Viola vs. Violin – 9 Differences Every String Player Should Know

December 7, 2023

In classical music and beyond, the violin and the viola are kindred spirits, sharing a family lineage that stretches back centuries. Yet, beneath their surface similarities lies a world of differences that shapes their unique characters and roles in music. Whether you’re an aspiring string player, a curious music enthusiast, or a seasoned musician, understanding the difference between violin and viola is essential.

In this exploration, we embark on a journey to uncover nine key differences that every string player should know when comparing violin and viola strings. From their sizes and tunings to their roles in orchestral string instruments and chamber music, let’s discern the difference between violin and viola and illuminate the rich tapestry of possibilities both instruments offer.


Is a viola bigger than a violin? One of the most apparent distinctions between the violin and viola is their size. While they share similar shapes and overall designs, the viola is noticeably more prominent than the violin. This size difference is not merely cosmetic; it profoundly impacts the instrument’s sound, playability, and overall character.

So, what is the difference between a violin and a viola? The standard violin, as tested at a violin store in Atlanta, typically measures around 14 inches (35.6 cm) in body length. In contrast, the viola is notably more extensive, with an average body length of approximately 16 to 17 inches (40.6 to 43.2 cm). This size variation translates into variations in the distance and thickness of the instrument’s strings and the overall resonance of the instrument.

The larger viola da gamba allows for longer strings, which produce lower pitches than the violin’s shorter strings. This size difference contributes to the viola’s distinctive warm and rich tone, making it well-suited for harmonious blending in chamber music and orchestral settings.


Another crucial difference between the violin and viola is the strings they employ. So, how many strings does a viola have? 4. While both instruments use strings made of gut, steel, or synthetic cores, the viola’s strings are notably thicker and longer than the violin’s.

Typically, the viola’s strings have a lower pitch range than the violin’s, producing deeper and mellower tones. The thicker strings also require more finger strength and pressure to produce clear notes, influencing the playing technique and finger placement on the fingerboard.


The bow is a critical component of both the violin bow and the viola bow. Still, there are notable differences in its design and application between these two bowed string instrument families.

  1. Bow Length: Viola bows are typically longer and heavier than violin bows. This extra length and weight are necessary to accommodate the larger size and thicker strings of the viola. The longer bow provides a broader range of motion and control required to draw a full and resonant sound from the larger instrument.

  2. Balance: Violin bows tend to be more balanced, with the weight distributed evenly between the frog (the part held by the player’s hand) and the tip. Viola bows, on the other hand, may have more weight toward the frog to help players achieve the necessary control for the more profound and richer tones of the viola.

  3. Playing Technique: Due to the size and tonal characteristics of the viola, players often use a more deliberate and weighty bowing technique than the violin. This technique allows the player to fully exploit the viola’s potential for warm and expressive tones. Conversely, violinists may employ a more agile and nuanced bowing technique to suit their instrument’s brighter sound.


  1. Violin Clef: Violinists primarily read and play music written in the treble clef, also known as the G clef. This clef places the note G on the second line of the staff, aligning with the pitch produced by the open G string on the violin.

  2. Viola Clef: Viola music is typically notated in the alto clef, also known as the C clef. The note C centers on the third line of the staff. This clef is well-suited to the viola’s pitch range, as it places the middle C, a crucial note for viola music, in a comfortable position on the staff.


Violin Sound:

  • The violin is known for its bright, brilliant, and sweet sound. Its higher pitch range, facilitated by thinner strings and smaller bodies, allows for precise and expressive melodies.

  • Violinists often use a more nimble and agile bowing technique, which enables them to produce delicate and intricate musical passages.

  • The violin’s sound is well-suited for solo performances, virtuosic displays, and soaring, lyrical melodies.

Viola Sound:

  • Due to its larger size and thicker strings, the viola produces a warm, rich, and mellow sound. Its lower pitch range lends itself to harmonies and deeper tonal qualities.

  • Viola players typically employ a more deliberate and weighty bowing technique, allowing them to draw out the instrument’s full and resonant tones.

  • The viola’s sound is often described as more sonorous and soulful, making it a valuable instrument for ensembles playing chamber music and providing depth to orchestral compositions.

Tuning and Range

Violin Tuning and Range:

  • The standard tuning for a violin is G-D-A-E, from lowest to highest pitch. The violin’s pitch range spans approximately 3.5 octaves.

  • The violin’s highest string, E, produces the brightest and most piercing notes, while the lowest line, G, offers a warm and resonant foundation.

Viola Tuning and Range:

  • The viola is tuned a perfect fifth lower than the violin, with a standard tuning of C-G-D-A, from lowest to highest pitch. This tuning gives the viola a deeper and more resonant range.

  • The viola’s pitch range typically spans around 2.5 octaves. The lower C string adds depth and richness to the instrument’s sound.

Playing Style and Techniques

Violin Playing Style and Techniques:

  • Violinists often employ a nimble, agile bowing technique with quick, precise movements, allowing them to produce delicate and intricate melodies with ease.

  • The violin’s higher pitch range encourages virtuosic displays of technique, such as fast runs, double stops (playing two strings simultaneously), and harmonics (producing high-pitched, ethereal tones).

  • Violinists frequently use a shoulder rest to support the violin and facilitate a comfortable playing position. This accessory provides stability and reduces fatigue during extended playing.

Viola Playing Style and Techniques:

  • Viola players often use a more deliberate and weighty bowing technique, characterized by broader and deeper strokes. This approach allows them to draw out the instrument’s full and resonant tones.

  • Due to the viola’s lower pitch range, virtuosic displays focus more on expressive phrasing, nuanced dynamics, and rich harmonies.

  • While some violists use a shoulder rest similar to the violin, others may prefer to play without one, relying on a chin rest or other support options to achieve their desired playing position.

Position in the Orchestra

Violin’s Position in the Orchestra:

  • One can distinctly categorize violins into two main sections in the orchestra: first violins and second violins. The first violins typically play the melody, often leading in conveying the composition’s primary themes.

  • Violinists are adept at performing intricate and virtuosic solos that showcase the instrument’s agility and brilliance.

  • The violin section often serves as the orchestra’s core, providing the foundation for the ensemble’s sound.

Viola’s Position in the Orchestra:

  • Violas and violins, cellos, and double basses are part of the string section. Within the string section, the violas’ role is distinct.

  • Violas contribute depth and richness to the orchestra’s harmonies and are essential for achieving a complete and balanced orchestral sound.

  • While violists occasionally have solo passages, they primarily provide the middle voice and support the ensemble.


Common Accessories for Both Instruments:

  • Bows: Players often have multiple bows to suit different playing styles and repertoire, and these bows comprise materials like Pernambuco or carbon fiber.

  • Strings: String choice dramatically influences the instrument’s sound. Players select strings based on tonal qualities, gauges, and tension.

  • Rosin: Rosin is applied to the bow hair to enhance friction with the strings, producing a clear and consistent sound.

  • Chin and Shoulder Rest: These accessories provide comfort and support for players, allowing them to maintain a stable and ergonomic playing position.

Specific Accessories for the Viola:

  • C-Extension: Some violas are equipped with a C-extension, extending the instrument’s lower pitch range by allowing the C-string to go lower, enhancing the instrument’s versatility.

Specific Accessories for the Violin:

  • Fine Tuners: Violinists often use fine tuners on the tailpiece to make small pitch adjustments more easily. Violas usually have fewer fine tuners due to their thicker strings.


Which is easier to play: Violin or Viola?

The ease of playing the violin or viola depends on the player’s preferences, experience, and physical attributes. Violinists often find the transition to viola manageable, as many skills are transferable. However, the larger size and differences in technique make the viola a unique instrument to master. Some players who buy violins online may find one instrument more accessible based on their background and goals.

Can a violinist play a viola?

Yes, a violinist can learn to play the viola. The violin and viola share similarities in technique and notation, making it relatively feasible for a violinist to transition to the viola.

Do the viola and violin use the same technique?

While the violin and viola share fundamental bowing, fingering, and musical notation techniques, they also have distinct playing styles. When you buy violas online, you will notice the larger size and lower pitch range necessitate bowing technique, finger placement, and expression adjustments to maximize its rich and warm tones. Violinists transitioning to the viola may need to adapt their technique to suit the instrument’s unique characteristics.


In string instruments, the violin and viola are distinctive voices, each with its characteristics, playing styles, and roles. Understanding the differences between these two instruments enriches our appreciation of their unique contributions to music.

Both instruments offer many expressive possibilities, from the violin’s brilliant and soaring melodies to the viola’s warm and resonant harmonies. Whether you’re a dedicated string player, an aspiring musician, or a music enthusiast, recognizing these differences allows you to explore the captivating world of the violin and viola and appreciate the diverse soundscapes they create in solo and ensemble settings.