings in more of an accompanying role. The secret to good writing, whether it be a string quartet or string orchestra is the constant interplay between the various instruments – if one instrument has the melody throughout, it soon becomes slightly monotonous but if there is a constant exchange and ‘conversation’ between all of the parts, this adds a much greater texture and sense of interest to a piece. Rather than being static, when all the instruments are exchanging melodies within the ensemble, the music becomes much more fluid and alive.

So, let’s banish the days where the violin is the ‘king’ of the string section and bring forward the viola for a gentler but no less distinguished sound!