During the Renaissance and Baroque periods viola was a generic Italian term for two families of bowed, string instruments. They are the viola da gamba and the viola da braccio. The viola da gamba means 'viol held between the legs' (da gamba = for the legs). This is different from the viola da braccio family which are held in the arms (da braccio = for the arms). The smallest member of the viola da braccio family is known as the violino piccolo in Italian, and hence you see the derivation of the term violin.

da Gamba Ensembla

The viola da gamba produces a delicate tone. It was best suited for small gatherings. The viols were usually played as an ensemble known as a consort of viols. The consort is composed of each "voice" in the family: treble, alto, tenor, and bass. Some music was written for more viols in the consort and that would mean two parts for one or more of the voices.

The viol also joined in a mixed, or "broken" consort of several different instruments. This consort variety would have recorders, viols, lute, harpsichord, percussion, and members of the capped-reed family of woodwinds such as the Kortholt or Crumhorn. The viol may have an inner voice in the music, but most often the bass member of the family played in the broken consorts.

There were also two other bass versions of the viola da gamba known as the Lyra Viol and the Division Viol. These were the voice of choice for solo viol playing or playing accompaniment in duets and trios with voice, lute, and recorder. Music was written specifically for these versions of the bass viola da gamba. An example is Musicall Humors. It is a voice and lyra viol duet expounding the joys of tobacco, circa 1600.

da Gamba Music

John Dowland, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons wrote four- five- and six-part viol music that are considered to be some of the finest works of European instrumental music. John Dowland published Lachrimae in 1605 which included Seaven Passionate Pavans based on his song Flow My Teares. These collections of viol music were known as consort lessons. Thomas Morley composed music for the broken consort ensemble of six instruments: treble and bass viols, bass recorder, cittern, lute, and pandora. These are the most emotive musical compositions of the Renaissance and simply a joy to play.

"The parts for the three melodic instruments describe
harmoniously overlapping curves, while the cittern and
pandora provide harmonic support for the intricate polyphony."
Hindley, pp. 95

Physical Features

There are several physical characteristics to notice about the da gamba family.

  1. The shoulder slopes from the neck instead of starting at a right angle as in the da braccio instruments.
  2. The back is flat, rather than bulging.
  3. The ribs are deeper.
  4. The number of strings is six rather than four.
  5. The neck has frets - tied gut around the finger board.
  6. The sound holes are shaped as a "C" rather than the "F".
  7. The bridge has less arch - facilitating the playing of chords.
  8. The strings are thinner and less tightly strung.
  9. The bow is held with the palm up.

Comparison Between the Da Gamba and the Da Braccio Families

The viola da gamba family of musical instruments is a relative of the violin family and resemble them physically with a cursory glance. However, there are important differences between the two instrument families.

Both families grew out of the medieval fiddle and appeared rather suddenly, within 20 years of each other. In the 1500s there is references to a family of viols that are played by being held between the legs. The instrument is held so the neck is up with the tuning pegbox (pegbox for short) positioned near the chest to neck area of the musician. The body of the instrument is held between the legs and is NOT rested on the floor. The musician crosses her/his legs at the ankles and gently holds the body of the instrument with the knees.

The tonal quality of the two families was also distinct. The da gamba family is quieter producing a more "intimate" tone best played indoors at small gatherings. The da braccio family was a louder sound due to the stronger construction - such as the greater arch of the wood in the back and belly of the instrument. The stronger tension of the strings, enabled by the greater arching of the wood and other construction characteristics produced a louder sound overall. The sound of the da braccio instrument carried much further and would more likely be found at outside festivals or larger, more boisterous gatherings.

The manner in which the bow was held also contributed to a difference in sound. For the viola da gamba, the bow is held in the hand with the palm up and stroked across the strings. The strength of both the "up bow" and "down bow" (or rather the 'push stroke' and the 'pull stroke') were near equal in force. This produced a steady even sound that blended well with the other courtly instruments.

Parenthetical Note:
A steady-application-of-effort to play was common to many renaissance instruments. For example, the recorder required a steady breath and a trained ear to keep in tune with the rest of the ensemble. If you blow harder on the recorder, you get a higher pitch or tone. Contrast that with the modern flute. If you blow harder on the flute, the sound gets louder, but does not change the pitch.

The bowing is different for the violin (viola da braccio) family. The bow is held like a butter knife - with the palm down. The resulting "up bow" and "down bow" actions produced distinctly different sound strengths. The latter, or "pull stroke" was stronger and produced a louder, more expressive sound.

These differences in tonal "presence" led to the decline of the da gamba. As concert halls became larger the violin family could fill the hall with sound while the da gamba family could not. The violin was more expressive and could convey a greater range of tone, timbre, and volume. The viola da gamba conveyed an intimate, quieter, more stately sound. As the baroque era progressed, the instrument eventually fell out of favor.

For the music aficionado looking for an emotive, stately mood consider the wide variety of viola da gamba music. Whether it is the full consort of viols, the broken consort, or duets and solo pieces, there is no other music more peaceful than the viola da gamba.


  • Aple, Willi, Harvard Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1944, pp. 794-797
  • Hindley, Geoffrey, ed., The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, Cressent Books, New York, 1971.
  • Montagu, Jeremy, The World of Medieval & Renaissance Musical Instruments, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY, 1976, pp. 112.
  • Ulrich, Homer, and Paul Pisk, A History of Music and Musical Style, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1963, pp 148-49, 200, 205, 211.

  • As a small addendum to TheLutenist's excellent writeup, I think some mention should be made of the contributions of the French gambists.

    The film Tous les matins du monde presents this side of the the Gamba. It mainly focuses on the early virtuosos, Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. Along with changes in playing style, the Gamba changed somewhat in France through the 17th and 18th centuries (and somewhat in the rest of Europe as well, though most of this originated in France). The use of the viol consort fell into disuse through the 17th century, and the bass viola da gamba became the most frequently used, though the pardessus de viole, similar in size to the treble, was also relatively common. This last is very infrequently played today, since most music for it is written for any upper instrument - flute, recorder, violin, pardessus de viole, or even hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes (of the musette variety, usually)

    Some basic changes to the bass viol included a generally heavier and often slightly larger construction. The most obvious part of this was the addition of a seventh string in the bass, which was normally tuned to the A below the bass clef - a very low note indeed! The playing style was expanded to include more flashy techniques - lots of notes, of course, and also chords, pizzicato, and special effects like playing with the wood of the bow.

    From here the instrument spread, like most things french, throughout Europe, and Bach, Telemann and other composers wrote for it. Another french composer of note is Forqueray, whose pieces were also arranged for harpsichord by his son.

    This music, in combination with the consort pieces mentioned above make up the bulk of the modern gambist's repertoire, though they are also very frequently used as continuo instruments, playing the bass lines in orchestras and smaller ensembles. In this capacity, they mimic the more frequent use of the cello, but provide a pleasant contrast to its more assertive tone.

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