At first glance, violins and violas look a lot alike.
And, to be fair, most stringed instruments bear some resemblance to each other.
But the two aren’t the same, and they aren’t necessarily used in the same manner, either, something a music geek would be quick to point out.
They are both considered orchestral and stringed instruments to be sure, and any orchestra that uses strings is likely to have both violin and viola players.
So, what are the differences, and if you’re a buyer, how do you choose between the two?
Here’s what you should know:
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The Difference Between A Violin & Viola
Here are the key differences between viola and violins you should be aware of:
Difference #1: Size
Again, while violin and viola may look alike, an important thing to note is that they aren’t the same size.
A violin is about 14 inches in size, while a viola measures 15.5 to 16.5 inches.
You will commonly find cellos and double basses in orchestras as well, and these instruments are even bigger than violins or violas, though again they share some visual characteristics.
So, the size of the instrument is an important if small differentiator.
Difference #2: Tuning & Pitch
A violin is tuned G, D, A, E.
Meanwhile, a viola is tuned C, G, D, A.
Now, the relationship between each string is a fifth (i.e. D is a fifth above G, G is a fifth above D, and so on).
That’s the same for violin and viola.
So, playing the two instruments requires a slightly different approach.
The two instruments offer a different selection of notes.
A violin is higher pitched, while a viola is slightly lower pitched.
While this isn’t always the case, oftentimes this means more complex parts are written for violin while the viola plays a more supporting role.
Again, this does not mean that viola is always easier or that composers haven’t written complex parts for them.
It depends entirely on the composition.
But if you were harmonizing many layers of instruments, these are the kinds of things you would be thinking about too (e.g. what should the violas be doing while the violins are doing this, etc.).
This is likely one of the most importance differences to understand between the violin and viola.
Difference #3: Tone
A violin and viola don’t sound entirely alike, and there are many players who appreciate these differences and even chose their instrument based on these differences.
Here's what a solo violin sounds like:
And, here's what a solo viola sounds like:
Good to know!
Difference #4: Technique
This difference is somewhat debatable.
But most expert sources say different techniques are required for different instruments and the violin and viola are no exception.
Naturally, you would have to compensate for the size of the instrument, since violins and violas vary in size.
There are other differences someone who plays both instruments would be able to explain.
Difference #5: Notation
Violin players usually read music off the treble clef, which is standard for many instruments.
Meanwhile, violists read music off the alto clef, which isn’t as common.
This is not something you would necessarily know unless you’ve been involved with an orchestra.
The alto clef works much the same way the other clefs do – just that the order of notes changes a little.
On an alto clef, the middle line on the stave represents a C4 instead of a B5.
And, not surprisingly, this is the case because of a difference between the instruments we’ve already covered – a difference in pitch.
Difference #6: Strings
This ties in with a point already mentioned, namely tuning and pitch.
Violas have slightly thicker strings compared to violins.
This is common as an instrument moves up in size – just look at an electric guitar and an electric bass.
A bass guitar has far heavier strings than a guitar does.
Difference #7: Bow Frogs
Nope, I’m not talking about the short-bodied tailless amphibian.
The part you hold at the end of a bow is called a “frog” and is often decorated with a slide and small circle.
The main difference is that viola bows are a bit heavier.
And, sometimes the frog on a viola bow is curved instead of being straight-edged, like on a violin bow.
Difference #7: Seating Position
Most orchestras have a specific seating arrangement for their instrumentalists.
Most of the time, violinists are seated stage right towards the front, while violists are seated near the middle of the orchestra next to the cellos.
You can even find orchestral seating diagrams online if you’re curious to see how this works in practice.
This isn’t a significant difference outside of the orchestral world, but one that’s good to know in case you’re at a concert and want to know where the violists are located on stage.
Are There Other Differences?
The short answer is yes, such as the history of the violin versus the history of the viola.
But the most important differences are noted above.
If you understand these key differences, you should be good to go (unless you’re needing to do some deeper research for a college paper or something).
Should I Buy/Learn To Play A Violin Or Viola?
This is a bit of a nuanced question, and that being the case, there isn’t necessarily an easy answer.
There might be an easy answer for you based on the criteria mentioned below, but that’s not a guarantee.
Either way, let’s begin our exploration.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to determine which stringed instrument to buy.
Which Are You More Comfortable With?
This isn’t something you’re going to know unless you pick up and play both the violin and viola for a while.
Some people find the viola large and cumbersome.
Some people find the violin a challenge to hold for longer periods.
When playing an instrument, some discomfort may be pay for the course, but that doesn’t mean you must live with more discomfort.
Another important difference is the fingerboard, which varies in size from one to the other.
This small detail may seem like it shouldn’t matter but it can be an important factor.
So, it might be worth trying both instruments just to get a sense of what you like.
Which Do You Like Most?
You’re more likely to stick with an instrument you enjoy playing versus one that isn’t much fun for you.
It might seem inconsequential, but some people choose instruments based on their timbre/tone, and it’s perfectly okay to choose based on criteria like that – many violinists and violists do.
Learning to play music certainly takes a lot of work but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the process.
I would suggest you do.
Do You Want To Play Flashier, More Interesting Parts Or Do You Want To Play Supportive Color & Texture?
As noted earlier, violins and other instruments tend to get some of the most interesting parts to play in an orchestra.
Violists usually play a supportive role in making other instruments shine.
If you’d like to learn more complex parts, you may prefer to play the violin.
If you don’t mind helping the other parts of the orchestra look good, then viola is a good choice.
How Much Time Do You Want To Spend Practicing?
Both violin and viola take time to master, and there isn’t much difference in terms of the effort or time involved.
The only difference would be the one already noted – that violin players sometimes get more interesting and complex parts than viola players.
Having said that, learning to play both does have its advantages, even if it is the more expensive and time-consuming path to follow.
Here are the main reasons you might consider learning both:
- Both instruments have unique characteristics you get to enjoy.
- Playing the viola can teach you a great deal about tone – a skill that can translate well on the violin.
- It gives your brain a workout, especially since you need to learn two clefs.
- You’ll be in more demand. If you can audition for both violin and viola parts, you’ll be able to land more opportunities.
Which Instrument Does Your Music Teacher Recommend?
Obviously, if you don’t have a music teacher, then this isn’t an avenue you can explore.
But it certainly can help to tap into the knowledge and expertise of an experienced teacher if you have access to one.
Hopefully, they don’t force you down one path or another based on superficial and arbitrary criteria, as some musicians have gone down that path.
While it may not be a path laced with regret, it isn’t always one full of joy either.
Still, as I said, it’s nice to have someone to bounce your thoughts off.
Viola Vs Violin, What Is The Difference? And Final Thoughts
Who knew there could be so many differences between two relatively similar looking and functioning instruments?
But when you understand these differences, you are certainly better equipped with the knowledge you need to choose the right one.
There isn’t necessarily an “easy way” to choosing between a violin or viola, but my main piece of advice is to give both a try and see for yourself.
You won’t regret it.