Facts about the Viola da Gamba

What is a viol?

A viol is a bowed string instrument. Similar to the cello, the viol, or viola da gamba, is played between the legs (hence the name 'viola da gamba', literally 'leg-viol'). While it is not a direct ancestor of the violin, there is some kinship between the two instrument families.

When did the viol appear?

The viol first appeared in Europe in the late 15th century and subsequently became one of the most popular Renaissance and Baroque instruments. Viols were heard primarily in ensemble, or consort, music.

What does the viol look like?

Historically, the viol has many shapes and sizes. By the 16th century, a standard shape for the viol did emerge with broad ribs, sloping shoulders and a fairly flat, fretted neck.

What does the viol sound like?

François Couperin: Vivement
from Les Goûts réunïs (1724) performed by the ensemble Duo Chelyum.

For more viol music, check out "The Professionals" pages here.

Bass, treble and tenor viols by Linda Shortridge
Some of the different viol sizes include:
  • Pardessus (high treble)
  • Treble
  • Alto
  • Small tenor
  • Tenor
  • Bass
  • Violone (contrabass)

Only the treble, tenor and bass viols were regular members of the consort.

Some of the bass-pitched viols were specially tailored for particular repertoires:

  • Division Viol: An English form of bass viola da gamba, used in the 17th century for performing free ornamentation by varying given melodies. It was the equivalent of the European viola bastarda, and was smaller than a consort bass viol but larger than a lyra viol.

  • Lyra viol: A small bass viol popular in England during the 17th century. It differed otherwise little from the standard bass viol. Its repertory, notated in tablature, is pre-dominantly polyphonic and played mainly with the bow. The sources include pieces for one lyra viol or more, and lyra viol accompaniment for songs, by composers such as Coprario, Jenkins, William Lawes and Tobias Hume. At least 60 different tunings have been noted.

  • Viola bastarda: An Italian 16th and 17th century term for a small bass viol, the continental equivalent of the English Division Viol.

Is the viol tuned like a violin?

The instruments in the violin family have four strings, tuned in intervals of a 5th. Most viols have six strings, tuned in intervals of a 4th with a 3rd in the middle.

Two exceptions are:

  1. French Baroque solo bass viol which has seven strings
  2. Pardessus which has five strings
Three principal viol tunings are:
  1. Treble: d"-a'-e'-c'-g-d
  2. Tenor: g'-d'-a-f-c-G
  3. Bass: d'-a-e-c-G-D-(A')

What is the bow like?

The bow is slightly convex and held with an underhand grip. Bows used with the instruments of the violin family hold the bow from the top of the frog.

Because of the underhand grip, viol players can use their fingers to control the bow and govern the tension of the horse-hair.

What is a consort?

A consort is a small instrumental ensemble for playing music composed before c1700. Consorts of viols were found at courts as well as in homes from the early 16th century.

The term was originally applied to groups of different kinds of instruments as well as the inclusion of voices; the term 'broken consort' is now used in that sense.

Where was viol music heard?

Viol music was heard all over Europe and England.

England, in particular, has a very rich history of viol composers and performers. By ca. 1540, Henry VIII had engaged a complete consort of Italian players. This royal patronage may have inspired an English school of performance and composition which, fueled by remarkable composers such as Byrd, Jenkins, William Lawes and finally Purcell, continued to thrive long after the viol had been superseded by the violin on the Continent.

In France, consort music was not as popular as was the use of the bass viol as a solo virtuoso instrument. Pieces for viol and continuo accompaniment, duets for two viols, and trio sonatas for violin, viol and continuo were written by composers such as Francois Couperin, Boismortier and the renowned bass viol virtuoso Marin Marais.

In Germany, the viol was played in both solo and chamber music. Heinrich Schutz incorporated viols in his sacred music; Buxtehude in his cantatas and sonatas -- in which the viol virtuoso Johann Schenck often performed. J.S. Bach often used the viol as an obligato instrument in sacred works. Telemann, and C.P.E. Bach later, used the viol in their chamber music. The last great German viol player was C.F. Abel, whose career flourished mainly in England.

Why did the viol fade from use?

The viols have a subdued, mellow tone, best heard in combination with other viols. The blending of harmonies, intricate rhythms and tone quality can be most appreciated in a small space.

As the popularity of violin grew throughout the 17th century, the viol could no longer compete. The violin, with a larger sound and the capabilities of being heard in the concert halls, became the premiere instrument of choice. New repertoire, namely the solo concerto, laid the groundwork for the birth of the virtuoso violin soloist.

Is viol playing still active today?

The 20th century has seen a resurgence of interest in the viol for the authentic performance of early music. Organizations and universities worldwide continue to teach and perform early music.

Other early string instruments


A bowed stringed instrument of 10th century origin, used in European art music chiefly during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. There were two basic forms, pear-shaped or straight and narrow. The pegbox was sometimes right-angled and later became sickle-shaped. The strings varied from one to five or more, three being typical; it was usually tuned in 5ths (a 1545 authority gives different sizes, tuned g-d'-a', c-g'-d' and F-G-d-a). It could be played on the lap, as in southern Europe, or on the shoulder, as in the north. It was commonly played in processions, dances and at court, notably that of Henry VIII; later it was used in consorts.

Viola da braccio

Generic term of the 16th and 17th centuries for any bowed string instrument played on the arm, normally a member of the violin family; later it came to apply mainly to the viola.

Viola d'amore

A kind of viola popular during the late 17th and 18th centuries. It is the size of a viola but with many of a viol's characteristics, includin a flat back, sloping shoulders and a carved head. There are usually 14 strings, seven bowed (normal tuning A-d-a-d'-f#'-a'-d'') and the rest sympathetic, tuned to the same notes. Its sound is particularly soft and sweet and it has been used, especially in music of highly emotional content, by many composers, notably by J.S. Bach, in cantatas and the St. John Passion, Telemann in his 1716 Passion Der sterbende Jesus, Charpentier in Louis and Janacek, who used it as a motto instrument for the eponymous heroine in Katya Kabanove (1921).

Viola di fagotto

A bowed string instrument with the tuning and range of a cello, but played on the arm like a viola. Some of its strings were overspun with copper wire in such a way that is produced a buzzing sound, like a bassoon (fagotto).

Viola pomposa

A bowed string instrument with five strings, played on the arm; the tuning was c(or d) -g-d'-a'-e''. It was used between 1725 and 1770.


Term of the 17th and 18th centuries for the viola; earlier it sometimes meant a small, three-string instrument, probably a violin. The violetta marina had sympathetic string; Handel used it in Orlando (1733).

Significant Composers for the Viol

Christopher Simpson
Abel, Carl Friedrich (1723-1787)
Bach, C.P.E. (1714-1788)
Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750)
Boismortier, Joseph Bodin de (1689-1755)
Buxtehude, Dietrich (1637-1707)
Byrd, William (1542-1623)
Charpentier, Marc-Antoine (c1645-1704)
Coprario, John (c1570-1626)
Couperin, Francois (1668-1733)
East, Michael (1580-1648)
Ferrabosco, Alfonso (1578-1628)
Gibbons, Orlando (1583-1625)
Handel, George Frideric (1685-1759)
Hume, Tobias (c1569-1645)
Jenkins, John (1592-1678)
Lawes, William (1602-1645)
Marais, Marin (1656-1728)
Purcell, Henry (1659-1695)
Sainte-Colombe (d. 1691-1701)
Schenck, Johann (1660 - c1712)
Schutz, Heinrich (1585-1672)
Simpson, Christopher (c1605-1669)
Telemann, Georg Philipp (1681-1767)
Vivaldi, Antonio (1678-1741)
Ward, John (1571-1638)
White, Robert (1538-1574)