Viola vs. Violin

by Emma Rensch
The viola is smaller than a cello, but bigger than a violin.

The viola is smaller than a cello, but bigger than a violin.

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At first glance, violins and violas can be difficult to tell apart. But while these instruments have similarities, they also have many differences. The untrained eye or ear may not be able to differentiate; however, with some research you can learn to recognize the subtle differences in these very distinct instruments.


Size is the most easily recognizable difference between these two instruments. Violas are usually larger than violins. The body of a viola can range from 16 or 17 inches in length, while violins are usually crafted to be around 14 inches. Violas are also slightly wider than violins.


Violas have a distinctly warmer tone than violins. This difference in timbre does not assist in differentiating between the viola and the violin visually, but with practice, you can recognize which instrument you are hearing. This difference in tone is because of the viola's larger size -- more space for the resonating vibrations of a bow across strings results in a richer sound.


Violas and violins are tuned differently, which contributes further to their distinct tones. Violas play in a specific viola clef, which is different from the treble clef in which violins play. The viola clef is also distinct from the bass clef. The viola clef is also known as the C clef, indicating the position of the C note on this instrument, the placement of which differs slightly from its location on the violin.


Violas can achieve a range of nearly four octaves. Much of this versatility depends on a player's ability to hit very high notes that are often difficult to achieve. Most violas can hit the A note three octaves above middle C. Middle C can be found on pianos as the central tuning key. Meanwhile, the violin has a larger range and can hit higher notes than the viola, because of its smaller size.


Fingering indicates the patterns used by a musician's fingers to elicit different sounds on an instrument. Because of differences in size and construction between violas and violins, different fingering patterns are necessary to achieve the same sounds, despite these instruments' similar appearances. A violin player could not take up the viola and immediately play it easily without learning a new set of fingerings.


  • "Tipbook -- Violin and Viola"; Hugo Pinksterboer; 2001

Photo Credits

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