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What’s the difference between a violin and a viola? 

 May 13, 2022

By  Zen Chung

What's the difference between the violin and the viola? Which one is bigger? We will answer this and more questions in this article to help you choose correctly when buying between the two.

String instruments sound magical and are the best inventions by man because they are timeless and dynamic. Music is the universal language that brings people together and appeals to emotions. However, a lot goes into a string instrument that separates it from others. The violin and the viola may look similar at first, but once you read this article, you will be able to make out the differences.

Here are the differences between the violin and the viola.

1) Size

The violin string instrument family has two major categories; the viola da gamba and the viola da braccio. The viola da gamba means the viola of the leg and may include instruments like the cello. The viola da braccio includes the violin and the viola because they are of the arm. The classical violin and the viola have some things in common and may be confusing. However, one way of telling them apart includes the size.

The violin is smaller than that of the viola and may range from 15-18 inches, while the violin is 14 inches or smaller. The two instruments may look alike, but this can be one sure way of telling them apart. The viola is larger than the violin in the cross-section size.

Starting viola players can get smaller ones before they graduate to a larger one once they are good at playing and have mastered the notes.

The violin family has a wide range, and you will find the viola section smaller than the violin section in an orchestra in some cases.

2) Sound

You are buying the violin or the viola because of how it sounds. You are going for a sound, and one of the key differences in the sound. Violins can play higher notes than the viola. The violin is by far the highest-pitched instrument in the stringed instrument categories. The viola has a lower range because of the notes the string can play. A lower note range gives you a mellow sound that enhances the sad emotions.

Viola's sound has its place in a piece and plays an important role in the string family. Those sounds will make you cry in some cases. The violin strings have a soprano voice and sound higher than the viola strings. Depending on the piece, you can get a happy melody line or a sad one. Other instruments play a vital role, but the different playing styles have the violin as the lead role in most cases. This could be why you have only one viola section while the violin has two in most cases.

The violin and viola strings have almost similar roles, and you can consider the viola the second highest pitched instrument. Listen to different concertos, and you will fall in love with both the violin and viola solos.

3) Clef

The violin strings are in the treble clef while the viola falls in the alto clef. If you are familiar with classical music, the music staff has the f and the g-clef. However, there are other clefs, such as the c-clef, under which the viola belongs. The bowed string instrument family is one of the most famous since the classical period, and the violin family is at the top of that fame.

Viola is not only a mid-range instrument. It is the only string instrument with an alto clef notation, having the middle c as the middle line note symbol. The violin is an instrument played in the treble clef and is probably the highest instrument in an ensemble.

4) The Bow

The violin bow has a straight edge compared to the often curved bow of the viola. The viola bow is chunkier, and you can tell the difference once you pay close attention. Violin bows are lighter compared to viola bows. These two are not very different instruments, but simultaneously not similar. Viola and violin bows have different tempos. A faster bow tempo is ideal for thicker strings, which the violas have because of the alto clef.

5) Strings

The violin and the viola do not have the same strings. As we had noted, the viola is the only instrument with the alto clef, while the violin plays a strong role with its treble clef. Chamber music can never be the same without the violin and the viola. The viola and violin strings are both a set of four.

While both the instruments have four strings, the viola and the violin have different strings. For example, the violin has EADG, while the viola has ADGC. Sometimes the notes depend on how far the player's fingers can reach. For example, B is way up on the E string and is the lowest note that can help you achieve the emotions you are hoping for.

Viola strings tend to be thicker than the violin strings and are a major attraction for people who want to play notes that range between the cello and the violin. You can achieve amazing harmonic elements with these instruments and work well with any other instrument.

The string arrangement can be a major difference and probably one of the most obvious differences between the violin and viola.

6) Weight

Violin or viola weights are not very different. However, the viola weighs slightly more than the violin. Both the instruments use a chin rest and are played over the left shoulder. Small violas might be in the same weight range, and weight is one of the slight differences between the viola and the violin. A full-size viola will weigh more than a full-size violin.

7) Price

The price is one of the major factors people consider before buying instruments. If you would love to play in an orchestra, you have to have a certain quality of violins like others to sound even with your group. Even though the second violins sit opposite the first violins, they all need to sound impeccable.

The viola tends to be more expensive than the violin because the size is larger. Quality plays a big role in pricing. However, if all factors were constant and the two instruments were in the same quality range, the viola would cost more. As an instrumentalist, you know the one instrument you want to own. Whether playing the double bass or a cello, a quality instrument will always bring the best out of any player.

The price should never be a point of comparison between these two instruments because you might be getting a second-hand instrument for a lower price. In addition, some people hire out instruments for performances in cases where they can not afford more expensive options.

Some Frequently Asked Questions About Violins and Violas

a) Is it Easy to Transition From Violin to Viola?

The viola and the violin have a lot in common structurally and functionally. The techniques you have learned on either instrument might be transferable to the next. However, you need to understand that you will be using two different clefs. The notes you will be playing will be slightly different as well.

When transitioning, you need to expect a change in strategy. The notes are spaced widely in violas, and you will need to make the necessary adjustments when transitioning. In addition, the weight of the two string instruments is different, and you will probably notice the differences.

The differences are both physical and theoretical, and you may need to pay attention to the technique when making changes. The good thing with people transitioning between instruments is that they tend to be more intentional about learning using the correct techniques.

b) Is it Easier to Play the Violin or Viola?

No instrument is easy to play or learn. However, the degree of hardness may be different on different instruments on similar levels. The thing with instruments is that mastery comes with time and consistency. Therefore, you should not compare how easy or hard playing an instrument is because it depends on how much effort and what approach you use.

Most people tend to go for the viola because the instrument has more chances and parts in orchestras. In addition, violin parts are more difficult and require higher experience levels because the instrument will be leading most of the time. For this reason, most people tend to go for the viola because the competition is lower, and there are more opportunities to play.

Viola solos are not any easier.

Final Take

Both the violin and the viola still exist because of their relevance in the music world. Before choosing what instrument you want to get, listen to concertos and solos first. You will gravitate towards what appeals to you most. Next, look at why you need the instrument. Is it because you want to join an orchestra? If so, which part can you play best?

Regardless of the instrument you pick, try and learn it right.

Image source: pixabay.com

Zen Chung


I'm Zen Chung, a piano and violin teacher based out of Plano, Texas. I started this blog because my students (and their parents) kept asking about the best musical instruments to buy online. Look no further I'm here to save the day! 

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