Both violins and violas are beautiful, melodic instruments whose repertoire can be found throughout Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, and even contemporary music. From Bach to Led Zeppelin and everything in between, violins and violas have a special place in music history. Selecting an instrument in the strings family is a difficult choice, as each has unique qualities that make it special.
What’s the difference between a Violin and a Viola?
The differences between violin and viola are significant. While they look very similar, the size, sounds, and roles each play are very different.
The violin measures in at approximately 36cm, or 14 inches, from end to end. By contrast, a full-size viola measures about an extra 8cm, or 4 inches, in length. The 4 inches difference in size is important because the larger instrument also means it weighs more and will be heavier to hold, making it more challenging to play for extended periods of time.
A larger instrument also means the intervals on the fingerboard are bigger and the positions will feel different to the performer. The strings on the viola are also larger than the violin and require more force and strength to play. Additionally, the viola bow is larger than the violin bow. Holding the bow and correct form will take time to get used to if making a transition from one to the other. While this may make a transition from viola to violin easier, the reverse will take some time to get used to due to the extra weight and size.
The violin produces higher pitched notes than the viola. The violin is the highest pitched instrument in the strings family, where the viola produces notes in a lower harmonic range. The larger body of the viola creates a deeper, darker, mellower sound and will often be used in a supportive harmonic context.
The difference in sound is unmistakable when heard back to back. For the untrained listener who does not have a familiarity with tone, range, and context, it’s possible the similarities are too great to differentiate. The average listener may not be able to distinguish between the two, simply because they may be unaware of the differences to begin with. But rest assured, their place in the orchestra is not necessarily interchangeable. While it’s possible to play some violin parts with a viola and some viola parts with a violin, the timbre, power, and volume will be distinctly different.
Violins and violas are tuned differently and cover different ranges in the music spectrum. Therefore, the instruments will read in different clefs, which further separates their identities.
The strings on a violin are tuned in intervals of 5ths in order from the lowest sounding string to the highest – G, D, A, E. The violin is considered a soprano instrument and reads on the treble clef.
The viola strings, while also tuned in 5ths, in order from lowest to highest are C, G, D, A. As a result of having this deeper, lower pitch, the viola is closer to an alto voice and will use the alto clef. The viola is the only stringed instrument that reads notation in the alto clef.
Because the violin is the highest pitched instrument in the strings family, it is, therefore, often tasked with brilliant melodic figures and featured in orchestral ensembles from chamber music to full orchestras.
Because the viola has a lower range and produces lower pitched notes, the viola is often responsible for supportive harmonic structures in the ensemble. More contemporary composers have begun to feature the unique and sultry tone of the viola, but it’s traditionally been used in backgrounds and supportive harmony.
The costs are fairly comparable, although violas may seem proportionately more expensive for similar levels of quality. Violas are bigger and require more raw materials to manufacture, hence the slightly extra expense. Violas are also typically not made in quite the same volume as violins due to the demand. From an economics perspective, violas may be a bit more pricey due to less being sold regularly.
Cheap starter violas and violins may be < $500. Quality student model beginner violas and violins may be upwards of $500-$1500, where the next level up, just below professional, may lie in the $1500-$5000 range. Professional violas and violins will cost in excess of $5000, and the difference between the two may be negligible.
The difference in difficulty lies in the eyes of the beholder. For a slender stature and extremely small hands, the viola may feel physically harder. In truth, the one played less will almost always seem more difficult, simply because of the lack of familiarity.
Violins read in the treble clef, so if a student already has experience with music notation, this transition may be effortless. Switching to an alto clef for viola will likely be a source of frustration for a student. However, if the student has no prior experience, then reading either treble or alto clef will present the same level of difficulty.
Switching from violin to viola will have physical challenges with regard to the size and weight of the instrument. However, adapting to the larger intervals may be less of a challenge than the reverse. Violists switching to violin may find the physical demands easier, but struggle with the smaller intervals.
This is where a great teacher can make all the difference. Having a seasoned music educator walk you through the nuances of a new instrument, or navigate the challenges of switching. Great teachers can help economize your practice time and leverage all your knowledge to make a transition from violin to viola, or vice versa, seamless and pain free.
Is the viola better than the violin, or the violin better than the viola?
The performer or listener’s expectation may be the answer to this. Violins generally receive more spotlight, playing the recognizable melodic figures, where violists reside in the background wearing a supportive role. Both can exist and thrive independently, but are stronger and work better together.
The violin’s higher sounds can be more appealing to some, where the darker, lower, and richer sound of the viola can be more appealing to others. The choice ultimately depends on what works best for you.
When considering a violin vs. viola for beginners and young children, the violin may have the edge because of its size. Other than size, consider the role and the sound of the instrument to help decide which is best. If the preference is to support the melody with lower, richer backgrounds, viola is the best pick. If you want to take center stage with the high-pitched melodic instrument, violin may be for you.
How do I know if the violin or viola instrument is right for me?
Considering the aforementioned pros and cons, it’s up to the student and consumer to decide which instrument, and what end goal, is the preference. Everyone has unique tastes, and finding the instrument that best suits that taste should be the guiding factor in making that decision.
Both the violin and the viola hold value extremely well, sound gorgeous and beautiful when played solo and in an ensemble, and are very in-demand. Consider the size, your size, the sound, the role, and the cost when making a decision. If you need assistance, organizations like Forbes Music work with incredibly special violin and viola teachers well adept and helping students understand the differences and nuances of each, and the best way forward to get the experience you want.