Ideal Viola Tone ?

July 31, 2011 at 08:39 PM ·

What is the "correct" sound for viola ?  Should it be a dark violin sound ? Should it have the nasal quality that so many favor, clearly distinguishing it from violin or cello ? Should it vary from piece to piece ?  Can't imagine doing the Bartok or Walton on a 17 1/2" monster...What are your thoughts ??

Replies (56)

July 31, 2011 at 09:14 PM ·

 I've swiped this from Hunter's post on how to select a bow and viola (it's on the current thread):

"Don't get an oversized viola.  Small violas can sound good, but they are harder to find.

"Pay attention to the dynamic range the instrument offers, in general the dynamic range is too narrow in a viola and that is BAD. That - and a good C string - are hard to find in a viola too.

"Try playing near the fingerboard with little weight and then start approaching the bridge as you put more weight to the bow. Doing this you have to listen a drammatic change in volume and sound colours, that will help you to shape your sound and interpretation.  Hard to find too.

"The instrument must be balanced. The strings must have the same type of sound and volume, and all strings must sound balanced in low and upper positions. Also hard to find. 

"Good instruments will have a quick response too."

As for the colours, well, there is as much variety in "good" viola sound as there is in the available sizes--not that colour is tied to size.  But a good viola doesn't sound like either a violin or a cello (or why bother?) 

July 31, 2011 at 10:43 PM ·

All you violinists bite your tongues and count to 10! J

July 31, 2011 at 11:48 PM ·

Chocolate.  Super dark, 85% cacao, fair trade of course.

August 1, 2011 at 03:04 AM ·


like a background hum...

[runs for her life....]

August 1, 2011 at 04:33 AM ·

 Might want to get your hearing aid adjusted, Elise   ;^ )

I'd emend the '85% chocolate' to HOT chocolate, with a good dash of espresso--energetic, rich, and INTENSELY satisfying, but then I play both vln, and vla, so I'm very prejudiced (not sure which way, exactly...).

August 1, 2011 at 06:18 AM ·

There's no absolute ideal, but many violas were made far too small during the 19th. century. Presumably they were made for fiddlers who because of age or infirmity had to be "retired" to the viola section. One reaction was for Lionel Tertis to advocate the use of very large instruments - and he nearly crippled himself playing one !

History shows, and Carleen Hutchins suggested, that there should be 2 different sizes. Just imagine the Mozart Quintets with the second instrument with a deeper, more 'cello, sound. Magic ? It's possible to play a big viola 'cello style and I know someone who does, very successfully.

It seems to me that orchestral viola sections sound better if they contain a goodly proportion of larger violas. But the ideal size for a concerto player seems to be that of the Andrea Guarneri violas, as used by William Primrose. I think these are slightly broader across the centre than the Strad instruments. However, the tone of the 16.3 inch 1690 "Tuscan" Strad viola in the hands of Pinchas Zuckerman was said to be "insurpassable". Nevertheless, orchestral players will usually seek out a viola of 16.5 inches or more, i.e. larger.

I am a fiddler, but own and play a 16-inch viola from time to time. Provided one doesn't go smaller than this, and there's a good depth of rib, it's quite possible to get a viola with a decent "C" string and a not-too-nasal "A" IMHO.

There are quite small violins with "chocolatey" sounds and big ones that are tinny, so, as with other things, size isn't everything.

August 1, 2011 at 10:49 AM ·

Dark sound is good but it must be focused and project, and possess a wide dynamic range.

Small violas can sound good. I sold two 15  1/2 violas to very tall players of the Gewandhaus Leipzig Orchestra. A good small viola will sound better - and sometimes darker - than a bad big one.  

August 1, 2011 at 04:47 PM ·

It seems David Oistrakh played on an Andrea Guarneri viola. Must get one !!!

If that's the "contralto viola" of 1660-1670 ca. from the State Collection in Moscow, the body length is 416mm, about 16.38 inches.

August 1, 2011 at 05:16 PM ·

Andrea Guarneri made few violas, perhaps only 6 or 7.

August 1, 2011 at 06:12 PM ·

The ideal viola tone is one that produces the dark royal blues and deep purples.  Since I'm not trying to eat the sound, I wouldn't know about chocolate.

---Ann Marie

August 2, 2011 at 12:36 AM ·

Hi, Peter, I like a viola sound that I would call dark & round. I have a 15 1/2 Sean Peak which has a rich sound for the length. This is one of those violas cut wide at the lower bout. I also play a 14" Meisel with my kid-viola students. The big viola rings out too easily & frustrates / intimidates some of 'em. I also tend to like violins with a little viola to them. ;) Sue

August 2, 2011 at 03:33 AM ·

 Stradivari made few violas, perhaps just 10.

The smaller "contralto" viola seems to have been introduced by A & H Amati. Presumably there would have been many surviving larger "Brescian" violas and even Strad made only one "monster". The smaller viola might have been a minority interest from the start !

What I find odd is that whereas there's still a clear case for two distinct sizes and sounds of viola, the need for a distinctive "second violin" sound, as might be exemplified by the Maggini violin, seems to have declined. 

August 2, 2011 at 11:26 AM ·

According to the Hills it was Andrea Guarneri who introduced the small viola model.

The Stradivari viola model is not used by most of the makers specialized in violas I know, but it is still very popular among living Italian makers because it is beautifull.

August 2, 2011 at 02:21 PM ·

Sorry to argue with a recognised expert, but in MY "Hill" book on Stradivari, p. 95 is written :-

"We cannot accept Stradivari as the originator or the smaller type of viola, for, in addition to other evidence, we know of a fine A. and H. Amati made in 1615, a Stainer made in 1660 and several notable examples by Andrea Guarneri .." They go on to suggest "The A. and H. Amati viola, being earlier and the work of famed craftsmen, served in all probability as a model for later makers."

I hope I am not guilty of quoting from now out-of-date info !! Apologies if I did.

August 2, 2011 at 02:53 PM ·

There were two sizes of violas for a long time. Both were played on the shoulder. The smaller one was called the "alto viola" and the larger was called the "tenor viola," which can be a bit confusing. Prior to J.S. Bach and even into the early works of Handel five-part string writing was typical, with two violins, probably a large and a small-pattern instrument, the two violas, and the bass, which is the cello. One can verify this by even a quick study of orchestral scores of the period. Mersenne writes that in France, the quintet consisted of a single violin, three violas of varying sizes, and the bass. There must have been something very appealing about the viola sound, which makes what happened next all the more difficult to understand.

There was a perfect storm of changes in musical taste and styles of composition that nearly wiped out both violas. This occurred during Bach's lifetime. I think that the smaller viola survived largely because Haydn popularized the string quartet, but the larger viola was cumbersome and difficult to play in the higher positions and quickly died out.

August 3, 2011 at 01:23 AM ·

Hi David, you are right, my memory is fading...  The Hills praise the Andrea Guarneri small viola model, just that. Thanks for refreshing my memory!!!

August 3, 2011 at 05:51 AM ·

Yes, apparently Alfred Hill described a 1676 Andrea Guarneri viola as "one of the finest Italian instruments in existence".

August 3, 2011 at 11:51 AM ·

Yes, the Andrea Guarneri model is quite a good model, Andrea made just a few  violas and they are all a bit different in arching, corners, scroll, etc. . I use it as basis for my violas, with some modifications, such as making the lower and C bouts wider, shorter corners (long corners may play havoc with bow and hand movement) and the scroll without "shoulders".  Here my 16 inches model (viola "Nadia Boulanger"), not all that elegant, but very effective in terms of tone, volume and confort:

August 3, 2011 at 12:24 PM ·

WOW it's so pretty.....


--Ann Marie

August 3, 2011 at 02:17 PM ·

It seems that a lot of luthiers world-wide are making "Andrea Guarneri" violas.

Here's one.

And another ....

There are more. It must be a good idea !!

October 29, 2011 at 02:23 PM · Yes, the Andrea Guarneri model is quite popular today. The viola pictured above is now with the principal viola of the Bremen Kammerphilarmonie in Germany, her former viola was a 1790 Cremonese Giovanni Batista Ceruti.

November 8, 2011 at 10:00 PM · I heard someone playing on a Guarneri viola a few weeks ago. Granted, it was amazing, but I did not enjoy the sound of the instrument as much as I did when I a heard a concert played on a Alberti instrument last month by an equally talented player. Both instruments are about the same size and both are incredible halls, but the sound carried much farther with much greater depth on the Alberti. I know that there are many factors to consider and that I may be a bit biased, but if I could pick one to have myself, it would definitely be the Alberti.

November 9, 2011 at 12:30 AM · 4'33"

November 9, 2011 at 12:49 AM · LOL

But in somewhat more seriousness, Robert's post has me really curious. We all know that the viola--and the cello--seem to have a wider range of accepted dimensions, as well as sounds. The viola perhaps most so. They are sort of like guitars that way.

This historical presence of multiple sizes is really interesting though.

January 27, 2012 at 02:20 AM · I wonder how small is "small" viola. Because it seems to me 16.3in (423mm) is considered small by you guys, but what about 1580 Gasparo da Sola with size 15.5in (393mm)? I thought that's small size? And just by curiosity are there size set to differentiate alto viola/tenor viola?

January 27, 2012 at 08:42 AM · Because it seems to me 16.3in (423mm) is considered small

Are you sure that you've got your conversion correct because I'm getting 16.3 inches as 41.4cm - that 1 cm makes quite a big difference in viola size.

January 27, 2012 at 08:34 PM · I rather like the sound of Lukas Kmit's viola in that now famous YouTube video.

Mind you, this was in the reverberant acoustic of a synagogue, so that may have coloured the sound a little, but any acoustic environment will do that. I have no idea what viola he plays.

January 29, 2012 at 10:56 AM · Extremes..

Carleen Hutchins designed a "vertical" viola with a 20" body; the cellist Yo Yo Ma has recorded the Bartok concerto on it. The inner air resonance is down to F on the C-string, which, curiously, has a wooly, unfocussed sound. the middle & high ranges are smooth and clear, and the ease of vibrato on the high notes is enough to make a "normal" violist weep with frustration!

However, this concerto was written for William Primrose and his Moënig (or his later Guarnarius?), and the Hutchins "Viola Tenore", while powerful, lacks the bite and projection of the smaller instrument.

Hutchins had already noticed that her viola was less effective in Mozart's quintets, written for (I believe) a Testore viola.

Many classical-period concertos were written for smaller violas, often tuned a semitone higher e.g. Zelter's in Eb, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. At this time the 'cello also shrunk, allowing greater virtuosity. In baroque 5-part writing, paricularly in France, one needed both the "viola contralto" and the "viola tenore". Even in choral writing, the tenors were divided into "haute-contres" (not falsettists) and "tailles".

I notice that while nearly all large Amati violas were cut down during the classical period, many Gaspard violas remain uncut: perhaps they were less popular at the time?

There are also geographical differences: German players often have a more husky tone, the French rather nasal, the English a little veiled (like our skies!), the Italians sonorous but focussed (like their baritones!)

My own "heroes" are Barshai, Bashmet, and Zukerman: Stradivarius, Testore or Guarnarius violas, intense but not bleating vibrato, and a velvety tone with a subtle sheen to it.

January 30, 2012 at 01:31 PM · "Ideal Viola Tone ?"

One that does not empty the hall ...

January 30, 2012 at 02:45 PM · I think it's personal preference, but I like the deep, dark, vibrating type of tone of viola. Versus violins, which I prefer brighter, even a little shrill...

January 30, 2012 at 07:55 PM · Sorry Ms Mohr - I will be serious one of these days!! By the way, I agree with you.

February 11, 2012 at 06:33 PM · Hi,

As a violist my answer would be: It depends on what you want to do with it.

If you like Chamber Music a lot, it would be prudent that you choose a Viola on the brighter/ clear tone side rather than too dark or deep... believe me you'll never be heard in a performance.

For Orchestras: I recommend you try to aim for a Viola with round sound... deep and dark is good but also a clear sound and good response is a must.

I also like to mix it up with strings... it works most of the time! Find a string combo that makes your Viola ring out. it'll be cheaper that way too!

it takes a lot of patience, and try and error is inevitable when looking for that instrument that makes you go WOW!!! but keep looking and you'll find yours.

Last, a good Viola size should be no larger than 16 1/2 inches... depending on the physiology of the person... 17 and above are way too heavy for your body to handle.

Good Luck!!!

February 11, 2012 at 10:27 PM · LOL Peter! For me, I'd be happy just to hear the viola played in tune. :)

February 25, 2012 at 08:20 AM · I prefer my viola sound clear and focused, which blends well with violins. I don't really appreciate the nasal thing.

February 25, 2012 at 02:28 PM · Viola sound?? To put Scott's cryptic reference to John Cage, I believe, another way - a proper viola should be seen and not heard! (C'mon, how many of you folks weren't thinking the same thing?)

OK, seriously - I don't think there is one ideal sound from a viola or violist any more than from a violin or violinist. It depends on the repertoire, and other factors. But all in all, for my tastes, I don't recall a more attractive sound on the viola than has been made by Pinchas Zukerman.

Luis - Bravo! The varnish, wood selection and carving, all most attractive!

PS International Viola Day is fast aproaching. As always, it's set for February 30th! (Somebody stop me!)

March 1, 2012 at 04:07 PM · At the risk of having my 'certified violist' card taken away, I'm a fan of bright, punchy violas. It's not that I dislike dark sultry violas, but practically speaking I'd be eaten alive by the rest of my ensemble regardless of how loudly I played.

If someone knows of a viola that is dark and delicious but can still project and cut through, let me know, you have my attention and possibly (eventually) my monies.

March 1, 2012 at 04:12 PM · Hi Amber - I actually have a really great viola that I made in 2008 and might fit your needs based on what you describe above, unfortunately you're in Pittsburgh and I'm in London!

March 1, 2012 at 04:19 PM · HA!

any pics or sound files?

EDIT: checked out your site, it's the 16 and 5/16 yes? Very pretty, I like the slim upper profile, all the better for high positions :-)

March 1, 2012 at 11:15 PM · Interesting that someone earlier quoted David Oistrakh in the Sinfonia Concertante. Of course, there are two recordings - Igor and David, and David (on violin) with Rudolf Barshai. For me, David sounds like a violinist playing viola, whereas Barshai seems to draw a deeper sound - don't know how to describe it. More bite? But somehow you can tell that he's always played the viola.

March 2, 2012 at 04:30 PM · Amber, go on Manfio's site and hear some dark tone with projection! No, I don't own shares in his workshop!

March 2, 2012 at 04:54 PM · Haha, yes, I've feasted on his website already. Next time I'm in New York I'm going to check out Landon.

March 2, 2012 at 05:03 PM · Once, about 15 years ago, I did find *the one*, but it was way out of my price range. Carl Becker, 16 or 16 1/4...can't remember. Amazing instrument.

March 3, 2012 at 01:02 AM · Thanks for your kind words Raphael and Adrian!

Amber, Landon is no longer selling my instruments but you can see them with Greg Singer, David Segal and Julie Reed, as well as in London with Sean Bishop.

Here some more sound samples "Fairy Tales, Arpeggione":[off]=36&

March 3, 2012 at 02:39 AM · Thanks for the info!

April 21, 2012 at 09:18 PM · I prefer a real alto voice, to me violas that flirt with sounding like violins are not nearly as interesting to play or hear.

While not popular these days, larger violas do have some advantages, I have played a 17.5 inch viola for the last twenty-five years and love the sound of my instrument.

In another 10 years, they may be popular again!


September 6, 2012 at 07:07 PM · I feel the Tertis model viola gives the richest quality of tone. This is why I make and sell so many of this type. I also like Rocca instruments also. A good modern maker that I like is Paul Heart, Gary Vessel is another. There is a maker in Arizona or New Mexico named "Stone" he makes great Cello and I think he makes viola as well. I feel a viola should touch the high register of cello and the open string range of the violin. This is its true position in the viol family. I also feel a viola should not be too dark and should be able to be played quickly for solo work.


September 28, 2012 at 12:30 PM · What does it mean to say that a violin is "acoustically perfect" in its size and shape, but for a viola to be "acoustically perfect" it would have to be 21"? If a violin were restrung as a viola would it no longer be "acoustically perfect"? Would it be a small viola?

September 28, 2012 at 03:01 PM · There are two viola sounds that I like: the alto of the Strad Tuscan in the Library of Congress and the tenor of the large Amati violas in the Smithsonian. If I played the viola regularly I would aim for an instrument with the Tuscan alto sound.

September 29, 2012 at 08:36 PM · Personally i like a mellow sound. Something that has a darker upper range, but the lower strings dont sound like a small cello if that makes any sense.

Mr. Manfio, my jaw literally droped when i saw the viola. I think i need a chiropractor, i cant shut it xD

September 29, 2012 at 10:45 PM · Personally, I feel that a viola should have a rich, deep tenor voice, similar to a cello, but not too much. It should speak like a violin in the high register, bite like a cello in the lower, and soothe your ears in the alto section.

Speaking of violas, would anyone have an idea where I could find a good 17-17.5" viola between Philadelphia and New York? I am looking to finally upgrade my beloved Eastman viola to something to get me through the rest of high school and college.

September 29, 2012 at 11:39 PM · Regarding ideal viola tone, I have made 100 violas, thirteen different models, settling on two basic contralto models, a 15 5/8 inch model and a 16 inch model, both or which have excellent tone. Check out the sound of the viola played by David Aaron Carpenter, the Elgar concerto transcribed for viola. His first CD includes the Elgar and Schnittke viola concertos. Amazing! I was first inspired by Roberto Diaz at the Seattle Viola Congress in 2002, who played on a Camillus Camilli viola -16 1/8 inches. This viola was used by David for the Elgar concerto. If interested in viola tone and viola size, you might also go to and click on the Standard Viola. Charles

September 30, 2012 at 01:17 PM · Nice! The tone and sound of your instruments are really amazing.

Unfortunately, the reason I am looking for one of the larger violas is because I am rather tall, and a larger viola would fit me better.

October 1, 2012 at 03:10 PM · For the person who inquired - the price of my violas (and violins) is $3,500. Roberto Diaz's Camillus Camilli viola is used by another one of his students. David has been playing on a 15 3/8 inches viola with a string length of 13 7/8 inches, and with narrow bouts and rib heights. I will not comment on the tone. But the viola is old - a 1791 Benjamin Banks viola. Good luck. Charles

October 1, 2012 at 08:22 PM · Hmm, that is right in the middle of my price range. I prefer to go around locally first, though, so I may get back to you on that.

October 2, 2012 at 04:25 PM ·

Just by coincidence a friend sent this to me today! There is also a part 2. Very insightful info on the vy-ola!! ;-D

October 3, 2012 at 01:26 AM · Argh!!

That guy is terrible!!!!

Though, I must say, he is the epitome of many people who have asked me why I have such a large violin.

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