What are the differences between a violin and a viola?

Music CulturePractical knowledge

That is a very recurring question, we are frequently asked about it when presenting our 5-string electric violins. Electric violins with 5 strings have an additional string, which is the C string that is typically used on violas.

The violin and viola are both part of the bowed string instrument family, along with the cello and the double bass. The viola has its place in the middle register of the string family. It is tuned using the same principle as the violin, in fifths, except that it is in the lower fifth.

The violin and the viola look similar at first glance. For the average person, it is often difficult to distinguish between the two of them, especially if they are not displayed side by side. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the viola and the violin:

  • They are held in the same way: on the shoulder
  • They have the same number of strings (4 strings)
  • They have a similar shape
  • They are played by rubbing a bow on the strings

And yet by looking at the image below, you will identify the first difference between a violin and a viola: their size is significantly different.

Differences between viola and violin

Read our article about differences between an electric and an acoustic violin.

A matter of height and weight

Viola size VS Violin size

The first difference is the size of the two instruments. In the 15th century, the viola had very different sizes. A tenor viola model once existed, it had excessive dimensions which made it difficult to play. Today, the difference in size between several violas is still present, but a “norm” has been established. It is not a constant, but we are talking about bodies between 1 and 4 inches longer than violins. Violas measure between 14.5 and 17 inches (between 38 and 43cm), violins measure approximately 14 inches (35.5cm). These measurements are based on the modern day full size (4/4).

Violas and violins are categorized per size. Regarding violas, it exists 6 different sizes: 12″, 13″, 14″, 15″, 15″ ½, 16″ et 16″ ½. Violas for adults are grouped beyond size 15″ ½.

At the violin level, it exists 7 different sizes: 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, ¼, ½, ¾ and 4/4. An adult violin player is playing a 4/4 violin. This is the main size reference for violins called also the full size.

The size difference between the two musical instruments can be clearly seen in the video below. The violin is played by Anna Elashvili and the viola by Wei-Yang Andy Lin.

To define which viola or violin size an instrumentalist needs, it is necessary to measure the distance between the neck and the palm of the instrumentalist’s hand by keeping the arm extended in a parallel position to the ground.

For instance, an adult sized viola must be at least 2 inches long (67 cm). In this case, we are talking about a 16-inch viola. On the other hand, for the violin, the length will be at least 23.5 inches (60 cm) for an adult. In this case, an adult violinist will use a 4/4 violin, which is the reference size for violins and is called the full-size violin.

In the case of a violin, we use the terms: 4/4 violin, 3/4 violin, 1/2 violin, etc. Whereas for the viola we refer to 12″, 13″ up to 16 1/2″. Here below you will find a comparison chart between these sizes and their length from neck to arm. The ages mentioned in the previous tables are given as a rough guide. Every child grows in a different manner, and it is possible that a smaller or bigger size is required for your child to be able to practice in the most appropriate conditions.

Violin size Length from neck to arm Violinist age
1/16 From 13 to 15 inches (or 35 to 38 cm) From 3 to 4
1/10 From 15 to 16.5 inches (or 39 to 42 cm) From 4 to 5
1/8 From 17 to 18 inches (or 43 to 46 cm) From 5 to 6
1/4 From 18.5 to 20 inches (or 47 to 51 cm) From 6 to 7
1/2 From 20 to 22 inches (or 52 to 56 cm) From 7 to 8
3/4 From 22 to 23.5 inches (or 57 to 60 cm) From 9 to 11
4/4 More than 23.5 inches (60 cm) More than 11
Viola size Length from neck to arm Violist age
12″ From 20.5 to 21.5 inches (or 53 to 55 cm) From 6 to 7
13″ From 21.5 to 23 inches (or 55 to 59 cm) From 7 to 9
14″ From 23 to 25 inches (or 59 to 63 cm) From 9 to 12
15″ From 25 to 25.5 (or 63 to 65 cm) From 10 to 12
15″ 1/2 From 25.5 to 26.5 inches (or 65 to 67 cm) Adult
16″ or 16 1/2 More than 26.5 inches (67 cm) Adult

Special case of a viola intended for a child

If your child is under 6 years old, and you are looking for a viola, you may have a hard time finding one that is so small available on the market. However, if you compare the sizes of the violins and the violas, you will find that a 4/4 violin (adult) corresponds approximately to a 14″ viola. It is therefore possible to choose a violin of a similar size and “transform” it into a viola, then switch to a real viola at the proper time. To transform a violin into a viola, simply replace the violin strings with viola strings.

Weight difference

Since the viola is larger, its structure contains a greater amount of material, which means that it is heavier than the violin. Even if the viola’s playing mode is identical to that of the violin, supporting it will require a greater amount of effort on the arm. A viola weighs about 1.2 lb (580g), while a violin weighs about 1 lb (460g).

Finger spacing

The difference in size between the viola and the violin is reflected in the position of the fingers. They will be further apart on a viola because the gap between the strings is greater than the one on a violin. As a result, the dexterity of the fingers will be different.

The sound produced by the strings

Due to its larger size and the use of a lower string, the viola will produce a lower and darker sound. This sound is also often referred to as softer, rounder, mellow, velvety and richer for the upper and mid-ranges.

Both the classical viola and the classical violin have 4 strings each, but they are not the same.

The viola uses the strings:

  • La or A (the highest)
  • Ré or D
  • Sol or G
  • Do or C (the lowest)

On the other hand, the violin uses the strings:

  • Mi or E (the highest)
  • La or A
  • Ré or D
  • Sol or G (the lowest)

The A, D and G strings are identical on both instruments. The real difference is on the last string of the viola which is a C, and the first of the violin is an E. The four strings of the violin are separated by a perfect fifth interval. The viola has a lower scale than the violin and is exactly one octave higher than the cello.

The sound of a viola is therefore lower than that of a violin. The physical distance between the strings is also different. It will be greater on a viola. This is why when violists switch over to a violin and vice versa, they will have a hard time locating the position of their fingers. The viola strings are also thicker and require more strength on the part of the viola player.

The C string used by violas is found on 5, 6 and 7 string electric violins. They use: E (mi, A (la), D (ré), G (sol), C (do), then possibly F (fa) and Bb (B flat).

Two playing styles

Different physical constraints

The viola and violin seem similar, but the larger size of the viola will subject the violist’s body to greater physical constraints.

The length of the string requires larger gaps to be made. The size of the instrument also limits the flexibility of hand and body movements. The viola will also impose greater physical constraints on the viola player’s arm, which must support a greater amount of weight. In conclusion, the violist must make a greater effort when playing.

However, these constraints are not prohibitive, they are to be considered as the result of a comparison between the two instruments. Instrumentalists intuitively adapt their playing style according to the instrument they use…

Discover our article about how to fight recurrent pains of the violinist or violist?

Playing

The way of playing and handling the bow are also different in order to master the desired sounds. Since the length of the viola is greater, the bow will also be longer, and therefore heavier. Indeed, the weight distribution of the bow plays a role in its ability to vibrate the strings, especially the lower ones. The lower a string is, the thicker is its diameter.
The pressure and the weight applied on these strings by the bow must be more important to make them vibrate. The way of playing and handling the bow are therefore different in order to master the desired sounds.

This is why each bow is unique. Some manufacturers imagine bows to meet this type of need.

The size of the viola entails a wider positioning of the fingers on the neck of the instrument. The effort and strength required from the hands, fingers and arms must also be greater, as the strings are thicker. The fingers and hands dexterity is important for any instrumentalist. However, it is not easy to change instruments, even if they look alike. A violinist can use his technique to play the viola, but he will not be master of the instrument in a few minutes (and vice versa). Practice is more than essential if you change instruments.

Different keys

C key and G keyThe viola is read using the key of C and the key of G, while the violin is read using the key of G. Reading a score based on these two keys requires an adaptation since you have to learn to decode each of them.

The musical repertoires

The musical repertoire for the violin is broader. Great composers have given the violin a prominent place in their compositions. In an orchestra, the violin plays the melody, while the viola usually serves as an accompaniment instrument. It usually doubles the melody of the violin and replicates the bass of the cello. The viola creates the link between violins, cellos and double basses.

However, a violist may also play the main melody in concertos written for viola. The role of the viola has evolved since its origins and many composers have given it a main place in their works, notably Hector Berlioz with ‘Harold in Italy’, a Symphony for Viola. It was Niccolò Paganini who commissioned this work from Berlioz in order to explore all the sound possibilities of a Stradivarius viola.

In an orchestra, there is a larger number of violins. We will have two violin sections, while there will be only one viola section. Note that violins are the only instruments with two sections, all the other musical instruments used in an orchestra have only one.

orchestra schema

Sources and images: Wikipedia, Pixabay – niekverlaan, Unsplash – Larisa Birta, Manuel Nägeli

Tags: acoustic violin, viola, violin
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