Viola vs Violin – Differences Between Violas and Violins

When it comes to the topic of “viola vs violin”, there are distinguishing factors that need careful consideration. Both are string instruments with the same basic color and general shape. The origin of both viola and violin is Italy and a bow is used to play them. However, if you listen and look at them carefully, you will notice some differences. From a distance, they seem similar and both make amazing sounds but they have the following differences between viola vs violin.  


A viola produces a mellower and deeper sound than a violin. That’s because it has a C string and it is played with an alto clef. Both viola and violin have notes on A, D, and G strings. However, the notes sound different with a somber tone when played on viola. Perhaps, that’s because viola produces a slower sound. Violas are mainly used in orchestras and symphonies to give rhythmic and harmonic elements. Violins on the other hand bring lyrical and melodic lines into any music. More violins are played in orchestras than violas. And in most cases, orchestras have two violins sections and one violas section.

Generally, viola can be lost in an orchestra sound. To be heard, viola bow strokes should start and stop in a clear manner. That means the violist must master articulation. Viola is basically the middle voice in a string section. It often mediates between cellos’ articulations and violins. Along with the production of the sound comes vibrato. In viola and violin, vibrato is the same. However, it is slightly wider and slower in voila than in violin and it matches the instrument’s larger size. Nevertheless, vibrato is generally personal but a wider and slower vibrato produces a darker tone which a viola is known for.


This is a factor that can’t be ignored when discussing the topic of viola vs violin. Violas are larger than violins. This can clearly be seen when one instrument is placed beside the other. On average, the body of a violin measures 14 inches while that of viola measures 15 to 18 inches. A viola is wider than a violin. While violas are available in four sizes, violins are available in nine sizes. The choice of the viola to buy is generally dependent on the experience of the player. For instance, many beginners start with 12 inch violas. Violas that were made in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were larger. Perhaps, that’s because violas had very simple music at that time.


The clef is one of the major factors that differentiate a viola vs violin. Viola has a mid-range alto clef. And, this is the only instrument that uses an alto clef that employs the C clef. On the other hand, a violin is played in a treble clef. This makes it a high ranged string instrument. A violin is also referred to as a “soprano” voice in an orchestra. In the Baroque time of music, the alto clef was popular than the treble clef. However, other instruments apart from viola rarely use this clef in the modern times. And, though a viola is almost exclusively played in an alto clef, some violates use a treble clef to play written music in higher registers.


Both violin and violas use four strings only. However, electric violas and violins come with more strings. On both instruments, a fine tuner or a peg is used to tune the strings. The strings in a violin are G, D, A, and E. G is the lowest string while E is the highest. In violin, strings are usually tuned one fourth from each other downward. The strings in a viola are C, G, D, and A. C is the lowest string and A is the highest.

In a viola strings are tuned a fifth lower than in a violin. And, the strings are usually tuned one fourth from each other downward. Many fans and players are attracted to viola than violin because the play range of the former is lower than that of the latter. Viola has relatively thicker strings than violin. As such, the bow tempo and weight that are required to play it are relatively faster and more than those of a violin.


Bows are also a crucial factor to consider when discussing viola vs violin topic. That’s because some musicians make a mistake of buying violin bows when they actually need viola bows. As indicated, a viola has heavier strings. Therefore, it should be played with a different bow. Generally, the bows that are used to play a viola are around 10 grams heavier than the bows that are used to play a violin. It might not be easy to notice the weight difference. However, if you use a wrong bow to play the instrument, you can easily damage it. The frog is also another distinguishing factor. A frog is the bow part that a player holds in the hand. A viola bow has a rounded frog while a violin bow has a pointy frog. Spotting this difference is usually easier than spotting the weight difference.


Since violin and viola vary significantly in terms of construction and size, their playing technique also differs. Due to the larger size of a viola, its fingering is different from that of a violin. A viola needs a stronger touch. The player requires intense learning on strings. The left shoulder supports both instruments while playing them. Usually, both viola and violin are held on the shoulder with the jaw resting on the player’s chin on the left side. However, holding a viola in place requires more strength because it is slightly heavier.

Roles in music

While a violin is mostly used in leads and melodic parts, a viola is frequently used in fills, accompaniment parts, and bridges. Some baroque and classical pieces were created for solo violas only. However, a viola plays a crucial role in the chamber music too. Modern pop groups and folk musicians compose viola parts. On the other hand, both popular and classical modern music use violin. And, violins attract many musicians in different genres. In most cases, musicians use them to play specific melody lines in their music. In some cases, a violin compares to a lead guitar and it’s among the most crucial instruments in jazz music, pop music, and indie music.


As hinted, a violin always has a wider repertoire selection when compared to a viola. Most solo pieces are created exclusively for violin though some are produced with cello. On the other hand, a viola has a limited selection. Most viola solos are adopted from cello or violin repertoire.


Since the early 20th century, the play style for viola has been reinvented by composers. And, they are now versatile, just like violins. Before the 20th century, violin was the most dominant string instrument in the lead parts. On the other hand, a viola was used as filler in the accompaniment parts. However, in the late 20th century and afterwards, the roles of both instruments vary depending on the music genre and play style.

Location in an orchestra

Traditionally, violas have always sat between the cellos and second violins on the stage’s right half. However, there are conductors that prefer having violas on the edge of their stage towards the outer right side or next to first violins on the stage’s left half side.

Viola vs Violin: Which one came first?

One theory postulates that viola came first and that the modern day viola emerged in Italy in the early 16th century. It further states that violin was developed at the beginning of the 16th century by Gasparo da Salo and Andrea Amati and eventually modified between 18th century and 19th century. But, you can’t ignore this factor when making a viola vs violin comparison. Generally, this question has always raised some argument depending on the persons that discuss this topic.

During the 15th century, the first stringed instruments were known as viola da gamba or viols. These looked more like the modern cellos because they were held between the player’s legs. Later, the instruments were adapted to be held with the arms of the player under their chin. The newer instruments were now known as viola da braccio. Eventually, these instruments became the modern day violins. And, like the earlier instruments, they are used to produce high lyrical lines. However, there are people that argue that viola emerged first. That’s because the name viola was used to refer to all early stringed instruments.

Once players started holding the instruments under their chin and upright, they underwent changes through different stages to become what is now known as viola and violin. Generally, nobody has everproven that viola emerged first. However, the original or first instruments were initially played like cellos after which they were gradually played to higher notes ranges. It’s therefore logical to argue that viola came first. It can also be concluded that violin came from the varied transformations of viola that were aimed at achieving a more soloistic music sound and higher music note ranges.


Whether you are curious about what differentiates viola from violin or you are simply doing some research before you purchase an instrument for a loved one, these are the differences to consider. These should guide your viola vs violin comparison before you make a buying decision.