The viola is a non-transposing instrument notated in alto clef, and in treble clef from the second octave above middle C.
The viola’s range lies mainly between C3 and G5, that is, within the alto clef’s domain. To avoid excessive use of ledger lines both alto and treble clef are used, although a change of clef only occurs where it is justified by the length of the passage. If the clefs are changed too often the score becomes hard to read. Alto clef has middle C on the middle line of the staff.
Notation for viola contains the same distinctive features as violin notation. These refer to the fingering and bowing techniques.
Bowing notation (right hand)
As a rule many bowstrokes which come under staccato are not notated but played in the appropriate manner by the violinist. If the composer desires a particular kind of bowstroke he writes it into the score.
Melodic phrases which are to be played with a single stroke are linked by a phrasing slur. The change of bowing can occur on a single note.
Détaché / Detached
Non–legato technique, strokes alternately up and down without the bow being lifted from the string.
- Détaché or detached is often written explicitly into the score.
- Strong détaché, a firm bowstroke that allows the note to resonate briefly, is indicated by a dot above the note.
- The strongest détaché consists solely of downstrokes. The bow is lifted from the string after every stroke.
Hammered stroke (in Italian martellato = hammered).
Every stroke, whether up or down, is ended abruptly, the bow remaining on the string.
Sul tasto and sul ponticello
Because of the effect it has on timbre the place where the bow should make contact with the string is often written into the score. Sulla tastiera (or sul tasto, sur la touche meaning on the fingerboard), sul ponticello (on the bridge).
Most playing techniques are possible both sul ponticello and sulla tastiera.
Col legno (with the wood, French: avec le bois)
Hitting or bowing the string with the wood of the bow. The first technique produces a hammer effect and is used for repeated figures. The latter sounds cracked, rough and dry and is of indeterminate pitch.
Changing from pizzicato to arco
The change from bowed (arco) to plucked (pizzicato) and back is always written in full. (The part is to played pizzicato until arco is written).
“Bartók pizzicato” (“snap” pizzicato)
The string is lifted with two fingers of the right hand so that it snaps back onto the fingerboard when let go. This produces a very resounding sound which is used for percussive effects. Notation: a circle with a tail pointing either upward or downward above each note.
Measured bowed tremolo
The repetition of a note with no accent or rhythm by means of very fast up and downstrokes at the point. The impression given is of a “trembling” sound, which is used especially for dramatic effect and tonal intensification. Double stops can also be played tremolo. The bow tremolo is usually measured, i.e. the number of strokes corresponds exactly to the notated division of the whole note value which determines the length of the tremolo. This kind of tremolo must be played in absolute synchronization by all the violinists. Freely playable tremolo also exists.
Tremolos have been part of the strings’ standard repertoire of effects since the beginning of the 19th century.
Unmeasured bowed tremolo
Behind the bridge
The string is bowed between the bridge and the string tuner.
An X is written on the staff at the pitch levels corresponding to the open strings which are to be played. The pitch heard is indeterminate, the different strings produce various pitches.
Notation for fingering (left hand)
There are three types of notation:
A note with a small circle above it indicates where the string were to be fingered if the “normal” note were being played. It is in this way that the fingering is notated that corresponds to the actual harmonic sounded. It is left to the musician’s discretion which node he or she chooses. (Harmonics can be fingered at any one of their nodes.) The string is often indicated under the note too (e.g., sul G).
One of the possible fingerings (vibration nodes) is represented by a note in the form of a diamond. The fingering given is always the one that is easiest to perform (i.e. is nearest the nut). The sounding pitch of the harmonic cannot be ascertained from this notation.
Fingering and pitch
Some composers add the sounding pitch in brackets above the finger notation.
The finger that firmly presses the string is notated as a pitch with the desired note value. The finger that lies lightly on the string – generally a fourth above the stopping finger – is notated as an empty, “white” diamond, that is, they always look like whole notes, regardless of the real note value.
An audible slide of the finger along the string with accompanying change of position. The effect is of two notes being joined together in a suggestion of a glissando.
Con sordino (with mute) calls for the use of the mute, which is not to be removed until instructed to do so by the term senza sordino.
Triple and quadruple stops
Triple stops (three-part chords) and quadruple stops (four-part chords) are notated as chords and played as arpeggiated chords (each note in quick succession, from the lowest to the highest note). When playing four-part chords, the two lowest notes are played first, then the two highest.
Pizzicato with the left hand is indicated by a + above the note. Alban Berg: Violin Concerto.
Two notes are played as a tremolo on the same string as follows: the finger in the lower position fingers the string and keeps it pressed down while the other finger quickly and repeatedly stops and releases a higher note. In contrast to the bow tremolo, when rapid up and downstrokes produce the tremolo effect, bowing here is smooth and even over the string. The result is a kind of trill.
Su una corda
The instruction to play a cantilena on a particular string (e.g., sul G). Su una corda means “on one string”.