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What is the Difference Between a Violin and a Viola?

what is the difference between a violin and a viola

The violin and viola are two instruments that are very similar in many ways. One glance, and it can be difficult to tell the two apart. But while they may look alike, they actually have some very distinct differences – both in terms of their sound and the way they are played.

Both the violin and viola have their similarities, but they can be told apart. These two instruments can be differentiated by their size, pitch, tone, and clef when reading sheet music, strings, and bow.

In terms of its physical appearance, the violin appears smaller and has a much thinner body. On the other hand, the viola is a bit larger with a thicker body. The sound that each instrument produces also differs. The violin has a higher pitch, while the viola has a lower and fuller sound. This is due to the fact that the viola’s strings are actually tuned to a lower note than those of the violin.

Violin and Viola Difference Explained

In terms of music and harmony, violins and violas play very different roles. The violin is a lead instrument, which means it often takes on the melody of a piece of music. The viola, on the other hand, provides accompaniment and typically plays a supporting role.

The above reasons are mainly reliant on the size of the instrument. The violin is smaller, so it can be played with more speed and agility. The viola is larger, which gives it a richer and fuller sound.

Considering all of these factors – size, sound, and role in music – it’s easy to see how the violin and viola are two very distinct instruments. Though they may share some similarities, they are ultimately quite different in many ways.

What are the Main Differences Between a Violin and a Viola?

Two of the most common instruments heard and seen in an orchestra are the violin and viola. Although these two are commonly interchanged, there are several differences between the two.

Let’s find out more about them:

what is the difference between a violin and a viola

1. Physical Appearance

As mentioned earlier, in terms of its size, you’ll see there’s a distinct difference between the two. A full-sized violin is usually 14 inches tall, while a viola falls in the range of 15-17 inches tall.

The reason for this difference in size is that the viola’s body is thicker. This, in turn, produces a lower and fuller sound, which significantly contributes to the distinctiveness of each instrument.

One way to easily tell the difference is by the location of the sound hole. The violin has its sound hole located on the lower bout, while the viola’s is placed on the upper bout, near the left shoulder.

2. Note Reading

When playing the violin, you read the treble clef. This clef is also called the G clef because it encircles the G note. Viola players, on the other hand, read the alto clef. The alto clef looks like this:

alto clef

3. Different Strings

At a closer look, disregarding the size, you can also notice that violins and violas differ in terms of their strings. Violas have distinct and thicker strings, with its string notes ordering from A, D, G, and C from bottom to top.

On the other hand, violins have thinner strings compared to violas. The string notes go from E, A, D, to G from bottom to top.

4. Differences in Their Pitch

The distinct sound of the viola is due to its lower pitch, which is a result of having thicker strings. Violins, on the other hand, have a higher pitch because of their thinner strings. Aside from the thickness of the strings, the string notes placed on each instrument also play a role in their sound.

The range of the viola is also an octave lower than the violin.

5. Orchestra Placement

If you’re a fan of classical music, you might often wonder why violins are placed in the front while violas are located behind them.

The violin’s higher pitch allows it to be more audible and stand out even when other instruments are playing. The viola’s sound, on the other hand, blends well with other instruments, making it the perfect candidate for supporting the harmony and providing background music.

violin orchestra

6. Their Bow Frogs Also Differ

Both are string instruments, so does it mean that you can use the same bows? No, that’s not the case. Not only are their strings different, but so are their bow frogs.

To the untrained eye, it might be challenging to distinguish the two. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the frog of a viola’s bow is more curved, while the violin’s is flatter. The difference in shape is due to their different string tension. The weight and size are also different, with the violin’s bow being lighter than that of the viola.

What are Some Similarities Between Violin and Viola?

Despite some of the differences, both string instruments share a few similarities, such as:

1. The Total Number of Strings

Although tuned differently, with varying string thicknesses, both the violin and viola have four strings.

2. Similar Bowing Techniques

Without getting too much on the technical side, the violin and viola share the same handling and bowing techniques. This means that you can learn how to handle the violin and be able to switch to playing the viola by just taking into consideration how they are both played.

When switching between instruments, however, there would be some changes in the clef notes that you’ll read in terms of sheet music. The hand and body positioning, in general, will remain the same.

3. The Way They are Held

The way you hold the violin is also how you carry the viola. You place the instrument under your chin and against your shoulder. The bow is then placed in your right hand, while the other hand is used to hold down the strings on the fingerboard.

Final Thoughts

Both string instruments loved by many, the violin and viola, differ in terms of size, shape, number of strings, and even the type of clef used. But despite these differences, they also share some similarities, such as their bowing techniques and the way they are held.

As a general rule, violins are smaller yet produce higher tone and pitch, while violas are slightly bigger and have a lower tone.