The viola doesn’t get as much love as its smaller sibling. Traditionally many looked down on violists as failed violinists who couldn’t handle the technical demands of violin solos. But the viola is an amazing instrument in its own right and one that has in recent years begun receiving more of the recognition it so richly deserves.
So what are the differences between a viola and a violin?
Other than their sizes, violas and violins look very much alike. It would be easy enough to think of the viola as merely a bigger violin. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The strings, the bow, the tone, the musical notation, and even the playing technique differ between a viola and a violin.
The main differences between a viola and a violin are:
- A standard-size viola is 430mm (17in) long, whereas a standard-size violin is 356mm (14in) long
- A viola’s strings are tuned CGDA, whereas a violin is strung in GDAE
- A viola is most often used in a supporting musical role, whereas a violinist has more solo opportunities
- Music for viola is written using an alto clef, whereas music for violin uses the more common treble clef
If you want to learn more, let’s start from the beginning.
The History of Violas and Violins
During the Renaissance and Baroque era, musicians played stringed bowed instruments called viols. The viol had an arched bridge, like modern violas and violins, but it also had six strings and frets like a modern guitar. Viols were held da gamba (on the leg) vertically, and viol consorts used treble, tenor, and bass viols. While the viol first became popular in late 15th century Italy, it soon spread throughout Europe.
In the mid-16th century, Italian luthiers introduced a new version of the viol. This smaller, fretless instrument was played da bracca (on the arm), with the base resting beneath the player’s chin. Soon this new style became the norm amongst string players. As with viols, these stringed instruments were made in treble, tenor, and bass sizes. The large violoncello, which had to be played vertically like a viol da gamba, handled the bass line. The smaller violin took the soprano line.
The viola, which could cover the alto and tenor parts, was the most commonly played. It was strung an octave above the violoncello, as today’s viola is strung an octave over the cello. The viola had greater resonance and power in the midrange than the violin and could go higher than the larger violoncello.
But the viola was, and is, the product of some design compromises. The viola is a bit too big for its highest notes and a bit too small for some of its lowest notes. Its lowest range lacks the richness of the cello, while its highest register is not so sweet as the violin. In time the viola’s smaller and larger siblings stole the spotlight, and the viola was relegated to a background role.
Where once an ensemble might have three violas to a single violin and violoncello, by the 18th century, a string quartet consisted of two violins, a cello, and a viola. Once the star of the show, the violin now played second fiddle to the second fiddle.
Viola vs. Violin: Breaking Down the Differences
Both viola and violin bodies are made with two large, arched pieces of wood held apart by shaped wood strips (what we call “sides” and luthiers call ribs). The top piece of wood, the soundboard, has f-shaped holes carved into it. Viola and violin tops are typically made of spruce, with maple used for the back and ribs. These tops resonate along with the strings as they are played, amplifying the instrument’s sound so it can fill a room or concert hall.
Violas and violins are shaped with waists along their side that form a distinctive hourglass shape. These curves give the musician room to move the bow over the strings at different angles without hitting the wooden body. Along the edge of the soundboard and sometimes the back, you will find a decorative edging called “purfling.” This edging isn’t just decorative. It provides the board with the added flexibility that improves the tone and helps prevent cracks as the wood shrinks and expands with temperature and humidity.
Inside the violin and viola, we find a bass bar, a strip of seasoned spruce that helps support the instrument against the tightly-wound strings. The bass bar is mounted across the length of the violin body beneath the lowest string, where the tension is greatest. Beneath the high strings, we find a dowel called the soundpost connecting the back and the soundboard. The bass bar and sound post shore up the thin wood and also improve the sound.
The big difference between a viola and a violin body is the size. A standard violin body is 356 mm (14in) long, though violins come in smaller sizes for shorter and younger players. While most modern violas range between 390-430mm (15.5-17in), violas are as large as 455mm (18in) were common during the Baroque era.
For the best acoustics on its lowest notes, a viola body should ideally be around 530mm (21in) long and with greater depth between the back and top. Since only a person with uncommonly long arms and neck could play such an instrument, viola makers build to a playable size.
Glued to the top of your viola or violin is a curved ebony fingerboard. Ebony is stiff enough to withstand the pressure of strings and the wear of fingers rubbing through hours of rehearsal. Violin fingerboards are typically 270mm (10.6in) long, 5mm tall, and taper from 24mm (0.9in) wide at the top to 41.5mm (1.6in) wide at the bottom. The fingerboard is mounted at an angle so the strings can vibrate.
A viola fingerboard is 315mm (12.4in) long and tapers in width from 29mm to 49mm (1.14-1.9in), but on a viola, the bottom fingerings are less accessible. The violin’s smaller body size makes it easier to play lower on the fingerboard, giving violinists an advantage when playing high notes.
The fingerboard is glued to the neck, a piece of wood that supports the fingerboard, and the pegbox that holds the tuning pegs. At the top of the fingerboard is a nut, a flat piece of wood that connects the pegbox to the fingerboard and holds the strings in place. Atop the neck is a decorative wooden scroll.
Traditionally violin and viola strings were made with catgut. Despite the name, catgut is actually made with the intestines of sheep and other herbivores. Catgut core strings are still used today by players who appreciate their complex overtones enough to tolerate their fragility and tendency to go out of tune under hot stage lights. But today, most violinists use strings made with synthetic nylon fiber cores wrapped with thin metal wires.
While metal-core violin strings are popular with country, bluegrass, and some jazz violinists, classical violinists typically use them only for the high E string if they use them at all. Metal strings are much more commonly used by violists. The additional brightness and speed of action that a metal string offers helps beginners and amateur viola players overcome the viola’s slower action and sharpens the viola’s dark sound.
A viola’s four strings are strung in C3-G3-D4-A4, while a violin is tuned to G3-D4-A4-E5. You might think you could use the upper three strings of the viola as the lower three strings in your violin, but you’d be wrong.
Viola strings are designed for viola-length instruments and are typically strung at considerably higher tension than violin strings. Violin strings would likely be too short for your viola and prone to breakage. Viola strings would make unreasonable demands on your violin’s tuning pegs and put excess pressure on its neck, bridge, and tailpiece.
Both violins and violas keep their strings elevated by way of a thin, specially shaped piece of wood called a bridge. The bridge is not connected to the body by glue or nails and is held in place entirely by the tension of the strings. The bridge helps keep the strings taut by pushing them upward and also serves to transfer sound into the resonant instrument body.
Like the nut, the bridge has tiny grooves that serve to hold the strings in place. The space between strings on a viola is wider than on a violin, and the viola bridge holds them further from the fingerboard than violin strings. This means the viola has a very different feel and response than a violin.
The tailpiece holds the strings in place on the bottom end for both violas and violins. Tailpieces are traditionally made of ebony or boxwood, but you can find them in rosewood, pernambuco, and even high-tech materials like carbon fiber. The tailpiece plays an important role in the instrument’s final sound.
An overly light or resonant tailpiece can cause “wolf notes” or unwanted harmonics on certain tones. An overly heavy tailpiece can make your violin or viola sound muffled and muddy. It is also important that the tailpiece’s dimensions are appropriate for the instrument body. With violins, this is generally not a problem. Because there is more variation in viola size, finding a properly fitting tailpiece may require more effort.
Both violinists and violists use bows, but their bows are not interchangeable. Because a violin uses thinner strings, its bow is around 10 grams lighter than the viola bow. The viola bow also has a different frog (handgrip). While a violin bow has a thin, straight frog, the frog on a viola bow is thicker and curved downward slightly. This allows the player to attack the thicker viola strings with the necessary force.
Because viola strings are thicker than violin strings, their response time is slightly slower. This means a viola requires more aggressive and forceful bowing than a violin.
Viola Music vs. Violin Music
The list of composers who have written pieces for violin is longer than the list of composers who haven’t. The list of composers who have written pieces that showcase the viola is considerably smaller. In most music written between the 18th and mid-20th centuries, the viola served to fill in passages and provide harmonies while the violin did the heavy melodic lifting.
A growing number of modern musicians have moved the viola out of its supporting role. John Cale of the Velvet Underground is probably rock’s most famous viola player, but viola can also be heard on tracks by 10,000 Maniacs and Imagine Dragons. In jazz Mat Maneri has transformed the viola into a soulful solo instrument.
While the viola repertoire is growing, it remains comparatively limited next to music written for violins. And to make things even more complicated for violists, their music is written in a different clef.
The alto clef is often called the viola clef because the viola is the most popular instrument for which it is used. (It’s also used for alto trombone). Opera buffs are more likely to call it the countertenor clef because it is also used for music written for the countertenor’s voice.
The alto clef places C4 (middle C) on the third line of the staff, where the treble clef places it on the first line below the staff, and the bass clef places it on the first line above the staff.
Composers will sometimes use the treble clef for passages calling on the viola’s highest register. But since many of these notes are difficult to play on the viola, you are only likely to see this in the most advanced viola pieces. The alto clef may cause some difficulties with sight-reading at first, but with practice, you will soon become accustomed to the new clef.
Cecilio CVA-500 Viola is a wonderful starter viola for a reasonable price. Comes in sizes from 12 to 16.5 inch this viola is made out of the hard carve spruce and flamed maple back and sides. It is strung with D’Addario Prelude Strings and comes with an ebony fingerboard and fittings. The outfit includes a brazilwood bow, hard case, tuner, rosin cake, and an extra bridge. You’ll have everything you need to get started!
- Comes in a lot of different sizes
- Quality materials
- Comes with everything you need
- Not suitable for a professional
- Fittings and bow will need to be replaced
- Needs to be set up
DZ Strad Viola Model 102 is a great step-up viola made by a company that has been around for a long time. The viola features a solid spruce top with a maple back and sides using aged tonewoods. Its been hand-rubbed with antique varnish. An ebony fingerboard and fittings, along with a hard case, bow, rosin, and shoulder rest, make up the rest of the outfit. You can purchase this viola in sizes 13″ to 16″.
- Made with high-quality materials and fittings
- Comes with everything you need to get started
- Hand rubbed varnish
- Quality accessories and case
- Doesn’t come in all sizes
- More expensive
Fiddlerman Artist Violin is a great choice for a serious student. Available in sizes 14″ to 16.5″, this viola features solid hand-carved spruce and maple tonewoods with ebony fingerboard and fittings. The wood has been dried for at least seven years and features an oil-based hand-rubbed varnish. The viola is strung with dominant strings typically, but strings will be chosen based on the viola. The outfit includes an oblong viola case, Fiddlerman carbon fiber bow, shoulder rest, Holstein premium rosin, polishing cloth, and digital tuner. Additionally, the viola includes a lifetime structural warranty and free lifetime adjustments.
- Quality dried tonewoods
- Hand rubbed varnish
- Dominant strings
- Comes with quality accessories and a case
- Life warranty and adjustments
- Ebony fittings
- Not available in all sizes
Bunnel Pupil Violin Outfit is a great student violin at an affordable price. This violin is manufactured in the USA and goes through a throughout setup. For the price, you can’t really beat this outfit. The violin is made from solid carved spruce and maple tonewoods, with ebony fittings. The tailpiece has built-in composite fine tuners of decent quality. It comes strung with D’Addario Prelude Strings. The outfit includes a Guiliani Brazillwod bow and rosin, oblong case, extra set of portland violin strings, and a string cloth. It comes fully set up with everything you need to get started.
- Made in the USA with quality tonewoods and fittings
- Good price to quality ratio
- Built-in fine tuners
- String with D’Addario Prelude Strings
- Quality accessories
- Not suitable for the advancing student
Cecilio CVN-600 is the most expensive Cecilio instrument, but it’s also the best violin for its price. This violin features a one-piece back and flamed wood built with solid-aged spruce and maple tonewoods. The fingerboard and fittings are made from pure ebony, and the tailpiece contains four built-in fine tuners. The violin is strung with D’Addario Prelude Strings. The outfit includes 2 brazilwood bows, an oblong case with a hydrometer, rosin cake, adjustable shoulder rest, and an extra bridge.
- Hand rubbed varnish
- Highly flamed one-piece back
- Built-in fine tuners
- String with D’Addario Prelude Strings
- Good case
- Will need set up
- Bow and other accessories will need to be replaced
Fiddlerman Concert Deluxe Violin is a top-of-the-line student instrument that will stay with you for a long time. You can expect to grow with this instrument instead of just outgrowing it, although eventually, that will happen as well. This violin features hand-carved spruce and maple tonewoods that have been dried for at least six years. The fittings are boxwood with Wittner fine tuners installed. The violin is strung with either Kaplan Amo or Dominant Strings. The violin comes fully set up and ready to play by professional luthiers in their Flordia workshop. The outfit includes a Fiddlerman carbon fiber bow, shoulder rest, dark rosin, practice mute, polishing cloth, and digital tuner.
- Aged tonewoods
- Boxwood fittings with Wittner fine tuners
- String with Kaplan Amo or Dominant Strings
- Fully set up and ready to play
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: While the violin is generally listed as the most difficult string instrument to learn, the viola is actually more difficult to master than the violin. Its greater size makes holding the instrument for long periods more challenging. Its longer body makes playing the higher positions challenging, especially on the lower three strings. And the greater distance between fingering positions can cause difficulties for viola players with smaller hands.
Answer: A violin is a better choice for a beginner than a viola. The viola’s larger body and longer neck can be awkward for musicians with shorter arms, while its fingerboard makes playing in the viola’s higher range more challenging. You will have an easier time learning the basics of bowing and finger positions on a violin and a much easier time finding an inexpensive student instrument on which to practice.
Answer: A beginning violist with violin experience is definitely at an advantage over a beginner with no stringed instrument experience. But there are several big differences between playing a viola and violin. Violinists will have to adjust their fingerings to account for the viola’s different stringing and longer neck. They will have to learn how to use their bow with greater pressure and speed than they used on a violin. They will also have to learn the alto clef to read viola parts.
Most skilled violinists or violists will be at least competent players of both instruments. A few musicians, notably Pinchas Zukerman, are virtuosi in both viola and violin. But most musicians will specialize in one instrument or the other.
Answer: A standard-sized viola is bigger than standard size (4/4) violin – but both violas and violins come in different sizes. At 335mm (13in) long, a 1/2 viola is smaller than a 4/4 violin. Some violin players find that starting with a 3/4 viola, whose 356mm (14in) body is the same size as a 4/4 violin, makes it easier for them to grasp viola fundamentals before moving up to a bigger viola.
Violas can be more awkward to play than violins, and violists have a smaller library of music to choose from. But violas also have a velvety, rich sound that can be positively ravishing in the hands of a skilled violist.
If you are looking for a first-string instrument, you will probably do better learning the basics of a violin. If you have your heart set on a viola, do your research and try out violas in person until you find one that feels comfortable. Playing an oversized viola through long hours of practice and rehearsal can lead to joint or neck injuries.
Whether you choose violin or viola, you can look forward to a lifetime of making music. Happy playing!
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