A lot of people, even musical folks, may still have a hard time differentiating a viola from a violin. To someone who knows a bit about both, this is very shocking. After all, the instruments look virtually the same.
With that in mind, many key differences that set them apart and determine their playing style, purpose, and position in an ensemble. Learning about these differences and how they translate to real-world applications is the only way to figure out which instrument is the perfect match for you. Without further ado, let’s start the viola vs violin debate.
Table of Contents
- Size Differences
- Different Strings and Tuning
- Different Notations – the Treble and the Alto Clef
- Different Sounds
- Where Each Instrument Fits
- Different Note Ranges
- A Modern Comparison and a Quick Takeaway
- Playing Difficulty
- How to Pick Your Instrument
- My Final Thoughts on the Viola vs Violin Debate
The biggest and most recognizable difference between a violin and a viola is the size. The violin is the smaller of the two. Even though it looks virtually the same and is often even polished the same way, the violin can be 3/4 the size of a viola.
But it’s not just about length. A viola is considerably wider than a violin too. If this still doesn’t seem like enough, know this. Violins can come in up to nine sizes. In comparison, violas tend to stick to four standard sizes, each of which is still larger than the largest violin.
If you want to talk straight inches, a violin will likely never exceed 14”. Violas, on the other hand, tend to start at 15” or above and can reach even up to 18” in length.
Interestingly enough, some violas are smaller than violins. But these are not standard sizes; they’re student sizes and not necessarily very popular. Some beginner or student violas can be as short as 12”. However, even then, the difference between a student viola and a violin is noticeable due to the extra width.
Different Strings and Tuning
For the most part, both violins and violas use just four strings. That said, their electric counterparts can feature up to six strings. But even though they have the same number of strings, the tuning is different.
A viola plays in a lower register. Therefore, unlike a violin’s standard G, D, A, E tuning, a viola will have a C, G, D, A tuning. Given the difference between the lowest strings on each, G and C, a viola almost always has the tuning one fifth lower.
There’s also a considerable physical difference between strings. Because a viola is bigger, the strings are also thicker. That also makes it easier to understand why you would need a heavier bow when playing the viola.
If we’re speaking of bows, there are no differences between a violin bow and a viola bow when it comes to their construction. The only differences are in size and calibration.
Different Notations – the Treble and the Alto Clef
For those with less knowledge of musical notations, the clef is a symbol that indicates the pitch of the notes from its corresponding lines.
Why does this matter in this case? Because the clef is different for these two sibling instruments. As a violin player, you’ll have to read the music from the treble clef. As a viola player, you will have to get familiar with the alto clef.
What’s interesting is that the viola is the only instrument that uses the alto clef notation.
Seeing as how a viola is tuned much lower than a violin, it makes sense that it produces a deeper and mellower sound. Due to the tunings both instruments use, they also share some notes. However, even then, the same notes will sound much more somber when played on the viola.
That’s because of the larger body, the thicker strings, and the different tuning.
Where Each Instrument Fits
As a result of their differences, it should come as no surprise that violins and violas don’t occupy the same positions in an ensemble, nor do they have the same purpose.
Violins are there to create melodic and lyrical lines. In most ensembles, it’s customary to have two sections of violins, hence the saying – first violinist and second violinist.
Interestingly enough, this is this only string instrument that gets to have multiple sections in a symphonic ensemble.
A viola is most often used in chamber ensembles or in symphonies to create rhythm and provide certain harmonic elements that are unique to its tone. At the same time, it’s rare to see more than one row or section of violas in any ensemble.
Different Note Ranges
Different strings and tunings lead to different note ranges. That’s another big difference between these two instruments that can help you understand them and decide which one is better suited for you.
With viola notes ranging from C to A and violin notes ranging from G to E, meaning violins can be played a lot higher. Of course, you can play within a four-octave range on either instrument. But, with only the violin having access to the E string, it makes it more suitable for soloing.
A Modern Comparison and a Quick Takeaway
If you’re new to classical music and other string instruments besides guitars, here’s a crude way to look at the viola and violin. If the violin is the lead guitar in a band, then the viola is the rhythm guitar. It’s not low enough to be called the bass since that’s the role of the cello.
Understanding this basic comparison can be very important in determining which type of instrument will be better suited for you, especially if this is new territory for you. So do you want to be the star of the show? If so, then perhaps the violin is the instrument for you.
Because the instruments are so different in build and tonal range, there are some very clear differences when it comes to playing. For example, the viola is a bigger instrument with thicker strings that require more strength to produce flawless notes.
The violin is quite the opposite. With thinner strings and lower string action, it’s much easier to press down on the strings of a violin. As far as accuracy goes, this is not necessarily the same. Since there’s less room to work with, your precision needs to be on-point if you’re playing the violin.
How to Pick Your Instrument
Now that you know all the important differences, it should be pretty easy to make a decision. If you have some knowledge of music theory, then you can probably make a good guess as to which instrument would be easier to pursue.
But, another aspect you may want to consider is what you’re looking to get from this endeavor. Do you want to be a concert player, or do you want to play for yourself?
If you want to become a pro and make money from playing either instrument, then it’s probably best if you chose the viola. Even though I’ve previously mentioned that there are more spots for violinists in an ensemble, the competition is also far fiercer.
Not a lot of aspiring musicians flock towards the viola. That makes it an easier instrument to go pro with because there would be less competition.
The viola is also a bit easier to learn as a complete beginner. Even though it’s a larger instrument, it’s also less punishing regarding finger accuracy at first. And, the parts required of a violist are usually less complex than those of a first or even second violinist.
That said, you may not have such a good time switching from violin to viola. That’s because of how different the notations are. It’s not impossible or very difficult, but it is considerably frustrating for sure.
Versatility and Availability
Let’s say you’re not planning on going the route of a symphony violinist or violist. How do you know which instruments suits you best then?
Well, look at it this way. Violins are very versatile. It is an instrument that you can hear in anything from classical music to jazz to rock, to heavy metal. It can adapt to almost any piece of music, mainly due to its resemblance to the lead guitar.
A viola not only requires you to relearn how to read music, but it’s also not the instrument to help you stand out. In terms of modern applications, you’re unlikely to see written parts for a viola in pop, rock, metal, or even jazz for that matter.
Luckily, you don’t have to stress too much about prices. Both violas and violins range between $100 and thousands of dollars. With both instruments, the student models will be cheaper. Even though the viola is a bigger instrument, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily more expensive, or more long-lasting and durable for that matter.
My Final Thoughts on the Viola vs Violin Debate
As you can see, although they look virtually the same in pictures, put side by side, these two instruments exhibit clear differences. These range from how they look to how they feel and how they sound.
If you’re serious about becoming a career musician, then I recommend trying to go all out on the violin. However, if you’re not too confident in your skills and you have no prior experience with any instrument, then the viola is also a great way to start.
The lack of any music theory knowledge will make it easier to learn the unique clef, and the lack of competition in the field may help you succeed faster and get more confidence.