While the two words may sound quite similar, there are quite a few differences in the sound, design, and construction of the violin and viola. While they’re both orchestral stringed instruments that originated in Italy and are played with a bow, there are quite a few differences in size, sound, and playing technique between the two that are worth pointing out. Whether you’re researching an instrument for your child or have always been curious about the differences between the two instruments, here are some core differences between the violin and the viola.
Visually speaking, one of the most obvious differences between the two instruments is their size. The viola is much larger than the violin, meaning the player’s fingers must be placed further apart when playing the viola. Additionally, since the viola is larger than a violin, it’s also much heavier and requires thicker strings and a heftier bow. In general, the viola body length is 15 ¾ inches, while the violin’s is 13 ¾ inches. While this difference isn’t easy to spot when looking at one of the instruments on their own, when you compare the two side by side the difference in size is obvious.
Since the viola has thicker strings, it generally produces a slower, deeper, and more mellow sound than the violin. The violin is the highest-pitched instrument in an orchestra, making them a very popular choice for carrying melodies. The viola, on the other hand, is the second-highest pitched instrument in the string family,and it takes a bit longer for musicians to hear a viola’s sound from the time they touch the strings with the bow. If you’re transitioning from playing the violin to playing the viola, be especially mindful of this difference- you don’t want to be slightly behind the violins in the orchestra!
Many new musicians make the mistake of purchasing violin bows for their viola and vice versa. Since the strings are heavier on a viola, a different bow should be used. Viola bows are about 10 grams heavier than violin bows– this difference in weight may not be easily noticed, but playing with the wrong bow can cause damage to your instrument. Another difference between the two bows is the frog, or the part of the bow that is held in the hand. The frog on a viola bow is rounded in shape,while the frog on a violin bow is pointy. For many, this difference is easier to spot than the difference in weight.
Alto vs. Treble Clef
Another major difference between the viola and the violin is the use of the alto and treble clefs. Violas use an alto clef, which is very different in sound than the treble clef used by the violin. The alto clef uses the C clef and is quite easy to read, with a bit of practice. Although the alto clef was popular in the Baroque period of music, it’s rarely used by instruments other than the viola in modern times. While violas are played almost exclusively in the alto clef, violists occasionally use the treble clef when playing music that’s written (and played) in higher registers. Ultimately, the alto clef is exclusive to the viola.
Tuning & Strings
If you pick up a package of viola strings and compare them to violin strings, you may notice that viola strings are longer and thicker. Once they’re installed onto their respective instruments, you’ll also notice that viola strings carry more tension. In addition to the string length, thickness, and amount of tension, viola and violin strings are tuned differently. Viola strings are normally tuned to C3, G3, and A4, while violin strings are tuned to G3, D4, and A4. Although the viola and violin share three strings, the sound produced by each instrument is audibly different.
Since there are so many differences in the size and construction of a viola and violin, it only makes sense that the playing technique between the two would differ. Since violas are larger than violins the fingering between the two is different- violas require a stronger touch and the player must lean more intensely on the strings. Although both instruments are held in place with the left side of the jaw resting on the chin rest and are supported by the left shoulder, the viola is slightly heavier and requires a bit more strength to hold in place.
Interested in purchasing a violin? Check out our Violin Buying Guide.