Violin is an extremely well-known instrument. You would practically need to be hiding under a rock your whole life to not know what a violin is! Yet, many people have never heard of the violin’s closest relative – the viola!
Most people watching an orchestra wouldn’t even notice that there is a whole section of violas. They just look so similar to the violin. The viola does not often take the spotlight, so it often goes unnoticed. But the truth is, the viola is a beautiful instrument with so much to offer!
While it is true that violin and viola are more similar than different, understanding what sets the viola apart will help to cultivate a deeper appreciation for the humble instrument!
Let’s explore what makes the viola different from its famous relative, the violin.
The viola’s strings
The most obvious difference between violin and viola is that they each have a slightly different set of strings. As you might already know, the violin’s strings are in this order, from lowest to highest: G, D, A, E. However, the viola’s strings are in this order: C, G, D, A (see picture). You might notice that both instruments share three strings: G, D, A. Essentially, the viola removes the violin’s highest string (the E string), shifts the remaining three strings to the right, and adds a lower string on the left (the C string).
So, really, the two instruments have only one string which they do not share. But this difference ends up being quite significant! The C string of the viola is lower than all of the violin’s strings. This gives the viola a handful of low notes it can play that the violin cannot. Therefore, the viola is, on average, lower in pitch than the violin. On the other hand, the E string of the violin is higher than all of the viola’s strings. Funnily enough, a violist actually can play these notes on its highest string, the A string, by shifting into higher positions. The caveat is that it is more challenging to play these notes, because shifting is a difficult technique. Further, the tonal sound won’t be quite the same because the E string has a very distinct tone from the A string.
One sure way to know a violin is playing is if you can pick out the distinct sound of the E string. It has a very metallic, piercing tone that is easy to distinguish from the violin’s other strings as well as the strings of a viola. However, from sound alone, it is sometimes difficult to tell the two instruments apart.
The size of the viola
We have already shown that violin and viola sound slightly different. But they actually look different, too! Unlike full-size violins, full-size violas vary in size. Basically, a violist will play the biggest viola they can comfortably manage. This is because the lower pitches of the viola are supported much better by a larger sound box to resonate their sound. It is for this same reason that cellos are so large (cellos are much lower-sounding than the viola!).
So, violas are slightly bigger than violins. Sometimes they are only one inch longer, which isn’t a huge difference. However, really tall players can sometimes manage a viola that is three and a half inches longer than the violin! While three and a half inches might not sound significant, violas this big feel huge compared to the standard violin.
For this reason, the viola tends to be better suited to those with longer fingers, bigger hands, and just a larger build in general. But the variation in size of the viola makes it possible even for smaller people to play the instrument. And of course, for children starting the viola, the instrument will be under-sized (just like with violins), so they can learn on it comfortably.
The role of the viola in ensembles and orchestras
While the physical differences between the violin and the viola are definitely significant, it is really the role of the viola that sets it apart the most.
You can find the viola in all types of musical groups, from large symphony orchestras to small quartets. But regardless of the context, violas tend to have a similar role – they provide supportive harmony. Violins, being the highest-pitched instrument, tend to carry the melody (the main tune of the piece). Cellos and/or basses, being on the low end of the pitch-spectrum, tend to carry the bassline. In between the melody and the bassline, we need harmony, and the viola is simply the perfect instrument for that purpose!
Unfortunately, this means that playing the viola can sometimes feel a bit boring. While harmony is extremely important, harmony played by itself doesn’t always sound so interesting. On average, it won’t be as challenging as the melody part either. But that can be a good thing! Viola is often seen as the “easier” instrument, not because it is easier to play, but because the music that is written for it tends to be easier. Violinists often need to spend hours practicing difficult passages, which can be quite cumbersome. Therefore, playing the viola can make for a significantly less stressful experience.
Check out this funny TwoSet Violin video where Brett and Eddy try to guess the piece just by listening to the viola part. It’s not easy! You will get an idea of how viola parts tend to sound. They really don’t get the melody very often!
Relatively lower competition for viola players
Honestly, this point is probably the most common reason a violinist will switch to viola. Viola is simply far less competitive than the violin. It’s not because viola isn’t hard! It’s more that the violin world is just ridiculously competitive.
Often, you’ll see violinists competing for the first chair of the orchestra, or trying to learn the hardest pieces ever written, such as those by Paganini. The bar has been set very high for violin. The pieces that have been written for the instrument over the centuries are technically demanding. Many aspiring violinists fail because they can’t meet that intense demand.
In contrast, the viola world is a whole lot easier. As we have already discussed, the orchestra music itself tends to be easier for viola. Similarly, solo viola pieces also tend to be much easier than solo violin pieces. You could say the culture surrounding viola is just different. Unlike in the violin world, there isn’t a history of prodigious viola composers who constantly raised the bar by writing increasingly difficult pieces.
What’s more, there is a much lower level of competition amongst viola players themselves. For example, I often have students who audition for prestigious orchestras. I always know that my viola students will have a much better shot at making it in. Often, my less advanced viola students will get into the orchestra while my very advanced violin students barely make it or don’t get in at all! There is a surplus of violinists in the world, and far fewer violists. This means it is easier to “make it” as a violist.
A special clef for the viola
The viola is pretty much the home of the alto clef! Although some other instruments do use alto clef, its use is mainly reserved for the viola. If you’re wondering what a clef is, it is the symbol at the beginning of every staff of music notation. It dictates which notes the lines and spaces of the staff will correspond to. If you look at the image below, you’ll see that the treble clef of the violin assigns certain letters to each line and space. The same is true for alto clef. But if you compare the two, you’ll see that they are completely different!
Learning to read music is one of the most challenging aspects of starting an instrument. Since alto clef is completely different from treble clef, this places an extra challenge on those who play both violin and viola (which is actually fairly common). In fact, it is quite easy for a violinist to pick up a viola for the first time and play it. However, actually reading the viola’s clef takes a lot more practice! Personally, I have only become proficient at reading alto clef after several years of having viola students.
It can definitely be a challenge to get comfortable reading alto clef. This is especially true if you have experience playing another instrument. But if viola is your first instrument, you probably won’t even notice the difference!
Violin and viola have quite a bit in common and they are initially difficult to distinguish from each other. I hope this article has helped you to know what differences to look out for! Try to remember the most obvious characteristics of the viola: it is slightly bigger than the violin, it has a lower sound, and it is rarely seen playing the melody.
If you are considering taking up the viola, just know that you will need to deal with a slightly bigger (and more cumbersome) instrument. In addition, you will need to learn to read alto clef.
The viola can be a great choice for those who are seeking a more relaxed and less competitive musical atmosphere. Plus, we really need violists in this world! Many will say that the viola is a “dying” instrument. Let’s make sure to keep the viola alive for many centuries to come!