Violins and violas are magnificent instruments which you can hear in classical music, some pop songs, and other genres of music. Most people can easily recognize the differences between a viola and violin when the instruments are compared up-close, but when placed in an orchestra setting on-stage, most people cannot tell the difference. Only educated musicians know the real difference between the viola vs. violin.

If you love classical music, or if you just want to understand the differences between these instruments, we are here to provide you with the knowledge to discern the main characteristics of these beautiful instruments, both their similarities and their differences.

FeatureViolaViolin
Size8 1/2″ – 20″8 1/2″ – 14″
StringsC, G, D, AG, D, A, E
Solo RepertoireLimitedVaried
SoundMellowBright
Typical Orchestra Location (Looking at Stage)Middle-RightLeft

While the basic differences between the viola and violin can be boiled down into the table above, this is not a thorough enough explanation of the differences. By simply saying that violas are much larger and that they sound differently, we’re not saying anything wrong, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We’re going to talk about the difference in strings, different tunings, note range, size, sound, playing style, bridge, names, and much, much more. We’ll start with an overview of the violin and viola separately so that you can grasp their differences and similarities more easily.

The Violin

The violin is a traditional Italian wooden stringed instrument that is the archetype of the entire violin family. It produces a beautiful, high-pitched sound, and it’s considered to be one of the hardest instruments to play.

Origins

The first violin was crafted in Italy at the beginning of the 16th century, and it was used in its original state and form for two hundred years before it received significant modifications in its design and form. The violin trend caught on throughout Europe, and halls were filled with violin music shortly after its arrival.

The 18th and the 19th centuries are known for violin-oriented music – it’s safe to say that musicians those days preferred the sound of this magnificent little instrument. Some of the most famous violin brands created back then were Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Brescia, and Cremona.

The Violin Family

The violin was so famous that it was used as a model for many other instruments. Educated musicians and teachers from Renaissance Italy invented the term violin family (violas da braccio) so that it could be easily distinguished from the viola family (violas da gamba). Since then, these families have merged, forming the list of the most used violin-based instruments:

  • Large Form Cello
  • Small Form Cello
  • Tenor viola
  • Contralto Viola (Counter-Alt)
  • Large Violin
  • Small Violin
  • Piccolo Violin
  • Bass
  • Double Bass 

Violin Strings

Violin is traditionally a 4 Stringed instrument, but you can also see it in the variation where it has 5 strings. Usually, the tuning of these strings is the same as the traditional bass guitar – E, A, D, G. Originally, violinist prefer synthetic strings over those steel strings. The “standard E” tuning is a matter of preference, but there are various others, including the violin open tuning, standard A, standard C, and many more.

The Violin’s Sound

Describing a sound with words is very hard, mainly because everyone perceives music differently. It’s hard to imagine that there are two people who can experience a song in the same way, with the same chills, thrill, and enthusiasm, but we could try to explain the tone in several situations:

  • The violin sounds bright
  • The violin has the highest pitch of any of the string instruments in an ensemble which makes it sound bright in comparison to any other string instrument.
  • The violin sounds important

It doesn’t matter what genre it is, or what function the violin has – you can’t ignore the sound of the violin in a song. Even if it’s just an easy melody, you will hear it, and you will remember it because of its higher pitch.

  • The violin is often a synonym for beautiful sadness

Did you ever hear of the phrase “And the world’s smallest violin played”? It often portrays a funeral or intense depression. The violin can literally weep when you play it, and that’s the beauty of it.

  • The violin can also sound epic

Apart from classical music, the violin is often used in various electronic and pop music, even heavy metal. In these settings, the violin sounds pretty epic – fast-paced rhythms and high-pitched squeals sound epic all the way.

Violin Names

Originally, the violin came from Italy where it got the name violin. Nowadays there are different names which people use to refer to the violin, such as Violon (French), Geige (Germany), Violina (Balkan States), Keman (Turkey), and Fiddle (when used in folk music genres). There’s no real significance in naming it differently apart from the fact that you might hear people from various nationalities calling the violin by a different name.

Violin’s Versatility

The violin became famous in the 16th century when it dominated the classical music scene. It was used to create mellow melodies when played in rhythm sections and to create a vivid atmosphere when it was used in the lead section, but that’s not all the violin can be used for.

With the insurgence of the violin into the dominant music genres of the 50s, 60s, and later, people used the violin in various music genres for various different roles:

  • Jazz Music – Jazz musicians often used violin for complex sections, creating a tense, but comfortable atmosphere;
  • Rock Music – Violins were often used in rock to accentuate refrains and bridges;
  • Blues Music – Blues players often focus on sad melodies which violins play very well;
  • Electronic Music – It is commonplace in electronic music to make intros with violin instruments;
  • Metal Music – Since metal music has various sub-genres, violin’s versatility is pretty hard to describe. Ranging from alternative progressive metal where the violin was used with extreme skill, over power metal where it was used as a lead, ending with doom and black metal where musicians used violin to create a haunting, dark atmosphere;

The Viola

The viola is often mistaken for the violin by uneducated musicians and people who do not play any instruments. Even though it’s somewhat larger, it looks very similar, and the sound can only be discerned from that of a violin by people who know these instruments well.

The vola is very important to music in general – orchestras worldwide combine the two instruments in their performances, and it’s hard to imagine one without the other in classical music.

Origins

The viola was invented by the Italians (as was the violin), and it was called many different names before everyone agreed that it could simply be referred to as the viola. In the beginning, the term “Da Braccio” was often placed right next to viola, which literally means “of the arm.” Another Italian term for Viola was “Brazzo” (probably in tight correlation with “Da Braccio”), which the Germans soon adopted to create their own name “Bratsche”.

Even though the viola can take the lead with ease, most orchestras employ the viola in accompaniment parts. The parts that are often referred to as those “inner voices” are played by viola and second violins in classical music.

The Viola Family

One of the main reasons why the viola got its own family name is because it was hard to distinguish from the violin. Even though “Da Braccio” was used for violas at the beginning, it actually pointed towards violins soon enough – the viola family got renamed to “Da Gamba”.

The Viola’s Strings

Viola’s strings are thicker when compared to the violin – this is also one of the main reasons why the sound is so much deeper. The tuning is also different – most violas are tuned in the standard A tuning with the strings being: A, D, G, C compared with the violin’s E, A, D, G. As with the violin, the viola is also a 4-stringed instrument.

The Viola’s Sound

The viola sound resembles that of a violin, and it can only be described when we compare the two. If we can say that the violin’s sound is haunting and high-pitched, the viola’s sound is deeper and more mellow. Unfortunately, the viola’s sound is often consumed by the violin’s sound since violas are mainly used in the accompaniment parts.

Viola Names

The viola is called many names throughout the world, even though the regular “viola” is the most common. For instance, Frenchmen call it Alto and Cinquiesme, Germans call it Bratsche, and such. Just as the violin has different names, the viola’s different names all refer to the same instrument.

The Viola’s Versatility

Before the twentieth century, the viola was used to fill the gaps in harmonies, and there were not many melodic parts for it. The viola’s lines were often identical to those of other stringed instruments and it was played in unison with it.

Not long after the beginning of the 20th century, various composers and performers began their work with solo viola songs, parts, and roles. The viola received a massive boost to its role and versatility, and the trend caught on pretty quickly.

Some of the famous viola players that took part in the revolution of the viola’s role are Arthur Bliss, Benjamin dale, Ralph Williams, and others (fun fact – these three gentlemen wrote the theme song of Tetris).

Main Differences between Viola and Violin

We’ve already compared most aspects that make violin and viola different, so let’s review them in one place:

Strings

The type of strings that an instrument uses will affect various performance factors. For instance, the playing style will be different if the strings are hard and thick, the sound will be deeper if they’re dense, and you will have little options when it comes to tuning.

  • Violins are equipped with synthetic strings

Synthetic strings are easier to strum, they’re easier to press, and they allow for a wide range of tunings. This is one of the main factors that contribute to the violin’s sound.

  • Viola’s are equipped with thick strings

The material varies from model to model, but it’s often steel. Viola’s strings are very thick, and they sound deeper when compared to the violin.

Location in the Orchestra

Traditionally, the violas sit between the second violins and cellos on the right half of the stage (see photo below). However, some conductors will prefer to place the violas on the outer right edge of the stage or next to the first violins on the left half of the stage.
sections-of-an-orchestra-smaller Differences Between the Viola and Violin General Viola

Tuning

Tuning is a matter of preference depending on if you’re playing solo or in a group (band, orchestra, etc.). The violin is often played in the Standard E tuning – E, A, D, and G while the Viola is often played in Standard A – A, D, G, and C.

Size

It’s safe to say that violas are often larger when compared to violins, especially in width & length, but that’s not a rule. There are various sizes, so it’s imaginable that a violin can be larger than some violas. Those instruments that are specifically built for children and teenagers are often smaller, and they come with a prefix of “quarter-size”, “half-size” and such. A full-size viola is always larger than a full-size violin though. Typically a full-size viola is 16″ whereas a full-size violin is 14″. Violas can get as large as 20″ depending on the size of the performer.

Sound

As we’ve already mentioned, violins create a haunting, mellow atmosphere, where violas sound deeper and mellower. The role of a violin (or a viola) is very important if we are to compare their sound, but it’s also pretty important to take the play style into consideration. Violins tend to dominate violas on all fields, as they’re high-pitched and produce more vibrations.

Repertoire

Violins have always had a much wider selection of repertoire when compared with the viola. Most string solo pieces are written for violin with cello producing a few as well. Violas on the other hand have very limited selection and most viola solos have been adopted from either violin or cello repertoire (Bach cello suites, etc).

Role & Versatility

Violins came before violas, and it’s quite obvious why their role is more important. Violins are often used in melodic parts and are very present in leads, whereas violas are most frequently used in the accompaniment parts, fills, and bridges.

Since the beginning of 20th century, composers have reinvented viola’s play style, and they’re know pretty much as versatile as violins.

Pre 20th century:

  • Violins were dominant, lead parts;
  • Violas were used as fillers during the accompaniment parts;

20th century and later:

  • The roles depend on the play style and the music genre.

Conclusion

There are many things that make violas and violins different, but the thin line is getting ever thinner as time passes. Professional musicians are equally interested in perfecting the art of violin playing as in viola playing. The differences will always exist but they are pretty much technical in nature.