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


Table of Characteristics

Part 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

In green the parts that 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. See also the article On the different shapes of the viola da gamba.




Michael Praetorius: Syntagma Musicum, 1619


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” (Air Tendrement), for 2 violins, 2 violas da gamba and harpsichord