Violin Vs. Viola

October 18, 2007 at 02:58 AM · What exactly are the differences between technique for violin and viola? Is there a difference in the way it's held, notes played, or bowing techniques?

How easily can a violist switch to violin or vice versa? (excluding the clef change)

Also, this is a personal opinion, but is violin or viola harder to play?

Replies (32)

October 18, 2007 at 03:34 AM · I think this really depends on the specific person...viola is obviously a bigger instrument and some people hurt themselves and end up downgrading to smaller instruments but if you are bigger (longer neck, arms, fingers, etc.) viola might be more comfortable and less cramped than violin. As far as orchestration goes viola parts don't usually go past 3rd position (of course there are exceptions) but sometimes the voice can switch from doubling the melody to being a counter melody to even being with the bass line and this can mean weird octave jumps or increased levels of awarness needed to fit in with the other parts. The clef also depends on your abilities specifically; it is really different from treble but you can probably get used to it eventually if you use it enough. Another thing that happens (depending on your instrument) is a lot of subtleties get lost and they have to be exaggerated (dynamics, articulation, etc.)

October 18, 2007 at 05:31 AM · This is an interesting topic!

In addition to Sarah's questions, what I'd like to know is: Is it really advisable to learn violin first before taking up the viola? Why is this so?

October 18, 2007 at 05:36 AM · Greetings,

two aspects of this question spring to mind.

1) Asswuming the player wants to start at a helathy age (6,7,8) then they are not big enough for a regualr viola and end up with a crap sounding piec eo fjunk. This bad situation ha sprobably led to a greta numbe rof young viola players giving up.

2) A viola player does actually rerquire an advance dtehcnique these days in high positions and at speed. The kind of extra stress this -might- put on a young hand that would not occur in a violnist`s case could be a problem.

As an aside I have noticed from watching DVDs and ochestras that viola player sare actually more willing to play without a rest than violnists. Could this be because the actual depth of the insturment makes filling the gap so much easier?



October 18, 2007 at 05:44 AM · Theres a French design for mini violas which has a very stange shape but is reputed to produce a good deep viola type tone even in the smaller sizes.I have difficulty persuading my violinists to switch to viola which are needed in the orchestra as they all strive to be 1st violins.The viola has a beautiful haunting tone and I wish someone had handed me one when I was younger.Unfortunately its is much underated as an instrument.A real virtuoso produces amazing sounds.

October 18, 2007 at 06:07 AM · As a 5'2" violist playing on a 16" viola with some limited experience playing on the violin - these are my thoughts:

There is a slight difference in way the viola is held - since the instrument is larger and heavier I hold it slightly lower than level to the floor, and down further on the chest rather than higher up on the shoulder.

As Daniel pointed out, dynamics, articulation, etc require more work. The viola bow is a bit longer requiring a bit more arm movement to play at the tip (for me at least) and heavier than a violin bow which helps in bringing out the "big viola sound" on the thicker strings. On the lower strings, I find that a bit more "pull" and "push" action is needed to get good sound production. You do need to exaggerate to some extent (not overly so) in order to bring out the differences.

The fingerings are spaced further apart, so fingered 10ths are nearly impossible unless you have exceptionally large hands or if you are playing up in the nose-bleed section. For my hand size, a fingered octave is a stretch so I will tend to play those in the higher positions where the distance is shorter. Also rather than keeping all my fingers on the string when playing a scale (or just going from a note on the first to forth finger) I must release my first finger in order to reach the note with my forth without doing damage to myself.

I started on the viola and have been playing it my whole life and only experimented with the violin (I find it incredibly small and light). I have no personal input on starting wtih violin first then moving to viola, however I have had teachers and fellow musicians say that sarting with the violin first helps "master" the left hand technique better than starting on the viola.

Buri -

I started viola at the age of 8 on a 15" viola (yes, it was a bit large for that age). Guess that is why I stuck with it for all these years :) For a long time I played with no shoulder rest, but I have found that the device helps me be able to play for longer periods of time without getting fatigued, expecially with the rest with the "hook" over the shoulder. It may be old age, but as the years pass it is become more tiring to hold the viola for long periods of time without a shoulder rest. I keep my rest at the lowest possible adjustment.

Shifting into higher positions is a challenge with the size of the viola. The arm and hand movement required to get around the upper bouts calls for a bit of arm and hand "gymnastics". There is alot of instrument to negotiate around to get into positions higher than 3rd. My teachers didn't start to teach me shifting until a much later age than most of the violinists I know. It may have been due to the instrument size in relation to my size, typcial viola repetoire or other factors.

October 18, 2007 at 11:25 AM · I played violin on and off for 25 years and then, after time off from all instruments except voice for having kids, started playing viola semi-seriously about a year ago.

I have found the switch overall very gratifying, and not that difficult technically, at least at my level, which is currently in the viola section of a community orchestra with occasional performances in church and at the farmers' market. When I was first starting, I tried 15, 15.5, and 16" violas, and settled on a 15.5. There was really a difference in the sound between 15 and 15.5, and the 16 was too heavy and hard to manage. I am 5'4" but I have larger-than-usual hands for my height, and fingered octaves aren't an issue. I've never tried fingered 10ths. I kind of like that you aren't really expected to do anything like the "Paganini stretch" (which I can't do on the violin either) on the viola. I think I naturally tended to apply more weight to the bow and use bow strokes that sounded sort of blah and scratchy on the violin but sound nice and rich on the viola. I enjoy hearing myself play the viola more than I enjoy hearing myself play the violin. But I've actually had more trouble than I expected with learning to read the clef. I've been playing the viola for a year, and my sight-reading on the viola is still terrible.

October 18, 2007 at 09:25 PM · Judging from the previous posts, should someone of short stature and fairly small hands gravitate towards violin over viola?

October 18, 2007 at 10:41 PM · Greetings,

no. That is not the factor. It is what sound are you -drawn to-.



October 19, 2007 at 12:34 AM · Ditto Buri.

October 19, 2007 at 05:03 AM · You know, I've found that the viola is actually a lot LESS tolerant of lots of pressure or quick articulation. I feel as if I have to slow everything down. It's like going from living in NYC to living in Iowa- There's still a McDonald's on every corner, but the corners in Iowa are much farther apart and you can take your time when you order...

One of the strangest things I noticed was sitting through rests in an orchestra- When I hold the violin in "rest position", my arm is resting comfortably against my side, but with the viola, I had to get used to how much "taller" it is on my knee! Weird...

I love the viola now, though. It's definitely worth taking the time to learn, especially if you have the opportunity to play it in an orchestra because you get to experience the music in a very different way than when you play violin. That's not really a technical difference, but it's a big difference none-the-less and it took me awhile to really understand the viola's role in the orchestra. Did I say how much I love it?

As for the big/small hands issue, one of the best violists I know is REALLY tiny, yet she plays just fine on a (I believe) 15 1/2 inch viola.

October 19, 2007 at 12:39 PM · Finding a good sounding viola is harder than a violin, I think. It's difficult getting a vila with a generous dynamic range and a good C string.

October 19, 2007 at 01:03 PM · It takes some time, thinking and listening. Bow speed,weight on string, and where the right upper arm is in space the bigger part of what feels different to me. Fingering space is wider. More difficult to resonate sound well in upper positions. Vibrato, in general terms, needs to be wider and slower or sounds jittery. Sue

October 19, 2007 at 01:08 PM · My experience has been the opposite of Luis'. I bought a Rudoulf Doetsch viola last spring that didn't break the bank, and I love the way it sounds on the C string (and all the other strings). It sounds much better than my violin, even with the same player (me) playing the same piece, where the range is comparable. I had a little farmer's market performance this summer that I was planning to do on the violin and about a week before decided to do on the viola instead, in part because I felt more comfortable with the sound of that instrument: of the two of mine, the viola is more robust and has more heft (in a good way). For an outdoor solo performance it seemed important to have the music carry well and not sound anemic.

The experience reinforced my feeling that I need to upgrade my violin, but for some reason I'm finding that a harder problem that buying a viola. I've played a few other people's violins and I'm not that thrilled with the low range on those either. I fear I'll have to spend more than I can afford to get what I really want.

October 19, 2007 at 04:08 PM · Sarah, the viola already is of short stature. It really isn't acoustically made the way it should be because it would require an alien or a trogladite to play on it. Either that or a Sasquatch with fingers long enough.

But I digress.

Certainly it would be more than possible for modern day composers with all their technical know how to write a piece for anyone willing to try it with the fingers they have on any instrument.

October 20, 2007 at 03:14 AM · Howard,

Is said "REALLY tiny" violist still w/ us? Or are you refering to Lillian Fuchs who played a "huge" Gasparo da Salo? Not sure how huge it is, but I'd imagine it's somewhere closer to 17" than 15.5" to be called "huge". :-)


October 20, 2007 at 11:22 AM · Not only the body length will have an influence on how an instrument will be or not be confortable... some things like string length (a good one is 375 milimeters, I think) weight, balance, model etc. may have a huge influence.

Some players who used to play smaller violas are currently playing my 17 inches violas without any problem.

October 20, 2007 at 03:02 PM · Responding to Timothy Dimacali, I personally think that it is easier if you learn how to play the violin first because the violin parts in a orchestra and the solo pieces are technically much more difficult than that of a viola, a violinist's fingers and technicality are very good compared to people who start the viola first, unless they are disciplined and such. Therefore, i suggest learning the violin first. I'm switching too! My mom finally gave me an OK after 2 years of happy! I love viola.

October 20, 2007 at 05:16 PM · Getting ones arms around a viola is trickier by virtue of its size alone. That's obviously the "big" difference. :)

From a technical standpoint, to create good sound, the bow moves a little slower, one needs to put a little more weight into the string (which is helped by the fact that the vla bow is heavier) and one tends to vibrato a little slower on a viola than a violin.

The string response is a little slower on the viola than on the violin. One has to be more "on top of" the beat or one can end up actually being behind. This shows up a lot in string quartet and orchestra playing.

October 20, 2007 at 05:43 PM · Putting aside hand size and spacing, I think violists would use different fingerings for the lowest string as compared to violinists because from third position upwards the viola typically has a less clear sound than the corresponding notes on a violin. There's been plenty of times when using third position on the C string would have been convenient, but have done otherwise to get a clearer sound ie. the A and the B start to get a bit woolly (3rd & 4th fingers in 3rd pos.).

October 20, 2007 at 07:49 PM · According to the Luis and Clark webpage, their carbon fiber viola is light and speaks very easily. Maybe that will solve a lot of the "problems" normally associated with the viola?

October 21, 2007 at 01:25 AM · Man,

Yes this person is still with us! She's alive and well in North Carolina, I believe, teaching in a university.

October 21, 2007 at 05:29 PM · Viola vibrato must be slower and somewhat wider than a violin vibrato.

Technically, the violin is the easier instrument to play, but the difficulty of the part more than compensates. Viola parts are 'easier' in general than violin parts.

More weight must be put into the bow, and articulation is more difficult to produce, because the strings have more resistance and don't respond as quickly as a violin's.

Physically, the longer arms and bigger hands will feel more comfortable on viola, and petite types will be more comfortable on violin.

Personality can play a part, too. If you always want to be the 'star', the viola is not for you! ^o^

October 23, 2007 at 06:20 AM · I switched from violin to viola almost 2 years ago, and I must say that I found the viola much more difficult to play at the beginning...double stops were always out of tune and the sound was quite awful...due to a lack of bow pressure..Plus the instrument was really heavy,but if you are really motivated,you can get used to it very quickly...And honestly I really know I have made a good choice, and doubt I will once play again a violin recital or something like that!The sound of the viola is for me much more interesting, and since I am really tall it's much more comfortable!!!Plus,honestly, being with violists is more fun ;)

October 24, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Argh... my viola in general (except for the c string) likes LESS bow pressure than my violin. I wonder if I'm doing something wrong. Or maybe I am just habituating quickly and don't notice the difference?

October 24, 2007 at 07:53 PM · It's quite possible, by the way, that the bridge of a viola is simply made of the wrong material. Given what I said above...

The acoustic qualities being different in regard to size relationship between who holds the instrument and itself.

October 25, 2007 at 02:01 AM · or maybe you've just got a really responsive viola! If so, thank your lucky stars and keep on playing.

For me as a primary violist, I find that in order not to play like a pig on violin, I have to constantly be on guard against sinking my bow too much into the string. My own viola gets rather swiffy without a certain amount of weight.

October 25, 2007 at 09:03 PM · Hello all! I'm new here and wish to get some answers to the other half of this question. I played the Viola for 8 years growing up giving it up in 1985. My wife is an accomplished pianist and wishes for me to pick it up again. I have messed with it somewhat and even dug out my first viola (shorter one) for my daughter who enjoys tinkering with it. My question to you all is...

" Can I take my first viola and put a set of violin strings on it and learn to play the violin?" ...

My thinking is that I could easily pick up the violin and play parts ( written for the flute ,oboe whatever) for the small country church choir that I am a member of. Also it seems that there are so many more duets available for the violin-piano, or violin-flute ( my wife plays the flute also and daughter is in her first year). I sing in the choir so I can read music well but don't know how difficult it would be to re-program the hands and mind to play the Treble clef. ANY feedback would be GREATLY appreciated.

October 25, 2007 at 09:17 PM · Dear Tim,

It's not going to work. If you want to play the violin you need to have a violin.

October 25, 2007 at 09:28 PM · Is there a reason why? My first Viola measures 14.5 inches and my full size is 15.5 inches. What is the size of a standard full size Violin? Could it be width or size of it or maybe the and shape of the bridge?

October 25, 2007 at 09:39 PM · I've never tried putting violin strings on a viola as small as 14.5 inch , maybe the strings can take the tension, maybe not. Anyway it will sound awful. And no amount of tinkering on your bridge will help.

Why don't you pick up the viola again since you had played the viola? There are many wonderful arrangments for viola and piano out there. For literature for flute and viola there are the Hoffmeister duets if my memory is right.

October 25, 2007 at 10:37 PM · >What is the size of a standard full size Violin?

I think it's ~13". It might be possible if the thread wrap didn't interfere. It would amount to tuning the violin strings up about a whole step I think. "It's crazy but it just might work" for your purposes. I'd probably go for a traditional solution myself though, like transposing.

October 25, 2007 at 10:55 PM · The extra string length will make the violin strings too tense in a viola, I think.

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