Violin vs Viola

November 12, 2010 at 05:22 PM ·

This topic is getting started on a blog but I thought I would move it here.  I am learning the violin but love the much deeper tones of the cello.   However, I am learning the violin because it's more social, easier to take around, can jump into jam sessions easier and it's easier to find music to accompany the guitar.  I was wondering if a viola might be a better compromise for me?  But I have some questions........

Do you play the viola exactly the same as you play the violin?  Same sheet music?  Same hand positions?  Since i am learning the violin, if I switch to a viola, can I still use the same books and videos that I have been following?  I do not yet own my own instrument (renting) so now is the time to decide if a change is in order!

Replies (60)

November 12, 2010 at 05:45 PM ·

You don't use the same sheet music.  Most viola music is written in alto clef rather than treble.  This makes it harder to play along on that collection of Christmas carols someone has xeroxed.  A lot of the basic technique transfers over, and if you are just beginning, the differences won't be so apparent- things like bow speed and weight, width of vibrato, that kind of thing.  Finger spacing is wider, depending on the size of viola you have.  (As you may or may not know, there's no standard size for violas.  You buy them by the inch, anywhere from 15" to about 17" for the length of the back.  A violin is about 14".) 

November 12, 2010 at 06:26 PM ·

Don't play the viola unless you want to become a manic depressive.

November 12, 2010 at 06:49 PM ·

Yes, but violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright.

And they can make girls cry.

November 12, 2010 at 07:18 PM ·

The viola is exactly the same as a violin only it is larger and completely different. There, that cleared it up.

Music that is written for the viola in symphonies is alto clef, but of course if you can read g clef you can play it fine. Just that you have lower notes that fall off the staff, that's all.

Viola is more physically demanding (and potentially injurious) for little women, and yet there are loads and loads of little women playing viola. I guess women like challenges.

There is even a "vertical viola" which is played like a cello. Robert Spear would probably be happy to make one for you--he is an expert in them.

November 12, 2010 at 07:18 PM ·

The viola is exactly the same as a violin only it is larger and completely different. There, that cleared it up.

Music that is written for the viola in symphonies is alto clef, but of course if you can read g clef you can play it fine. Just that you have lower notes that fall off the staff, that's all.

Viola is more physically demanding (and potentially injurious) for little women, and yet there are loads and loads of little women playing viola. I guess women like challenges.

There is even a "vertical viola" which is played like a cello. Robert Spear would probably be happy to make one for you--he is an expert in them.

November 12, 2010 at 07:28 PM ·

I've just heard an echo ...

"Yes, but violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright.

And they can make girls cry."

No, that's violas!!!

November 12, 2010 at 08:44 PM ·

Are you a hopeless romantic?  Violas are seductive, and when you play them, they tend to feel as though they've come alive and they purr against your skin.  Violas are the bridge between the violin and the cello.  While two of the strings on a viola are the same as a violin, the other two tend to have rich, deep voices like warm chocolate. 

I play the violin as well.  I'm just pointing out a difference that I notice.

--Ann Marie

November 12, 2010 at 08:54 PM ·

I always thought there were THREE strings the same as the violin A,D,G?

Maybe I'vealways been playing it incorrectly in all those orchestras.

I do like chocolate but I never liked the viola.

November 12, 2010 at 09:19 PM ·

I am a viola maker and I need more and more violists!!!

November 12, 2010 at 09:30 PM ·

OCD and bedwetting are definitely violin things.  PTSD and stage fright are what make violinists into violists.

November 12, 2010 at 09:51 PM ·

It is allways good remembering that some guys played - and play both: David Oistrack, Pinchas Zukerman, Slomo Mintz, Michael Tree, Toby Appel, and many many more.

Many violinists would not feel well playing fortissimo side by side with violists like Zukerman or this fantastic young viola player that is David Aaron-Carpenter...

November 13, 2010 at 12:15 AM ·

Lets see, I definitely have OCD,  I don't bedwet, I certainly do not suffer from stage fright and I'm not a manic depressive so it sounds like I need to stick with the violin!  But I love the deeper, mellower sounds.  Hmmmm..... may I need to play one tomorrow and see what it's like!

Luis - I would love to try your violas but I live a little far from Brazil :-(

November 13, 2010 at 12:18 AM ·

" ... violins cause anxiety, OCD, PTSD, bedwetting, and stage fright."

They only cause PTSD if the entire first violin section is on an open E at the same time.  :-)

November 13, 2010 at 01:01 AM ·

 Not really a big deal switching between them. Some might tell you it's entirely different but really it's no different to an alto sax player playing a tenor sax. 

Your fingers will reach for the same intervals albeit with more of a stretch. You don't have to get the biggest viola anyway. Reading is more of a challenge but not such a big deal. It would have been better if we had transposing clefs like wind players do but oh well... If you are not reading then no problem.  Bowing is slightly different but nothing you can't get used to in ten minutes! No reason why you cannot play both or even get a 5 string violin!

November 13, 2010 at 02:01 AM ·

I think a 5-string viola (with the E) is likely to be more effective than a 5-string violin (with the low C), because the viola would already have a good bass response which I imagine would be difficult to build into the smaller 5-string violin.  (That's really mostly guess-work on my part so informed comment from a luthier who works in this particular area would be appreciated.)

At orchestra this week someone mentioned the principal viola of one of the British orchestras (sorry, I didn't catch his name) who has a 5-string viola (with the high E) that was specially made for him and is unusual in that it has an asymmetric shape – in what manner I don't know – and apparently has a magnificent tone.

November 13, 2010 at 04:57 AM ·

 You could always get a Bellafina chin cello. They don't have quite the sonority of a regular cello, but I'll be darned if they're not a ton of fun. The look of astonishment on some people's faces when they hear such low notes bellowing out of something the size of a viola, is easily worth the meager price and then some.

November 13, 2010 at 06:28 AM ·

L: OCD and bedwetting are definitely violin things.  PTSD and stage fright are what make violinists into violists.

LOL - and many a true word were said in jest!

People who play both?  Major cases of schizophrenia.  Interesting that it seems far fewer play violin (or viola) and cello. 

Whats this chin cello?  I'd like to try that...

November 13, 2010 at 03:16 PM ·

Elise, google "Bellafina chin cello" – there's a lot out there.  From what I can make out it is essentially an "octave viola", a viola with internal modifications and provided with special strings to drop it down an octave.  This must be similar to octave violins, which have been around for quite a while.  A friend of mine, an excellent Irish fiddler and a qualified luthier, made an octave violin as an experiment from some old wreck of a fiddle that wasn't really fit for much, added the special octave strings and played it occasionally at sessions,  giving a noticeable depth and "presence" to the music.

November 13, 2010 at 03:54 PM ·

There is usually no poblem with playing both instruments even in the same concert. I used to play both at times, but now I opt for the best option and only play the violin, which is much more enjoyable.

November 13, 2010 at 04:18 PM ·

 If anyone does go down the chin cello route they mustn't expect to be able to play all of the cello repertoire "as is" on the chin cello (octave viola).  For instance, passages written specifically to take advantage of the cellist's thumb position technique may prove to be very difficult or even impossible to play on a chin-held instrument without a considerable re-write (the last movement  of Kodaly's opus 8 comes to mind).

Going back a few posts, though, a well-made 5-string viola would be nice for Bach's 6th solo cello suite, which was written for a 5-stringer.

November 14, 2010 at 02:30 PM ·

Someone mentioned that a viola measures between 15 and 17".  I tried a lovely 14" that my luthier has, and it's totally manageable -- even with small hands!  They come even smaller, but I'm not sure how much sound quality would be sacrificed.

November 15, 2010 at 01:20 PM ·

Where would you buy a chin cello?

November 15, 2010 at 02:16 PM ·

Ann,  if you google "chin cello" you'll come up with a useful listing, and there are blogs and retailers in there.  Look out for a Korean composer by the name of Unsuk Chin, who, I kid you not, has written a cello concerto (a BBC commission), presumably for the real cello and not the chin cello!

November 17, 2010 at 10:28 PM ·  lol

I think more luthiers should try their hand at making their version of this thing. Manfio, what say you?

November 18, 2010 at 10:16 AM ·

Is the chin cello the same instrument known as "viola da spalla", here played  bySigiswald Kuijken (a violinist)  -  here playing Bach:

I love it! But there are already some specialized guys making this instrument...   and I just sold 2 of my remaining violas to players of the Gewandhaus and I am violaless now, have to make some more till enterering in a different project!

November 18, 2010 at 10:20 AM ·

And here a discussion about the viola da spalla in another forum:

November 18, 2010 at 10:36 AM ·

I wonder if it could be played a la cello,  resting on the thighs when you're sitting.  I'd love to try one.  In the YouTube videos the articulation with the baroque bow and gut strings was a joy.    

November 18, 2010 at 11:28 AM ·

I listened to those clips and all I can say is - "What a dreadful noise!!"

November 18, 2010 at 02:12 PM ·

I have some questions -

How would you carry that instrument?  Do they make special cases for it? 

Also, the neck strap looks like it might hurt.  How does it attach to the instrument?

---Ann Marie

November 18, 2010 at 07:03 PM ·

 Bellafina's ChinCello =/ viola da spalla. Similar, yes. Identical, definitely not.

November 18, 2010 at 07:09 PM ·

Anne, well, I'm sure someone would make a special case for it if you asked them nicely, but it's possible that a case for one of the smaller sizes of a child's cello might fit.   The straps looked a bit ad hoc-ish and appear to be wedged, at one end, between the fingerboard and the belly and, at the other, between the tailpiece and the belly.  The more I think about it the more I am inclined to believe that the instrument was originally intended to be played upright like a cello or tenor viol, in which case the fingering used would be more cellistic – perhaps not all the time, though.

I also wonder if there was a 5-string version (with a top E) that Bach would have had in mind when he wrote his 6th cello suite.

November 19, 2010 at 01:32 AM ·

I'm late to this party, but since no one else has said it, I feel obliged...

What's the difference between a violin and a viola?


A viola burns longer.


Nothing personal...

August 27, 2016 at 04:10 AM · Out of seriousness, I am thinking about expanding my techniques by getting a 14~16" viola, basically whatever would give me the least expensive, but best in inexpensive budget. Any suggestions? <~300 Cdn~=200USD?

August 27, 2016 at 05:38 AM · Didn't you already have a Viola?

August 27, 2016 at 05:51 AM · Yes, I do regret trading it off, I actually contacted the person I traded a violin for, and if he still has it, I'd like to buy it from him.

Also, now I'm specifically looking for a 15" viola. Preferably new-ish.

August 27, 2016 at 08:12 AM · 15"?

Might as well be a violin....



August 27, 2016 at 08:49 AM · Well, you might find it humerus, but talk to 3 holes and 9 nails in my left one. :( 16" is definitely a stretch.

August 27, 2016 at 08:55 AM · That's a bummer!

August 27, 2016 at 08:56 AM · Why not rent a decent viola for a while first? Unless you are incredibly lucky, you won't find a satisfying viola for $200 USD.

August 27, 2016 at 01:53 PM · Here is what one can get for $300 and less in Ontario:

From my experience, apart from longer fingerboard, one can not get viola sound from cheap student instrument. Motivation killer.

I second that renting is a better idea.

August 27, 2016 at 06:42 PM · I have to admit, I avoid renting as much as possible because I am afraid of damaging a rental instrument with my clumsiness.

Also, I want it to be similar to playing violin for 6 days, and viola for 1 day weekly cycle.

I just recall with the 16" viola I had, how much I could improve my vibrato, shifting and intonation on my violin in just one week, because spacing was all different, and I had to widen my vibrato to get the full extent of it on viola.

I think it was mostly being exposed to something I am not used to, so I actually have to pay attention, rather than going by muscle memory.

August 28, 2016 at 04:48 AM · If you play violin, you can try a viola with a little effort.

Viola is bigger and heavier than a violin. You have to open more your fingers in order to reach the notes on the fingerboard.

On the other hand the sound is more dark, closer to cello. This depends on viola lenght: the bigger ones sound more like a cello; the shorter ones sound more close to a violin.

Viola has no standard size. There's violas size from 38 to 43 body lenght. You may test which lenght will more confortable. The string lenght also varies from one viola to another.

I began playing violin and changed to viola. The better change I ever did.

August 28, 2016 at 05:18 AM · Re: "Better change I ever did". Same here. Even though I loved the violin and I would never have tried the viola if I didn't play the violin first.

15" and it has a good sound but cost way above $300. Still in the student range, though. Maybe it does sound closer to a violin, but I can play it without injury and it still has the viola range. :-) It's _not_ a violin.

August 29, 2016 at 12:33 AM ·

August 29, 2016 at 02:28 AM · Hi Francesca,

You put the main important thing: play without injury.

Happy you find a right viola.

August 29, 2016 at 06:22 AM · Um, many of you may find this a bit comical, but I've decided to pick up a 13" viola for $50 from local ad. It's a decent sounding viola, just... smaller than my violin.

I'm going for what I'm not used to, instead of "viola"

August 30, 2016 at 05:12 AM · Enjoy, Steven. At least you didn't break the bank if you want something else later.

August 30, 2016 at 06:59 AM · What is the sound like? Smaller than your violin, yet tuned lower....Id be interested to hear what that's like.

August 30, 2016 at 01:07 PM · As David Doyle at SoundPost in Ottawa says, it's how you play,not the instrument.

He once played a 1/16 violin as a demo for me. It's a bit comical watching an adult playing a violin size of a 1L water bottle.

He was actually pretty good

August 30, 2016 at 01:25 PM · Give me a 13" "viola" and a 16" one and I can show which one sounds like a viola through my playing. :D

August 30, 2016 at 04:46 PM · Eventually, I know I will get a 15" one, or maybe even a 16" one whence I have recuperated some budget. Right now, in grand sum, I've invested in over $1200 this summer on violin case,bow, perfection pegs and varnish touch-up. Bow rehairing is overdue on my number 2 bow. Considering that I get paid 1/2 of what I am making now during my grad studies, hopefully, I'll have some money lying around in January.

Someone is coming by later to buy my old case, but it'll just be enough to cover the $50 viola, and imbalance in my budget I had for the case.

August 31, 2016 at 01:34 AM · Well, end-of-summer came with my car tire exploding on the road, and more budget deficit to fix it. The $50 13" viola is currently undergoing string breaking-in phase. It's not terrible, but, it certainly is not a good instrument.

August 31, 2016 at 01:46 AM · A 13" viola would be intended for a child's use. I've had several young students play them. Strings tend to be rather slack and they have a "ropey" sound. No great harm in using it though I don't think it will give much of a sense of what a viola is really like.

August 31, 2016 at 03:19 AM · Ron, the C string is definitely slack. GDA from my violin however seem to be just great fit for it.

August 31, 2016 at 11:16 PM · Why do I find viola more difficult now!!!??

How dark and alto-like should a larger viola sound like!?

I remember thing violin finger spacing was just impossibly tiny. Like, you have to press your fingers sideways just to play whole or half steps. Practice makes perfect; Violin is easy!

I then found that I was overstretching on 16.25" and 16.5" violas so I impulse bought a 17" Yita on eBay and it felt GREAT! Got a sholder rest and some Warchal Brilliants.. The spacing is almost like a short scale electric bass in the upper octave.

I've got 2 Roth violins and they have been spoiling me with response, tone, darkness, etc., so I've been playing on them, and now the Yita just rings like particle board.

I mean, the Viola honestly is half the weight of the West German violin, and I think it and the supplied case weigh less than the Markneukirchen.

How long should it take for the spruce and maple to break in on a new instrument?

I don't even know what a Viola is supposed to sound like anymore.

I'm not knocking the Yita too badly since its new and inexpensive; it outplays other student and advanced violas that I've tried for twice the price, but is the sound of old violins just spoiling me too much and skewing my perception?

Let me find an old Tertis! Lol

September 1, 2016 at 12:44 AM · There is a wide range of "acceptable" viola sound. What I think is a great viola sound might be something you totally don't care for.

September 1, 2016 at 05:21 AM · Well, time to ditch the 13" Viola, I've just ordered 15" one from Yitamusic, my first instrument from them. It'll have to be a keeper, because I simply cannot find 15" viola anywhere at the price they were offering.

It's 15" T19, case, IPE viola bow, shoulder rest + shipping altogether 300USD~ 405Cdn. I was able to sell some of my other hobby materials related to target shooting and archery. This hobby/art has been slowly consuming everything else in my world.

September 1, 2016 at 05:41 AM · quick question, can I fit the violin strings on a 15" viola? 16" was definitely not possible.

September 3, 2016 at 01:18 AM · Both violin and viola are pitched in the key of C, there is a little transposition involved but you can quite easily play the same music if you want to. I too prefer the lower pitch of viola, and have found the transition from violin relatively painless in all senses of the word.

September 4, 2016 at 04:32 PM · To help my violin students with tiny hands, I have set up my 15.75" viola as a violin; but the string length is only 14", like many 15" violas. I used the viola G, D, and A, but had to by a special long E, which must be near breaking point..

The result is sometimess called a Mezzo violin: warm and powerful, including the E.

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