One of the biggest music-related confusions for non-instrumentalists (and even some practiced musicians!) is the difference between the viola and the violin.
They’re both stringed instruments, they look very similar, and their names even sound the same – so what exactly is the difference, and how do we tell them apart?
Fear not, music musers, because today’s article will answer all your questions about how the viola differs from the violin, including all the technical, audible, and visual ways to tell one from the other!
By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a chordophone expert!
What is a Viola?
A viola is a chordophone (the proper term for a stringed instrument) that originated in the north of Italy during the 16th century. Historical estimates place the actual date of origin at some point during the 2 decades between 1530 and 1550.
This is a beautiful instrument, both physically and in terms of the music it creates. The sound can be described as somewhere between the violin and the cello in terms of pitch. The rich, sonorous tones of the viola aren’t easily forgotten once they’re heard, especially in the hands of a skilled musician.
Typically, violas can range in size from 15 to 18 inches, although the longer violas are less common, putting the average length for a viola at around 16 inches.
Violas have 4 strings: C, D, G, and finally, A. The pitch is on the lower end of the scale, however, and the C string starts at the octave below the note known as ‘Middle C’.
If you look closely enough at a viola and a violin side by side, you might also notice a difference in their bow frogs. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, a bow frog is a structure on the end of a bow that holds the bow ribbon in place.
The first thing you’ll probably notice just from looking is that the edges of the bow frog are often curved. If you go as far as to hold the bow in your hands, you’ll probably also notice that it has a surprising weight to it.
In terms of a viola’s actual role and contribution to music, particularly in orchestras, the viola is generally regarded more as an accompaniment to the other strings than a carrier of the main melody.
In some respects, this is a shame because the viola can sound absolutely sublime on its own or as the central melody of a piece (listen to Rebecca Clark’s Viola Sonata, and you’ll see what we mean!)
What is a Violin?
Now we come to the violin: undoubtedly one of the most popular stringed instruments of the chordophone family.
The violin (or the version of the violin that most of us are familiar with today) originated in Italy at around the same time as the viola did during the mid-sixteenth century.
Credit for the invention of the first ‘modern’ violin is usually attributed to either Andre Amati or Gasparo di Bertolotti. Beyond that, attempts to pinpoint an exact date of invention have (so far) been futile.
Physically, violins are distinguishable from their viola cousins by size and the shape of the bow frog. The average violin’s body is shorter than that of the average viola, ranging between 9 inches and 14 inches.
We mentioned earlier that violas tend to have relatively heavy, often rounded bow frogs. The violin, by contrast, will usually have a lighter bow frog attached to the bow, the edges of which are typically straight/
Unlike the viola, which is played in Alto clef, the violin uses the Treble clef, which is the more common style of sheet music. The strings go from G to E rather than from C to A, and the pitch is higher.
The difference in pitch and tone is very easy to distinguish between the violin and the viola because the violin is noticeably higher. Anyone with experience teaching the violin will be equally familiar with the ‘dying cat’ screech of a badly-played violin as with the tear-jerking beauty it’s capable of.
The violin is responsible for the melody of many orchestral pieces of music, with most orchestras dedicating not one but two whole sections to this instrument alone.
Popular pieces of violin music include Beethoven’s 9th and Brahms’s 3rd violin sonatas, as well as more popular hits like the iconic ‘Let It Go’ number from Disney’s Frozen.
Now that we’ve discussed the features and histories of the viola and the violin, let’s simplify things a bit.
Here is a clear overview of the ways in which the physical builds, musical qualities, and roles of these instruments compare to one another:
|9 -14 inches
|C, G, D, A
|G, D, A, E
We’ve reached the end of the article, and as you can see, there are a lot more differences between the violin and the viola than you might think!
The most obvious difference is the size, with the violin being a good few inches smaller than the viola on average. The shape and weight of the bow frog on a viola is also different from that of a violin, with viola bow frogs typically having more weight to them as well as more rounded edges.
However, the differences between these two instruments also extend to clef, pitch, and tone. Violas are played in Alto clef, while violins use the more widely-read treble clef.
Violins also typically take more of a central role in orchestras and other musical ensembles, while violas contribute stunning harmonies.
Although it’s easy to point out differences between the viola and violin, it’s also important not to lose sight of the similarities. Both are part of a large and respected family of instruments with a rich and fascinating history.
These instruments have come together time and time again to create some of the world’s most beautiful musical masterpieces, from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (1779) to Strauss’s Don Quixote (1897).
Whether you’re a fan of the viola or the violin, as a musician or a listener, it’s worth remembering that you form an integral part of these instruments’ shared and individual histories – and their futures.