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A drawing showing viols of different sizes, from Michael Praetorius' Syntagma musicum (1618)

The viol (pronounce to rhyme with "mile"), (also called viola da gamba) is a kind of string instrument that was played with a bow. The viol was a popular instrument from the 15th to the 18th century. Viols were held between the knees and played with a bow. The bow was held with the palm of the hand facing upwards: the other way round from today's bowhold for violins, violas or cellos.

A set of viols of different sizes - perhaps four or five instruments - were sometimes kept together in a chest (large box) which is why they were called a "chest of viols". When they were played together people talked of a "consort of viols". A consort would normally have at least one treble, tenor and bass instrument. A "broken consort" meant a mixture of different instruments: viols, recorders etc. Lute and bass viol were often played together.

The viol, like the vihuela, from which it developed, had a bridge that was flatter than the bridge of a modern violin. This made it easier to play chords. There were six strings. The strings of a bass viol (equivalent to the cello in the modern violin family) were tuned (from the lowest note, nearly two octaves below middle C, upwards) to D - G - C - E - A -D. The tenor viol was often called a viola da gamba (literally: "viol of the leg"). It was the most popular size for solo music and many composers wrote sonatas for the viola da gamba.

Although most instruments had six strings the number did vary during the centuries. The strings were made of gut. On the fingerboard there were frets (like on a guitar). These frets helped the player to find the exact place to put the fingers. Sometimes the top of the scrolls were beautifully decorated.

The viol was a gentle-sounding instrument. When the violin family became popular in the 17th century and people started to go to concerts in large concert halls, and to operas, the viols became less important. They were never members of the orchestra.

The biggest viol was called the violone. It developed into the modern double bass. This is why the double bass is a little different in shape from the violin, viola and cello. Some double bass players today hold the bow with the palm (inside) of the hand facing upwards, like viol players.

Violone or great bass viol. Painting by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1640, Dutch-born English Baroque era painter. The instrument is very big, quite Italian in shape and it has square shoulders and modern F-holes.

The viol was popular in the houses of rich people, and at court. In the times of Elizabeth I and, later, King Charles I composers such as William Byrd, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and later John Jenkins and William Lawes wrote viol music. Solo sonatas were written by many composers including Marin Marais, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Karl Friedrich Abel. Some of the last and greatest fantasies for viol consort were written by Henry Purcell.

After the mid-18th century people forgot about the viol until the 20th century when there was a new interest in early music and people like Arnold Dolmetsch started making them again so that Renaissance and Baroque viol music could be played. Today there are many societies for people who are interested in playing the viol.

There are now many societies for people with an interest in the viol. One of these, The Viola da Gamba Society has a worldwide membership. Some modern composers have also written for the viol e.g. John Tavener, Sally Beamish, Thea Musgrave, Tan Dun and Poul Ruders. There is a group called Fretwork which perform viol music.