The Viol Family
The viols have several distinguishing characteristics the most important being the flat backpiece and rounded belly, its 6 or 7 strings that are tuned in fourths and in thirds (4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th), and above all its fretted neck. These thin windings of catgut mark out the positions of the individual tones and semitones on the fingerboard of the instrument. Not only do these frets make the placing of the left hand's fingers easier, but they also fulfil an important function in that they transmit the vibrations of the strings to the body of the instrument through the neck, thus allowing the note to continue as long as the finger remains in position since there is no damping of the string. This is clearly the explanation of the viol family's full and sustained sound. The viol is the inheritor of a polyphonic tradition that dates back to the Renaissance and like the violin, it is but one of a family of instruments. Ensembles of viols such as the renewned Consorts of Viols in England were the preferred instruments for chamber music from the end of the 16th century onwards, this tradition continuing in France, Germany and in England until the middle of the 17th century.
All the viole da gamba, whatever their range, were held and played between the legs as their name indicates, being placed either between the knees or the calves depending on the size of the instrument.
to the Guide to Baroque Instruments
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