As a violinist I have had to face the humiliating  jokes made by fellow orchestra members the worst offenders being the brass. Jokes such as ‘ What’s the difference between a violin and a cello? – A violin burns faster! ‘.

But if I thought that was bad I should have thought twice about starting the viola.There is nothing worse for a violist than when someone with no musical experience or indeed are a musician themselves say, “Oh, you play the viola. How nice. Isn’t that just a big violin?” No. No it is not. So the purpose of this blog I have decided, is to explain to you the differences between the violin and viola. Hopefully after reading this, musician or not, you will end up with some great trivia knowledge and the important skill in how not to offend a string player!

Firstly the string family originated from viols. These were string instruments of varying sizes and pitch which were used in the Baroque era. Throughout time these viols changed to the violins, violas, cellos, and double basses that we still use today.

While a violin and viola are played the same way and look the same, the violins ‘full size’ is equivalent to a 14″ viola, the largest viola of which is 16″. Also the bows are different. Where the frog on the violin has a sharp 90° corner under the adjuster the viola has a curve. This is there to make a clear difference between the bows because a viola bow is created to be heavier to help the instrument produce a better sound.

Because of its larger size it is usually said that it has mellowed sound to it or that it is more sonorous, or as people say, ‘ It sounds less like a dying cat’. This is down to the different strings. Both instruments have four strings each.

From lowest pitch to highest:

Violin – G, D, A, E
Viola – C, G, D, A

For the viola, the violins highest pitched E string is replaced by the low sounding C. By doing this you now have an instrument with the same strings as a cello but of a pitch that is too low to play treble clef without having to change position. So finally the most profound difference between the two instruments is that violin plays in the higher treble clef where as viola plays the lower alto clef.

I have had great fun playing both instruments after getting my head around playing the different clefs and would recommend either instrument to anyone willing to give it a shot.


Farlingaye High School 16-20th October 2017

Back to top