Viola vs violin, is there in fact a difference?
Simply put, yes violas & violins are two different instruments.
But that said, these orchestral string instruments are like two peas in a pod, sharing a similar origin, looks, and style of play.
Often, this makes it difficult to determine which is which.
Let’s take a closer look!
Comparing Viola vs Violin
At first glance, it may seem like the viola and violin are of the same size.
But if you put them side by side, you’ll notice that the viola is bigger. Specifically, the viola has a full body length of between 15.5 and 16.5 inches while that of the violin ranges between 13 and 14 inches.
Violas are also wider than violins. In fact, violins come in 9 different sizes compared to violas that only come in 4 sizes.
Violins are the toddlers of the stringed instrument family. And just like babies, they have the highest pitched sounds. Their sounds dominate other instruments in the orchestra, and this makes them a popular option for carrying melodies.
Violas, on the other hand, produce lower pitched sounds compared to violins. But even then, they are the second highest pitched in the string family.
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The reason for this is that they have thicker strings, which results in a deeper, mellow and slower sound. That’s why it takes longer to hear sound from the minute the bow is rubbed on the strings.
Planning to switch from violin to viola? If you are, you should be particularly mindful of this difference. The last thing you want is to find yourself lagging behind other violists in an orchestra.
If you’re new to string instruments, take note that bows used for violins and violas are completely different. Since the viola’s strings are thicker, they require a stronger/heavier bow.
The bows used with violas are about 10 grams heavier than those used with violins. While using the wrong bow might not have a profound effect, it will wreck your instrument over time.
A little easier to spot than weight is the discrepancy between each of the instrument’s frog. This is the element of the bow that a player holds.
With the viola, this component is chunkier and sometimes curved. By contrast, a violin bow has a smaller, straight edge.
This is one of the primary differences between a violin and a viola. Violists read their music from the alto clef while violinists use the more familiar treble clef.
Alto clef or C clef is fairly easy to read although it requires a bit of getting used to. Initially, this clef was widely used in the Baroque period but nowadays, it’s only reserved for the viola.
Conversely, a violin is played in treble or G clef. Since it’s the highest ranged instrument in the string category, it’s dubbed the “soprano voice” of an orchestra.
Tuning and Strings
As we mentioned earlier, viola strings are thicker than those of the violin. If you take a closer look, you’ll also notice that they carry greater tension and they’re longer.
Apart from the differences in length, thickness and the extent of tension, these instruments vary in their string order. With a violin, the string order is from G, D, A then E.
Viola strings, on the other hand, go from the lowest to highest: C, G, D, A. In this case, three of the strings are similar to a violin, save for the fact that each of them has been moved one position up. Also, the E-string is omitted and a low C-string is incorporated into the low/left section of the mechanism.
It is due to this style of tuning that violins are used to play the melodic parts of a music piece. Violas play a more supportive, harmonic role to violins.
Mode of Arrangement
To understand this point, you should first familiarize yourself with the overall arrangement of an orchestra. It consists of 4 groups of instruments: strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. The string instruments take up the biggest portion, comprising almost half of the orchestra performers.
The string section itself is split into 4 or 5 parts, based on how you break it down. If you classify by type of instrument, there are 4 parts: violin, viola, cello and bass.
Usually, there will be two sections of violins and just a single section for violas. Also, violinists tend to sit close to the front on stage right while violists sit closer to the centre of the orchestra. Nonetheless, the conductors can decide to switch it up a bit, so this is not a permanent arrangement.
Violas are generally bigger than violins, and this calls for a different style of playing. Due to the heavier weight of the strings and bow, a violist has to lean more intensely when playing. In contrast, violin strings are light as is the bow. Thus, players only need to make light strokes to produce sound.
Which was invented first?
The first instruments in the violin family came into existence in the 16th century. The violin, violoncello and viola, all get their name from the term ‘viola’.
Originally, there were two groups of violas: the viola da braccio (meaning it’s played on the arm) and viola da gamba (meaning it’s played on the legs). These phrases were invented, based on the part of the body where the instrument was played from.
The viola, like the violin, originated from the viola da braccio. However, this instrument came later on in the 18th century, at which time the phrase ‘viola’ was being phased out.
In modern times we even have the choice to play electric violins.
Which should you play?
The truth is, no one instrument is superior to the other. To figure out which instrument is right for you, you have to weigh the pros and cons of each. You can then decide which instrument’s perks matter most to you and the disadvantages that you can handle more easily.
- You only need minimal effort to play a violin. This applies to both the energy needed to hold it securely and the amount of pressure you need to apply on the strings
- The violin is easily the most recognized string instrument. Its role in the orchestra can be likened to that of the lead guitar.
- There are so many music pieces written for the violin. What this means is that violinists have a higher chance of being recognized for their talent.
- Violins are highly-versatile. They can be used to play any kind of music; from pop to jazz and classical soundtracks written centuries ago.
- Since it’s the most popular of the two, there’s more competition in the violin world. This goes for both the number of violinists and the level of skill.
- There’s less competition. If you’re trying to get a top spot in a coveted orchestra, learning the viola is your best bet. There are fewer people who play violas than violins.
- Does not require much skill to learn. If you’re familiar with playing a violin, you can also play a viola.
- Playing a viola requires more energy since it’s larger and heavier. You’re also need to apply more pressure when making bow strokes.
- It’s harder to be in the limelight when playing a viola. Since they only play a supportive role to the violin, their music fades into the background.
- A viola has to be read in alto clef. For some, this could mean learning to read music all over again.