To most laypeople, the differences between the viola and violin are confusing. As a matter of fact, some would think that they are the same instrument. But there’s more to these instruments than meets the eye. In this article, we are going to explore the features that set these instruments apart from each other.
One of the most obvious differences between the violin vs viola is their size. If you put these two instruments side by side, you will immediately recognize that one of them is larger than the other. That would be the viola. A typical viola ranges from 15 inches to 16.5 inches in length, though larger violas can reach up to 20 inches in length. A violin, on the other hand, averages about 14 inches.
The widths of the two instruments are also different, with the viola naturally being the wider instrument. In addition, a viola has four different sizes, while a violin has nine different sizes. Small violas can be as small as 12 inches in width, while small violins can be as small as 7.5 inches.
Generally, the violin and the viola both have only four strings. However, the open notes of these instruments differ. The violin strings are G, D, A, and E, with G being the lowest string and E the highest.
The viola strings, on the other hand, are C, G, D, and A. The strings are tuned down one-fifth below the violin. While three of its strings are the same as the violin, the viola strings are thicker, allowing musicians to play in a lower register and produce deeper timbres.
3. Note Range
Because the tuning differs, the range of notes between these two instruments varies as well. The notes of the violin range from the G below Middle C (on the lowest string) all the way up to C8, 4 /2 octaves higher. On the other hand, the notes of violas range from a low C (an octave below Middle C), up to A, just over 3 octaves higher. The viola can hit a note four steps (or seven semi-tones) lower than the lowest note of the violin.
4. The Clefs
Another difference between these two instruments is the clef that they use in their notation. The violin is played in the treble (or G) clef. Being the highest ranged stringed instrument, musicians and composers have often regarded this instrument as the soprano voice of any symphonic orchestra. As a result, violins are often afforded solos or leads in ensembles.
The viola, on the other hand, is the only stringed instrument to use the alto (or C) clef. It is a mid-range instrument with a distinctive alto voice, since its range falls between the violin and the cello as we mentioned before. These deeper tones lend it more to harmonic support.
5. Quality of Sound
Due to the thickness of the strings and its larger size, the viola usually produces a deeper, more “sultry” sound. The lower note range of the viola also affects its mellow sound. Because of its sound quality, the viola acts as the mediator between the articulations of the violins and the cellos. It often provides harmonic and rhythmic elements for the orchestras.
The violin, known for its high note strings, has a bright and elegant sound. Because of this, composers usually use this instrument as a solo instrument. Take, for instance, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 3. Throughout the piece, you can hear the violin acting as the lead, reinforced by the other instruments (although there are also some very fine pieces composed for viola solos, such as Beethoven’s Notturno for Viola and Piano).
The range difference, combined with the different strings on each instrument, as well as the size of the two instruments, allows the viola to produce a deeper, richer sound. The instrument itself is a step between a violin and a cello, and its tone reflects that. For all the differences between the two instruments, we would argue that this one is the most important.
One other factor that might influence how the instruments sound within an orchestra is their placement in the orchestra. Since violas provide more harmonic elements, they only have one section in the orchestra. Violins, on the other hand, have two sections: the first and the second violins. As a result, the violins could often outnumber violas two to one.
6. The Bow
Of course, you cannot play either instrument without the bow, but there is a difference between a violin bow from a viola bow. Viola bows tend to have a weight ranging from 69 to 74 grams. Violin bows, on the other hand, are lighter. As a matter of fact, violin bows are 10 grams lighter, on average, than the viola bows. This helps contribute to the brighter sound that the violin produces. The viola bow is larger because the strings of the instrument are thicker, and require more weight and force to produce a sound.
Another difference that you can see is on the frogs of the bows. A frog is the part of the bow that you hold. Viola bow frogs are generally curved, while violin bows have straight edges. This impacts how the musician drags the bow across the strings, which also influences how the instrument sounds.
We hope that the next time you see a violin or a viola you will be able to see which instrument you are looking at! Remember, though, that the difference that matters most is the sound! Without these different instruments, the orchestra would be a very boring thing to listen to.