Violins and violas look almost identical. Since I’ve considered taking music lessons on one of these instruments, I’ve always wondered about the differences between a viola versus violin.
If you’re wondering, too, it turns out there are quite a few differences between the two instruments. Knowing and understanding them will help broaden your understanding of both. If you’re like me, it may also help you decide which instrument to learn.
Violin vs. Viola Size
The most apparent difference between the two instruments is their size. Violas are larger than violins. A full-size violin’s body is about 14 inches long, whereas a full-size viola’s body is 16 to 17 inches long. Violas are also wider than violins, giving them the proportions that make them look huge.
Besides that, violins come in nine different sizes, while violas only come in four. The reason for multiple sizes has to do with the musician. Children learning either instrument need smaller versions than adults. But even though the violin is smaller than the viola, the smallest viola is still considerably smaller than a full-size violin, at just 12 inches long.
The size difference is one of the things that makes the viola lower-pitched than the violin. A bigger, heavier body resonates more deeply than a smaller body. Violas have a more mellow sound that adds richness to the upper string section of an orchestra.
They act as a bridge between the high, melodic sounds of the violins and the low accompanying bass sounds of cellos and basses.
Violin vs. Viola: Strings and Tuning
Violins, violas, cellos, and basses all have four strings stretched along their bodies over a bridge. They run from the tuning pegs at the top of the fingerboard to the tailpiece at the bottom of the body.
Each instrument has different strings, though. A viola’s highest string is five steps below a violin’s highest string, while the lowest string is likewise five steps below a violin’s lowest string. Violins have an E, A, D, and G string, while violas have an A, D, G, and C string.
Furthermore, viola’s strings are thicker and heavier, contributing to the more resonant, richer sound that compliments those of violins. If you try tuning both instruments, one right after the other, you’ll notice that the strings on a viola also carry more tension than those on a violin.
Despite the differences, players tune both violins and violas the same way. They start with tuning the A string to a tuning fork, an electric tuner, an instrument in the orchestra, a piano, or something else that plays a perfect A. The A string serves as a reference for the rest of the strings on both instruments.
Tuning the strings involves both the pegs in the pegbox and the fine tuners on the tailpiece. Players use the pegs to make significant tuning changes and use the small fine tuners to tweak the strings’ tuning until they’re perfect.
Here’s a video about tuning:
Violin vs. Viola Sound: Clef and Range
Most people, with some familiarity with music, know about the treble and bass clefs. The symbol we know as the treble clef is also known as a G-clef because the curl in the center of the symbol shows you which line on the staff is middle G. Violins use the treble clef.
However, a viola uses neither the treble nor the bass clef. There are more than two clefs in music. Violas use the alto clef, otherwise known as a C clef. It looks like the number three, and the point in the middle shows you which line on the staff is middle C (it’s important to note that there are two C clefs. The other is known as the tenor clef, but neither violins nor violas use it).
Because the upper string on a violin is the E string, violins have a much higher range than violas. When a player shifts their left hand up the fingerboard towards the instrument’s body, they can play those ultra-high pitches.
Violas can’t go that high. They can hit pitches above the E, on a violin, but they can’t go super high.
Even though they’re lower-pitched than violins, violas don’t have as wide a range. Their range is roughly three and a half octaves, while violins have a range of over four octaves. Players can expand these ranges somewhat with harmonics and other techniques, yes. Because of a viola’s size, getting to the upper part of the A string to produce high notes poses a significant challenge.
If you want to hear the difference between the two instruments, Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante” demonstrates it rather well.
Violin vs. Viola Difficulty: Playing Technique
Fingering and bowing techniques between violins and violas differ more than you might think, but that doesn’t make one instrument harder to learn than the other. Both are quite challenging.
Violas require stronger fingering than violins because the strings are thicker and heavier. That requires stronger hands and fingertips than a violin.
Both violinists and violists can shift their hands to different positions to hit higher notes or make playing their music easier. Good fingering technique is merely fingering patterns that avoid unnecessary string crossing and position shifting.
Both violins and violas have multiple hand positions as well as something called “half position.” That’s when you move your hand a half position closer to the scroll to play certain lower pitches. The half position is far more common with violas than with violins.
Players also need to lean harder on the strings and use a more robust bowing technique to get a good tone. When you draw the bow across the strings without enough pressure, they don’t vibrate properly, the bow slips around, and you get a whispery, whistling sound that is, quite frankly, very annoying.
A viola’s bow is somewhat heavier than a violin’s, and players must use more pressure on the strings to get a decent sound. Besides that, the frogs on each bow are different. A bow’s frog is at the base of the bow, holds the bow hair, and is where you hold the bow with your right hand. The frog on a viola bow is rounded, whereas it’s square on a violin bow.
Despite their apparent similarities, there are many differences between violins and violas. The most obvious is their size, but there are many other differences, including how they sound, their range, the techniques you would use while playing them, and even their position in an orchestra.
Violas provide a more profound, richer harmony to compliment the higher sounds of the violins. They also offer a bridge between the violins and lower-pitched instruments like cellos and basses.
If you have additional questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments!