Have you ever seen someone holding a stringed instrument, seemingly a violin, and used it as a conversation starter with them? “That’s so cool that you play the violin! How long have you been playing?” Only to get the response you most feared “It’s a viola actually”. Don’t worry! Tons of people make the same mistake, and it can even be difficult for musicians to distinguish the viola vs. violin at first glance. There are several differences, including some obvious ones, and others which are more subtle. These can be used as a tool to make more educated guesses on what instrument someone is playing.
The first important difference between the violin and the viola is the tuning. Tuning refers to the notes each open string plays. The violin’s tuning, from lowest to highest, is GDAE. The viola, on the other hand, is tuned CGDA.
An interesting thing to notice, contrary to the difference in tuning, are the similarities between the way the viola vs. violin are tuned. On both instruments, each string is tuned a perfect fifth apart. That means the difference in pitch between each string is five notes. On the viola, the lowest string is tuned one fifth lower than the lowest string on the violin.
When listening to a violin or viola, try to listen for the pitch of the notes, because although there is much overlap in the range of the two instruments, the viola can play lower notes than the violin can, and vice versa for the violin.
The next thing to notice about the differences between the viola and the violin, is the size. This is hard to notice at first glance, but the difference in size becomes more obvious when seeing a viola and violin side to side. When comparing full size instruments, a viola is a few inches longer than a violin.
This becomes slightly more complicated when there are children playing instruments that are smaller than full size. When many kids start playing the violin or viola, they are too small to hold or properly play a standard instrument. For this reason, there are smaller sizes of most instruments for children to start out on. But, this does make it more difficult to distinguish the violin and viola based on size. In this case, it may be necessary to revert to another way of differentiating them.
Role in Ensembles
Both the violin and viola usually play in orchestras, but they have quite distinct roles within the ensemble. The violin usually plays the melody most, if not all the time. The viola is usually in charge of playing a countermelody, or harmony. A countermelody is a kind of melody that is played at the same time as the melody, and is meant to enhance or highlight it. Harmony refers to a kind of accompaniment with long notes or chords, also meant to accent the main melody.
In a full size orchestra, there are usually many more violins than violas. To be more exact, a standard orchestra has 30 violinists, which are split between two violin sections, called violin 1 and violin 2. Then, there are only 12 violists. This helps with the balance of having the accompaniment softer than the melody.
Sheet music for violin and viola are written differently from each other. This distinction is most important for those considering playing either instrument. A clef is a way of marking which notes go on each line of the music staff. The most common clefs are called treble and bass clef. The notes on a treble clef staff are read EGBDF from bottom to top, while the bass clef staff is read GBDFA. But there are also many other clefs including alto, tenor, soprano, etc.
The reason different instruments use different clefs is because of the range of the instrument, and how it compares to where the notes fall on the staff. It’s easiest to read notes that fall directly on the music staff or only a few notes above or below it.
Since the violin falls pretty comfortably in the range of the treble clef staff, that’s what it typically uses. But the viola is lower than the violin, so it wouldn’t make sense to write viola parts in treble clef. That’s why sheet music for viola is usually written using alto clef. The cello and bass read bass clef, because their pitch is even lower than the viola.
Why is This Important?
Knowing the differences between the viola vs. violin can be useful in many ways. If you want to be more educated about what you are hearing when you go to the symphony, start by learning to play one of these beautiful instruments, or just be more sensitive to the differences in the instruments when you want to strike up a conversation with a musician. Whatever the reason may be, keeping all these distinctions in mind will surely help you crack the code.