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What Are the Differences between the Violin and Viola?

Posted by Anton Krutz on

The Violin and the Viola are both very important members of the string family, and both have quite a colorful and interesting history. The violin and viola are descendents from the Viol family of instruments, which are comprised of instruments that are fretted and/or bowed. A few of these predecessors include medieval fiddle, rebec, and lira da braccio.

As you can see, the design of these instruments are no less than interesting, and quite different from the design of a violin or viola you may see in present day. The closest ancestor to the modern day string instruments of this Viol family is the viola da gamba (literally “Viol of the leg,” because it was played by holding it between the legs), which evolved into the modern day cello. This instrument was adapted in the 15th century to be played under the chin and held with the arms, and the resulting instrument was called the viola da braccio (literally “Viol of the arm). The reason for the adaption was so that the smaller instruments could play the higher, lyrical notes in the music being played at the time. Once these instruments started being played widely under the chin, they were able to begin a process of evolution that gradually took the viola da braccio and separated it into the violins and violas we know today.

So, What's the Difference?

The Violin and the Viola have many similarities, but they are also both very different, and they serve different purposes. Here are a few good distinguishing elements of violins and violas the can help you identify which instrument you are looking at, and even which one may be the best for you if you are about to begin playing and are stuck between violin and viola.

1. Size

If you look at a violin and a viola side by side, you will quickly realize that one is quite a bit bigger than the other. The viola is a larger instrument than the violin, and therefore can be harder to play, especially for beginners. Many children who start playing very young will begin playing on a violin and then move to viola when they can handle the larger instrument size.

Another difference between the two instruments that fall under this category are the way that they are sized. Violins are sized in the same manner as the cello and bass, in fractions. The largest, or full size, violin is a 4/4 size. They go down from there, ¾, ½, ¼, ⅛, and on. The Viola, however is sized differently than all the rest of the orchestral instruments. They are sized in inches, such as 14”, 15”, 15.5”, all the way up to sometimes 17”. The inch measurement refers to the length of the body of the instrument. A 4/4 violin is equivalent to a 14” viola, and any viola larger than 15” is considered to be a “full size” viola.

2. Range

You may have noticed with the violin, cello, and bass that as the instruments get bigger, the sound they produce is lower in pitch. Violin is the highest instrument, as well as the smallest, and likewise bass is the lowest sounding instrument as well as the largest. The viola also follows this trend. As it is in the middle of the violin and cello in regards to size, it is also in the middle in regards to pitch. The violin is the high “soprano” part that usually gets all the melodies in the orchestra, and the viola is the mid-ranged “alto” part which usually covers the inside voices of chords in the ensemble. Both parts are different of course, but they are both of equal importance. The melody is an essential element to a piece of music for obvious reasons, but the melody just on its own would be very boring. The viola's job is often to provide the notes and voices that give a chord being played by the orchestra it's quality, providing harmonic richness that elevates the melody being played by the violins and gives it context and meaning. So viola players, don't ever let a violin player make you think they're better than you. They wouldn't be so great if it weren't for the viola. Not to mention that sometimes violas get featured in pieces. A beautiful example of this is the orchestral arrangement of October by Eric Whitacre. The viola solo at the beginning of that piece will put any violin to shame.

Detailing some specific harmonic differences between the violin and the viola, let's look at the specific range of each instrument. The violin has 4 strings ranging G, D, A, E, from lowest to highest. The viola also has 4 strings, but the range of those strings begin a fourth lower, at C, and then go G, D, and A, like the bottom three strings of the violin. It's also worth noting that the cello has the same string configuration as the viola, but an octave lower.  Since the two instruments share the G, D, and A strings, the parts that are written for each instrument tend to make good use of the string that is unique to each instrument. Viola parts are generally lower and utilize the sound of the low C string, and violin parts take advantage of the extended high range of the instrument, and you will often see in symphony arrangements, for example, that much of the violin parts wail on notes so high that your nose will bleed.

Another difference pertaining to the range of the instruments are the clef they play in when playing written music. The violin plays in the very common treble clef, which is usual for upper range instruments. The viola, however, due to the lower notes, doesn't use the treble clef, because the lower notes on the instrument would be written too low on the treble clef staff and would be almost impossible to read. Because of this, the viola reads music in the alto clef, which is commonly known as simply the “viola clef,” because the viola is about the only instrument that commonly uses the clef in modern day music. Sometimes, however, in viola music, the parts will be higher for a long time, so in order for the notes to be easier to read for the player, the composer will write that section in treble clef.

3. Tone

Because of the difference in body size, the length and thickness of the strings, and the different range between the two instruments, the tone of both the violin and the viola are quite different from each other. The violin has a light airy tone that has a lot of high end and not very much bass. It can sometimes be very tinny, sometimes rough and crunchy, like static, and sometimes very full and warm even without lots of bass. The viola, since the instrument is bigger, the strings are thicker, and the notes are lower, is generally a much mellower instrument. It's alto and tenor range paired with the rounded buttery tone can make the viola one of the closest sounding instruments to the human voice, which strangely enough is a very naturally desirable quality in an instrument, even for people with an untrained ear. Cello is very similar to viola in this regard. The tone of a viola can get rough as well, but since it naturally has more midrange and bass frequencies, it sounds thicker and can sometimes sound muddy. The tone and range of the instrument is a large reason why the violas are chosen to take on those inside voices of chords that give them their harmonic quality, because the viola makes those notes sing and provides a unique richness to the sound of an ensemble that really can't be achieved in any other way. If you want to hear the tone difference of these instruments in action, watch the video below. You will be able to clearly hear the contrast in tone between the violin and viola, which is actually utilized to allow both instruments to compliment the other in this piece. The violin player is Itzhak Perlman (left side of screen), and the viola player is Pinchas Zukerman (right side of screen).

Hear the tone differences of violin and viola!

Hopefully you are now quite educated on the difference between the violin and viola, and you will be able to pick one out in any circumstance, and if you are someone who is trying to decide on which instrument to pick, hopefully you now have enough information to make a good decision and choose the instrument for you. Each of them have their strengths and each has their own role, and their unique voices give the music they play a very special sense of beauty.