The obvious difference between a violin and the viola, and perhaps what is most noticeable, is the size of the instrument. Violins are a little smaller, but like most things in music, there’s a lot more nuance to it than the size differences between the two instruments.

Let’s examine many of the physical and performance differences between a violin versus a viola, helping you determine which of the two is a better fit for you musically. If playing both interests you, instead of choosing one over the other, we also include a few tips to help become proficient at violin and viola simultaneously.

How Do You Tell if it’s a Violin or Viola?

If you go into a music shop to compare instruments, it’s fair to assume you won’t always know what you’re looking at. For a novice, examining instruments that appear nearly identical can be tricky. Both instruments are made from wood, both have four strings, and they each have f-holes and very similar manufacture. But there are key differences, which include:

Physical Differences

  • Full-size violins come in standard dimensions: 23 to 23.5 inches in total length and 14 inches in body length. Violas don’t have a standard size, but adult models tend to be 1 to 4 inches longer than violins in total length. No matter the dimensions, each violin has the exact same range of pitch and the same is true for violas.
  • The viola is the heavier of the two, due to it requiring more wood to make the instrument.
  • Violas have thicker strings than violins.
  • Violas have larger fingerboards.

Sound and Play Style Differences

  • Violas require more finger dexterity than violins since the musician’s fingers must be spaced farther apart while playing viola.
  • The viola has a deeper sound register, which is a lower pitch.
  • Bowing a viola requires more physical effort and pressure than a violin, but both instruments can produce rich, luxurious sounds.
  • Violas use the alto clef, often called the C clef. Violins are played in treble clef.
  • Viola strings are C, G, D and A. Violinists play the G, D, A, and E strings. 

What about comparing violin versus viola bows? To get the most from performances, violin bows are slimmer and longer. Viola bows are a bit heavier and more curved, allowing the musician to dig into those thicker strings while playing.

high quality carbon fiber bows

Can Violinists Also Play Viola?

Learning to play two string instruments simultaneously instead of one is challenging, but many violinists also learn to play the viola and vice versa. The learning curve primarily applies to the different sizes and strings. It’s common for violinists tinkering with viola to play too softly at first. Learning alto clef can also be a challenge. The key to improvement and eventually reaching proficiency is to play both regularly. 

Practice those bow strokes, making sure you apply the right amount of pressure to your strings to produce those rich, layered sounds each instrument is capable of producing. After all, if you’re not maximizing what your violin or viola is capable of, what’s the point in playing both?

Violin vs. Viola Performance: A Professional Weighs In

Due largely to the size of the instrument, many string musicians start on violin when they are young, but they may switch to viola as they age and grow. According to master violist David Auerbach, he prefers the viola over the violin because, in his mind, the viola produces a sound and voice that has a more human vocal quality. Watch this Pro Tips video to discover how to become proficient at playing both instruments.

Violin or Viola — CodaBow Has You Covered

If you want to play the violin, viola, or both, CodaBow can help. Our advanced bow makers pioneered the carbon fiber bow, allowing string musicians of all skill levels to advance and routinely give their best performance. High quality and nearly indestructible, each bow is innovative with a signature design and has a robust warranty. Browse the collection or visit your local CodaBow dealer to try one for yourself!

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