In the music score below, the bottom five parts seem to be string parts. We think the first two are violins, the last is string bass, and the second-last is cello. But what is the third-last? Is it a viola? We understand the clef is an older-style C-clef (alto or viola clef).

Fossils score

2 Answers 2


Yes, Alto = Viola. It's the French name for the instrument, and the score shown is a part of 'Carnival of the Animals' by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.


The other instrument names are easily recognisable. Note that Bb Clarinet is 'Clarinette en SIb'. The French write the scale as do, ré, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do rather than C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. In German it would be "Klarinette in B'. In Germany, 'B' is 'Bb', 'H' is 'B'. Apart from confusing foreigners, this has the advantage of letting German composers write fugues based on 'BACH'.

Alto clef is the standard clef for viola music. A particularly high passage might move into treble clef. But mostly they live in alto clef.

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    Don't the French still use the mediaeval "ut" for do? Commented Dec 24, 2018 at 12:55

Yes it is a part written for a viola. Because of its range the alto clef is standard choice for viola in all types of music.

Here is an orchestral example from Verdi's overture to II Signor Bruschino (from the textbook Instrumentation and orchestration) where the viola is marked Va.

overture to II Signor Brushion from instrumentation and orchestration


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