The Viol

Home / Instruments / The Viol

Comparing the viol and violin families

The violin family, known as viola da braccia and played on the arm, and the viol family also known as viola da gamba, which are played on the knee, are two different string families that co-existed from around the end of the 15c. (It’s a common myth that viols preceded the violin family!)

We know from orchestral instruments we see today, that violins, violas and cellos are well known, but the family of viols, whose repertoire was long established before that of the violin family, is still relatively unknown.

If we compare the viol to the violin, we have :

Violin family Viol family
F sound holes C sound holes
Narrow ribs Deep ribs
Scroll Carved head or scroll
Unfretted fingerboard Fretted fingerboard
Front of instrument protrudes over the rib Front and ribs joined at right angles
Curved back Flat back


Viols are perfectly suited to the spaces for which they were originally intended to be played; in country houses and at the Royal Court. It is the resonance of the viol which makes it such a special instrument to play in a group or consort.  The lighter construction; strings with less tension than the violin; frets (so that notes can be held down for longer) are contributing factors to the resonance.



The role of the fret on the viol is to make each note like an open string, making the sound very pure. Frets make viols easier to play because they help with finger spacing and intonation. Players can hold fingers down, keeping the sound ringing; adding fingers on the same fret is standard practice, rather than jumping string with the same finger.

Tying, tuning and setting temperaments with frets by adjusting the position of the fret gut on the fingerboard is also standard practice for viol players.


The underhand bow hold and principles of bowing by Jean-Baptiste Forqueray

All viols are usually played with an underhand bow hold, where the bow hair is in contact with the middle finger.  This enables the player to tension the bow hair to create a range of dynamics without changing the bow speed.

Jean-Baptiste Forqueray considered the bowing arm to be the key to making a beautiful sound.  This is an extract from the letter mentioned above to Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia in which he explains:

“It should express all the passions: it is the bow that stirs the soul; finally, it is the bow that gives the character of all types of music.  To have this beautiful bow, I find there are four principles:

The first is the position of the arm, which should extend from the shoulder to the wrist, having the arm stretched without stiffness, and which should be supple both when pushing and pulling.

The second principle: that the bow always moves in an horizontal line on the strings.  That the tip of the bow never varies, that is to say neither rising nor lowering, and is always opposite the thumb.

The third principle: that the bow never leaves this line and is three fingers from the bridge and well balanced, and above all that the wrist moves outwards in pushing and inward in pulling.  In performance, it is the wrist that moves and not the arm, it should be suspended and very supple in moments of great virtuosity.

The fourth principle: it is the use of the second finger on the bow (the middle finger) which is the prime means of expression, and which gives character to the music.  For this, it is necessary that the bow hair is placed at a cross with the joint of the second finger, and that it never leaves this position (see above).  This finger presses the hair against the string to make more or less sound; by pressing and relaxing it imperceptibly it makes the expression, the soft or loud.  Above all one must observe, Monseigneur, that the bow thumb is placed lightly on the wood.  It if is pressed too hard, it gives much harshness to the performance and crushes the bow on the string – this one must absolutely avoid.” 

Extract from Forqueray’s Pièces de Viole (1747): A Rich Source of Mid-Eighteenth-Century French String Technique by Lucy Robinson.



The violin and viol family developed in parallel from around the same time:  viols from around 1492 and violin family around 1530.

In 2002 the Viola da Gamba Society of UK published Louise Jameson’s dissertation on ‘Isabella d’Este’ as a patron of music.  We know from this and other research that Isabella d’Este commissioned the first viol in 1493 and was important in the development of the viol from a single sized drone, with either a flat or no bridge, to an instrument with a curved bridge, made in several sizes.

Until this time consort music had always been played by professional musicians, whereas aristocrats sang or played solo instruments.  This was the first consort instrument that was acceptable for aristocrats to play and it interesting to note that Alfonso d’Este played in a consort of six viols at his own wedding celebrations in 1502.

The first documentation of viols in England was 1506, so Henry VIII would have known viols at his court. In the Elizabethan age, consort music was popular in England with composers such as William Byrd, John Dowland and Anthony Holborne to name but a few.

One of the best characteristics of the viol is the resonance and when played in groups, called consorts, the instruments blend together.  The range of the consort is similar to that of a choir and historically choristers played viols.


What sort of music is played in a viol consort?

Dance music, such as Pavans and Galliard with improvised divisions, (you could call ‘Tudor Jazz!)’ as well as Fantasias, In nomines, Consort songs, verse anthems with voices. The musical style for the Fantasia is polyphony and this means all parts have the same or similar themes played in horizontal lines.

Contemporary music also has a place with viols as some composers like a pure, non vibrato sound. For example, composer Terry Davies specifically requested viols for his score for the production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC in 2003.

The standard combinations for viols for 17th century English music was set out by Thomas Mace in his book Music’s Monument in 1676:

‘Your best provision and most compleat, will be a good chest of viols: six in number; viz, 2 basses, 2 tenors and 2 trebles; All truly and proportionably suited. 


Sir Francis Drake the viol

Thanks to the research by Dr. Ian Woodfield, we know more about Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1578 and who the musicians were on the voyage and what instruments they played.  There were 4 viol players, Simon Wood, Thomas Meckes, Richard Clark and George (surname unknow), who formed a viol consort.  They would have also played cornetti and sackbuts in a wind ensemble, known as ‘Lowd musick’.  The viol consort was called the  ‘Soft or still Consort’.  Trumpeters were recruited separately and their band was know appropriately as a ‘noyse of trumpets’.  Sea going musicians of all kinds were rarely unoccupied and their regular duties included:

Playing for Sir Francis Drake during meal times.

They signalled loudly during fog to precent other ships from crashing into their vessel.

They accompanied the psalms sung at the daily service on deck.

They played songs and dance music to entertain the crew during the long voyage.

However, it was the soft consort of viol players that were rowed out to shore with Drake, to perform music, therefore demonstrating their peaceful intentions.


The viol in 17th century England

Charles I played the viol and composers such as John Jenkins, William Lawes, Matthew Locke, wrote for viol consort, during his reign. Tobias Hume composed music with characterful titles and for the time, using new techniques for bass viol playing; for example, the original use of Col lengo  (playing with the wood of the bow) can be found in some of his pieces.

After the execution in 1649 of Charles I, his son lived in exile at the French court.  This is where he heard the orchestra of 4 and 20 violins and in the Restoration of 1660, King Charles II brought this new fashion back to England.

Some of the composers at this time writing for viol consort were John Jenkins, Matthew Locke and William Lawes.  Henry Purcell also composed for the viol consort, and although advanced harmonically, were considered old fashioned in form for the time.

Towards the end of the 17th century, it became common practice to mix violins with a standard viol consort.  However, this fashion was not always received favourably.  Thomas Mace, writes:

How music is injur’d

For what is more reasonable, than if an artist upon the composition of a piece of music (suppose of 3 or 4 parts).  I say it is not reasonable, yea, necessarily reasonable that all those parts should be equally heard?

Then, what injury must it needs be, to have such things played upon instruments, unequally suited or unevenly numbered.  This ia a very common piece of inconsiderate practice of the day.  But it has been objected, there has been an Harpsichord, or an organ with it, what then?  Has not the harpsichord, or organ basses and trebles equally mixed?  The disporportions still the same.. The scoulding violins will out top them all.

 Now I say, if this in not an injury both to the music, the composer and the compositions let any judicius person judge.

What is the music of parts composed for, if not to be heard?    

But I cry mercy, I had almost forgot, it is the fashion!


Why have most people not heard of a viol?

One reason was when the performance of music went into larger, public spaces such as theatres, from country houses, the viol’s lack of projection meant that the louder violin family became more popular and fashionable. So today, there are no viols in orchestras, as they are used usually primarily  for playing in small groups, called consorts.