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Both the violin and the viola evolved directly from the viola da braccio. Since the Italian word violino is a derivative of viola, historians and violists are led to believe that the viola may have actually appeared slightly before the violin. Many violists enjoy believing that they may be at the top of the violin family, at least historically (although nothing has ever been truly proven).

In early orchestra music, the viola's role was merely harmony. It often had the bass line when the composer couldn't think of anything else to write. The melody was left to the brighter, higher violin and more powerful, distinct cello. Into the 20th century, the viola began to get a more prominent role, and is now sometimes featured as a solo instrument. During the summer of 2000, the Cleveland Orchestra held a concert where a violinist and a violist were each featured as soloists in a piece by Mozart.

Violas were made as early as the 1500's. Gaspara da Salo, who was a prominent cello maker, also was quite famous for his violas and his double basses. Originally, da Salo was given credit for making the instruments in the violin family. This was later proven untrue when earlier instruments and makers were found.

In the early classic period (post-Bach), many composers felt the viola was a source of anxiety. It was written for because it was a prehistoric instrument and such writing seemed expected. These attitudes were documented by Forsyth. The instrument was regarded as clumsy to play, and uncomfortable to write for. The bass line (which, as mentioned earlier, was given to the violas if nothing else seemed suitable) often had awkward harmonies, being written in three different octaves.

The eighteen and nineteen hundreds brought better parts for the viola, as composers started to recognize it more as an instrument in its own right, with different characteristics. Although this music didn't come until this time, both Bach and Mozart were accomplished violists back in the 1700's.

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