The Violin (or viola da braccio) and the Viola da gamba Families
Differences and Similarities

Table of Characteristics
viola da braccio or violin
viola da gamba
shoulder square square, sloping, festooned (leaf-form)
sound holes f-form almost always f-form, c-form, flame or snake form
rosette almost never very frequently, but not always
back rounded flat or rounded
corners almost always mostly without corners, some with corners
neck relatively short relatively long
frets* almost never always: 7 is the rule; sometimes 8
tuning* in fifths in fourths, with a third in the middle
strings* 4, more rarely 5 6 is the rule, sometimes 5 or 7
stringing* relatively strong (high tension) relatively light (lower tension)
head scroll, sometimes carved head scroll (sometimes cut-through), carved head
edge overhanging overhanging or flush with ribs
Playing position* violin/viola: on the shoulder All sizes: between the legs
bow hold* overhand (cello sometimes underhand) always underhand, all sizes

* Denotes the principal differences between the two families which
make a difference in the quality of sound and playing style

Da braccio:

In Italian, the term "braccio" means "arm", indicating that the instruments of this family were played on the arm, under the chin of the player. This, of course, is for the violin and the viola, because the violoncello is held between the legs and the double bass resting on the floor.

Da gamba:

In Italian, the term "gamba" means "leg". All of the members of the viola da gamba family (also named "viols" in English) are played between the legs, from the smallest, the pardessus, to the larger bass viol. However the violone in G and the contrabasso di viola da gamba are played standing, with the instrument on the ground.

On the different shapes of the viola da gamba

Michael Praetorius: Syntagma Musicum, 1619
Praetorius - violin family Praetorius - viola da gamba family
The Viola da braccio or Violin Family
The Viola da gamba or Viol Family

A consort of violas da gamba
In appropriately aristocratic setting

The ensemble of violas da gamba, called a consort, consists of between two and eight viols of different sizes. Characteristically each instrument plays its own particular voice, which is independent from what the others play. From 1500 to 1680 the most renowned masters of the Renaissance and the Baroque brought forth a rich repertoire for the viol consort, treasured by players and audiences today.

William Lawes: Fantasia "Sunrise" and Air in F-Major for six viols and organ

A string orchestra
A summer serenade in the courtyard of a Baroque chateau

The violin family is often used in larger formations, where typically several violins play one and the same voice or part. However smaller ensembles of, say, three to six players are also common, in which each instrument would play an individual part. The most frequent of these, the string quartet, consists of two violins, one viola and one violoncello. Many notable composers, like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, wrote magnificent works for the string quartet.

François Couperin: Sonata "La Sultane", for 2 violins, 2 violas da gamba and harpsichord

Present exhibition: Castello di Duino

Films, videos and recordings

The Different Forms of the Viola da gamba

A Photographic Panorama

The Viola da gamba in Italy

The Viola da gamba in England

The Viola da gamba in Austria

The Viola da gamba in Germany

The Viola da gamba in France


words of wisdom | shapes of viols

updated 21.06.2011