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Viol Instrument: Definition & Family

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The viol was a popular string instrument of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods. Let's discuss its history, characteristics, and the popularity of the viol consort.

The Latest British Craze

King Henry VIII of England had perhaps too few redeeming qualities. One of them was his talent as a musician and his excellent taste in composition. Upon his death, the inventory of his possessions listed no less than nineteen viols of different sizes.

The Origins of the Viol

The viol is a stringed instrument that appears in Europe at the end of the 15th century. The viol performer sits to play, with the viol either held in a downward position on the lap or between the legs. Hence the Italian name viola da gamba, which means 'leg viol.' It is unknown how or where the instrument developed. It does have some similarities with the lute, mainly in the tuning of the strings and the fretted neck. It may also have been influenced by the rebec, a medieval stringed instrument.

A painting by Gainsborough, 1765
Painting by Gainsborough of a viol player

The early viols came in many shapes, sizes, and variations. By the 16th century, they became more standardized. They have a flat black, sloping shoulders, a flat and fretted neck, wide ribs, and the sound holes are cut in a crescent shape. The number of strings can vary, the most common being six strings tuned in fourths with a third in the middle.

The viol is played with a bow. The bow consists of a convex wooden stick strung with horse hair. It is held with an underhand grip, drawing the horse hair across the strings. The sound is very soft and smooth due to the grip and the convex shape of the bow. A player cannot use great power or strength to create more volume with an underhand grip.

The Viol Family and Consort

There is a full family of viols made in different sizes for different registers. The most common viols are treble, alto, small tenor, tenor, and bass. All these viols can be heard in a viol consort. A viol consort is basically a viol band, a large ensemble consisting only of viols. The consort was extremely popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many important composers, such as Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, and William Byrd, wrote music for the viol consort. The royalty and wealthy families had large numbers of viol players on their payrolls to provide entertainment.

Smithsonian viol consort
Photo of Smithsonian viol consort

Where Are They Now?

It is a common misperception that the viol is the direct ancestor of the violin, viola, or cello. This is not the case. The violin family developed parallel to the viol. Key differences include the fact that the violin family has curved backs, rounded shoulders, and the sound holes are cut in the shape of the letter 'F'. The bows are also very different. The stick is concave. The grip is overhand. The cumulative effect of these differences is that the violin family can achieve much greater volume. They are many times louder than the viols.

A cello and viola da gamba. Note the differences in shoulders, sound holes, and neck.
A photo of a cello and viola da gamba

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