orig. Italy The viola is a string instrument that furnishes the middle range of the violin family. While it is similar in shape and size to the violin, its timbre and lower pitch range give it a rich, full-bodied sonority that lends itself to playing harmonies. Like the violin, the instrument is held against the shoulder and played with a horsehair bow.
Despite origins dating back to the 16th century, the viola has often taken a back seat in the history of the violin family. Solo performance has been largely reserved for the lighter, brighter violin itself. The viola enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among 20th-century composers, however; and today, many composers take advantage of the viola's mellow, moody sound in solo, avant-garde and popular music composition.