The viol comes in three main sizes: treble, tenor, and bass. The most familiar of these is the bass, which is roughly the size of a cello. All the different sizes follow the same tuning pattern, similar to the guitar, where most of the strings are tuned a fourth apart from each other with a major third between the middle two strings:

Other sizes used less frequently in consort music include the alto, which can be tuned a whole step higher than the tenor (A –a’) or a whole step lower than a treble (c–c’’), and the great bass, which is tuned an octave lower than the tenor (GG–g).

 

The versatility of the bass viol led to its playing different styles of music, aided by the proliferation of basses in a range of sizes. The consort bass was quite large. The division viol, used in seventeenth-century England for playing melodies with elaborate variations and ornamentation was smaller than a consort bass. The term “lyra viol” refers to the English practice of playing from tablature rather than pitch notation and employing a wide range of different tunings. Viols used for lyra repertoire were also smaller than consort basses and probably slightly smaller than division viols. Similar to the lyra viol, in Italy, “viola bastarda” referred to a virtuosic style of viol music, where a likely smallish bass viol would play a highly decorated version of a madrigal.

Pardessus de viole

7-string basse de viole

Outside of consort music the family spawned still more members. In the late seventeenth century, the French added a seventh string to the bass viol, an A below the bottom D. This seven-string bass was used extensively as a solo and continuo instrument in France. The French also developed the pardessus de viole, a fourth higher than the treble. The pardessus, which came in five- and six-string varieties, was designed so that viol players could play violin music—it was not socially acceptable for women to play the violin itself—and also developed its own solo repertoire.

The large violone in D, an octave lower than the bass, is a precursor of the modern double bass. This instrument played in large ensembles with violins and other instruments in German baroque music.