Viola vs. Violin: What’s the Difference?

Selecting the instrument is not an easy choice, particularly if you hesitate between a viola and a violin since those two instruments are similar in many ways. They have the same shape and color, both belong to bowed string instruments, and are played in the same pose.

However, the variations among the viola vs. violin are also notable. The fact the viola is more sizable than the violin is the most apparent difference, but these two don’t have the same sound or purpose, as well.

Viola vs. Violin – History

The word viola came from 16th century northern Italy, where people used it to identify two variations of instruments:

Nowadays, descendants of these string instruments are the violin, viola, cello, and double bass.

In the 19th century, Hermann Ritter invented a Viola Alta, a 19 inches (48 cm) long instrument. Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss incorporated it in their opuses, but it was too complicated to play. Plus, it was way too heavy and physically exhausting for a player.

Finally, in the 1930s, Lionel Tertis made the 17 inches (43 cm) long viola that become a standard size till today.

Unlike the viola, the violin hasn’t changed much throughout history. In fact, it has remained unchanged from the moment it was created until these days. Nowadays, both instruments exist as acoustic and electric models, sometimes with additional strings.

Viola vs. Violin – The Appearance

Viola vs. Violin - The Appearance

The violin and the viola are equal only at first glance. Their shape and color are identical, but the viola is a higher, heavier, and broader instrument than the violin. Plus, you can’t use the same bow for playing on both of them.

Weight – Due to the variation in size, the viola weight more than the violin. An average viola is approximately 1.3 pounds (580 g) heavy, while a violin is lighter and weighs about 1 pound (460 g).

The difference doesn’t seem significant, but the beginners who keep practicing for hours need more strength and extra effort to hold the viola.

Bow – The viola bow is more prolonged and requires more power while moving. One more thing! The end of the viola bow (the bow frog), is curvy while the violin bow has a straight edge.

Size – There are nine violin sizes, and the manufacturers indicate them in several fractions as with the cello and double bass. The smallest is the 1/32 violin. Other sizes include fractional 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 7/8 models, and full-size 4/4 instrument.

On the other hand, the viola size is measured by inches. The smallest model designed for children is only 12 inches (30.5 cm) long. The full-size viola reaches 16.5 to 17 inches (42 – 43 cm).

It is a common practice that students train on the violin first if they can’t handle the size of the viola. That is particularly the case with the kids at an early age, who replace the smaller instrument over time with the viola of the proper size.

The method of choosing the right size is the same for both instruments. You should determine the proper size by measuring the distance from the neck to the middle of the palm.

Treble vs. Alto Clef

The crucial distinction between the viola and the violin is the clef you play in. Only the viola uses the Alto Clef for music sheets. Contrary, you need the Treble Clef when performing on the violin.

The middle of Alto clefs bracket falls on the C tone, so the musicians sometimes refer it as C clef. The treble clef wraps around the G line, so it is called G clef. Once you spot the C or the G note on the sheet, you can identify the rest of the notes without any trouble.

This diversity of clefs for the viola and the violin determines the pitch level. The violin has the highest pitch among string instruments, so instrumentalists call it the soprano voice among instruments. The viola has a mid-range alto tone.

Viola vs. Violin – Strings

Viola vs. Violin - Strings
Image: Noname Music

Modern technology has made it possible to produce electric violas and violins with five or six strings. Nevertheless, traditional models of both instruments have only four. In both cases, you should tune them using the tuner on the tail, or with the peg on the pegbox.

That is where the similarities in the strings end. The violin has shorter and thinner strings than the viola. That results in a rapid viola bow tempo and requires more energetic player moves than during the violin performance.

Plus, the gap between the viola strings is wider than between the violin strings. That means the fingering technique is different, and the violist needs more skill to play the instrument.

The violin strings are lined up from low to high (G, D, A, E), while the viola has strings in a different order (C, G, D, A). You should tune the violin strings in perfect fifths while the viola strings need to be tuned lower. That means the viola is played below a violin’s range, resulting in a different tonality.

Viola vs. Violin – Spectrum of Notes

The imbalance in the length and spectrum of viola and violin strings causes a different note range. In the viola, the lowest open tone begins on C while the lowest open string in the violin is G.

The violin E string produces the highest tone compared to the viola highest A string. This violin feature is the reason for many solo sections in the arrangements for this instrument, while the melodies written primarily for the viola are rare.

You can play either of these instruments within a 4-octave range, but the viola can include notes in a lower range. The violin can’t produce such a low tone.

Viola vs. Violin – Produced Sound

Viola vs. Violin - Produced Sound
Image: Noname Music

Although they look quite resemble, the viola and violin sound entirely different. The viola produces a more profound and darker tone than the violin, which has a higher pitch.

The C string, which the violin usually doesn’t have, provides the viola with a uniquely mellow and velvet tone. Therefore, it is in a lower range than the one the violin produces.

Even though you can play the identical notes on G, D, and A strings on both instruments, they will still sound different. The reason is the viola strings are thicker and much longer than the violin strings.

Viola vs. Violin – Music Variations

The violin repertoire is much wider comparing to the viola. Plus, the violin is an instrument you can hear in almost all sorts of music, from classical to modern jazz, rock, and heavy metal.

Many composers, including Beethoven and Brahms, wrote solo pieces for violin or gave this instrument the leading role in the symphonies. Unfortunately, the viola has always been unfairly neglected, and most violas solo opuses are adaptations from the cello or violin repertoire.

Luckily, there are exceptions to this rule, and the viola is more and more popular in contemporary music. In recent decades, famous bands, such as The Velvet Underground, have included the viola in their lineup.

Viola vs. Violin – Orchestra Performances

Viola vs. Violin - Orchestra Performances
Image: Noname Music

Typically, you can see two sections of the violins in the ensemble. You probably heard that there are the first and the second violin. It is the only string instrument that has more than one section in the orchestra.

On the other hand, the viola’s purpose as part of the chamber ensembles or in symphonies is to create rhythm and harmony. You can see the viola section on the right side, between the cellos and second violins. The first violins, which have the melodic and lyrical role, are always positioned on the left.

Viola vs. Violin – Learning and Playing

The initial pose for playing both these instruments is the same. You should hold the instrument body leaning on the left shoulder and play while your jaw’s left side is on the so-called chinrest. Use the bow with your right hand and play while pressing the strings with your left fingers.

Once you decide to learn to play the string instrument, your tutor will explain to you that the viola is a bigger and heavier instrument with the longer bow than the violin. That means you need more physical strength to play it.

If you just start learning or are an amateur, you can learn to play the viola more quickly than the violin. Longer strings and a more significant gap between them require less fingering precision than is the case with the violin.

Lastly, both instruments require reading sheet music and knowledge of music theory. However, complicated solo sequences written for the violin will demand much more practice and precision.

Summary

Even though the viola and the violin look similar, they are two entirely different instruments. They use different clefs, the violin strings are shorter and thinner, and the sound they produce is not the same.

The violin much more often has the lead role on the concerts, and many composers have created pieces just for it. Most experts suggest it is less demanding to learn to play the viola then the violin. However, both instruments are worth the effort and require practice, dedication, and talent.

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