What's the Difference between a Violin and Viola?

What's the Difference between a Violin and Viola?

Dots’ Sounding Good Guide:  

A few distinctions between the violin and the viola.

For those parents who are new to bowed string instruments, it is difficult to keep up with the new tasks and terminology that suddenly permeate your life. You can expect indecipherable cryptic notes about exam pieces with composers you can’t pronounce, assumptions  on your ability to fit a shoulder rest, change a snapped string, pick up loose hairs liberated from the bow, and understand the difference between a scale and an arpeggio.

If this sounds familiar,  you may also experience a time when when your child will announce  that they are now learning the viola!  How exciting, you may well say, well done you for moving onto the special violin section!  At this point your young progeny will probably roll their eyes and walk out of the room shaking their heads.

Here’s why that didn’t sound so good:

The viola is a completely different instrument than the violin and is often misunderstood. Yes, they look alike and they appear to be played the same way, but they are each distinct instruments and are built and played differently.

This Dots’ Sounding Good Guide will help you quickly absorb the basic tenets on the difference between the violin and viola allowing you to respond intelligently when prodded.

The violin is smaller than the viola.

The smallest violin size for a student is 1/16 (9 inches or 23 cm). That’s 1/16 of a full sized violin. They then come in  larger sizes to accommodate the size of the student.

  • 1/10
  • 1/8
  • 1/4
  • 1/2
  • 3/4
  • 7/8
  • 4/4 or full size, which is about 14 inches or 36 cm.

The viola also comes in different sizes but there is no such thing as a “full sized” viola. They start at 12 inches or 30.5 cm and move up in increments as listed below.

  • 13 inches, 33 cm
  • 14 inches, 35.5 cm
  • 15 inches, 38 cm
  • 15.5 inches, 39.4
  • 16  - 16.5 inches, 40.6cm or 42cm

The viola can be up to five centimeters larger than a violin.  Here's a chart comparing the size equivalents between the two:

12 - 12.5" 1/2 violin
13 - 13.5" 3/4 violin
14 - 14. 5" 4/4 or full sized
14 - 15.5"

When it comes to smaller violas, we often see students bring in  full size violins re-fitted to play as a viola to the shop. Some teachers don’t mind this tactic but our luthier, Enrico Savoncelli, informs us that the shape of the body of a viola is fundamentally different from that of a violin to accommodate the bigger strings needed to play the alto clef (we’ll get to that shortly). Simply changing the strings and tuning doth NOT a viola make, he claims. The size of the instrument’s body for example is different in a viola and since it is a larger instrument with heavier strings, it requires a heavier bow with a firmer technique to produce its rich sounds.

Here’s a wonderful introduction to the viola by London Philharmonic violist Nicholas Bootiman.

The strings are tuned differently.

The viola is not tuned as a violin. Each string is tuned to a different note, as seen in the diagram above.  The tuning of the viola is actually one octave above a cello so these two instruments are more aligned with each other than with the violin. This is why the violas and cellos are usually placed next to each other in the seating arrangement and their section is often referred to as the Engine Room of the orchestra.

"The viola is more like a mini cello than a bigger violin."   Rob Matthews, Dots Staffer.

Reading music in a different clef

The violin plays to a treble clef but the notes for a viola are expressed in the exclusive and mysterious alto clef. Due to the size of the viola it plays a deeper and richer octave requiring a clef that can best represent the notes in the middle section between the common treble and bass clefs.

The beautiful alto clef symbol points to a unique place for “middle C”: the clef curves in the middle and literally points where middle C is represented. This allows the viola to play notes typically in their range minimizing  the use of leger lines (those are the horizontal lines where the notes are placed).

Other instruments sometimes play in the alto clef including  the Bassoon, Trombone, English/French Horn, and even alto singers, although not primarily. The alto clef belongs mostly to the viola.

Violas have a long and treasured musical history.

The names of all stringed instruments are derived from the term “viola” which were first made  in the 16th and 17th centuries in northern Italy.  The term viola was first used to describe two families of stringed instruments, the viola da braccio and the viola da gambaDa braccio is Italian for “played on the arm” and and  da gamba means “played at the leg”. This eventually evolved into to the modern violin, viola, cello and double bass.

Interestingly, in the search for a deeper and richer sound, the 48 cm viola alta was introduced in the 19th century. It was welcomed by the likes of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss who both used its deep powerful sound in their compositions, but musicians found it far too difficult to play; it was too heavy to keep up on the shoulder and bowing was a strenuous exercise.  It wasn’t until the 1930s when the Englishman Lionel Tertis built the 43 cm viola which provided a similar sound, but much easier to play, which has since become the standard viola.

The Sound of the Viola

There  are plenty of pieces composed for the violin, there are far fewer for the viola but this is steadily changing. The rich plummy tones of the viola can be used to maximum effect in modern pieces like this Viola Concerto by British composer William Walton, written in 1929 for the violist Lionel Tertis. The link below is a beautiful rendition by 16 year old Sarah Sung at the 2015 Young Virtuosi Final in Sydney, Australia.


The Gliga Violas

Dots Music recently expanded their instrumental offerings to include the noble viola.  Before we committed to any specific make, we asked several viola teachers and players to come into the shop and try out the Gliga Genial viola.

Every player unanimously praised the craftsmanship and sound of the viola and thought the handmade Romanian instruments were of great value as they sounded far better than their price. We took this as a positive endorsement and proceeded to expand our range of Gliga violas.

We currently have Gliga violas in stock from 13 inch to 15.5 inches, which have all been carefully prepared by our luthier, Enrico Savoncelli, with Dominant strings, bridge adjustments, peg fitting refinements, and upgraded fine tuners.


Finally, this from the BBC Orchestra:

Viola: Neglected no longer


Previous article Theory Madness
Next article Join us on Facebook!