Violin vs viola

April 9, 2020, 5:31 PM · Hello,

I have think about trying viola since last February.
Actually, I'd like to know what are the differences between viola and violin(fingerings):
I know that the viola has C,G,D and A string and that the A is tuned one octave lower than the violin's

Do fingerings are like cello?
Do fingerings are like violin?

What I mean is : do you need to use your first and fourth finger to do B-D(1 position) or do you need to do first-third finger?

I know that people are going to ask me why I want to switch to viola(I'll will play violin):
The reason is that I personnaly love cello more than I like violin (wasn't the case when I begin violin) but I realised that it's way too late to be a professional cellist.I then saw that all cello concertos can be transcribed for viola without modifying so much the original score

I have another question: Are orchestras interested in playing with a violist a transcribed cello concerto?

Waiting for your answers


Replies (38)

April 9, 2020, 6:13 PM · Viola G,D, and A strings are tuned exactly the same as those strings on violin. It's the cello that has those strings tuned an octave down. Fingering on a viola is just like on a violin. If you can play the violin, you should be able to pick up a viola and play it straight away, but of course not with the proficiency of viola specialists.
April 9, 2020, 6:27 PM · Viola is fairly similar to violin, and you can play a fair amount of the violin repertoire on the viola itself. In fact, I had a wonderful violin teacher one summer who was a violinist/violist but demonstrated everything on the viola, which he could do easily as long as he didn't run out of fingerboard on the A string.

I think orchestras are interested in violists that can played a transcribed piece.

April 9, 2020, 6:28 PM · Thank for your answers
Edited: April 9, 2020, 8:42 PM · Since a viola is larger than a violin it is more of a stretch to finger the notes on a viola.

Because a viola is scaled like a violin it is wider than a violin and this makes it more difficult to play the highest positions. There are viola designs with thinner right-side upper bouts that do not have this problem.

I did play in an orchestra which accompanied a viola soloist paying the Elgar Cello Concerto (Elgar himself had approved that transcription - for good reason, in my opinion. also the Bach Cello Suites do well on viola and the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata is multiple times easier on viola than on cello. Finally, the viola solo part to Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (a double concerto, in effect) is significantly easier than the violin part, even though the two parts sound equally glorious.

Because the viola air volume is too small for its range it can be difficult to find a powerful sounding viola with a powerful low range - and the really big 17 and 18 inch violas need big-handed, long-armed players. However, a big viola can be setup with a shorter vibrating string length than scale to make it easier on the left hand but still get the tonal advantage of a larger instrument - some violas are thicker than others - that also increases the air volume.

Just saying.

Adding viola playing to your abilities is definitely worthwhile.

I play a 16-inch viola and even though I cannot get my hands into any gloves smaller than X-large, I find the viola an uncomfortable stretch in a lot of viola parts. (I also play cello - and violin.)

Edited: April 10, 2020, 4:26 AM · Andrew Victor, you keep saying the Arpeggione Sonata is easy on viola. It depends a lot on hand size. The third movement requires virtuoso technique for those of us with small hands -- I now actually think it's more difficult than anything in the Walton concerto. (FWIW, the first two movements aren't nearly as hard even with small hands.)

That said: Guillermo, do not let hand size dissuade you from playing viola. I have never met another adult with hands smaller than mine (not even people almost a foot shorter than me) and I play a 15-3/4" viola fairly comfortably with technical adjustments. Most people have to adjust their left hand shape and thumb placement from violin to viola.

April 10, 2020, 4:50 AM · I am a violinist, and my son, 13 y/o, plays the viola. It was his wish to play the viola because he loves underlying accompanying figures which sort of add the soul to a piece of chamber or orchestral music. (Offbeats=pure joy to him).
This son is the most emotional of my kids. He is constantly singing, and when he plays the viola it is always musically in a touching way. But he only wants to have fun and enjoy it, he hates the hard work that sometimes is the only way to enjoy music making at a higher level.
I started teaching him before I even knew the clef, myself, but I hoped the basics would be similar enough.
Then we got him a “real” viola teacher, but he was so bad that I ended up teaching him, again. Last year, he got some success at a youth competition, and some highly acclaimed professors stated he was on a good way.
I don’t want to brag about my son, this just tells me two things:
1- The technical differences between violin and viola are not as great as some people suggest. They apply at a professional level, but up to there, a good violin teacher is far better than a mediocre viola teacher (and vice versa, of course).
2- Although ambitious viola players might not like to hear this (sorry!), but for a less ambitious person, the viola can be pure joy whereas the violin would be a source of frustration. At that competition, my son played really beautifully and with a highly differentiated way of tone production, BUT otherwise pretty easy pieces. Violinists at his age play much more virtuoso pieces. He could never play those! At youth orchestras, there is a great competitive atmosphere among violinists (and some others), whereas the violists have a good time together. You play the viola? You are very welcome to join!
My son is growing up in a completely different musical mindset than I had. I am sure had he started with the violin he would have been fed up, by now, and quit.

We are currently working on the first cello suite by Bach, and it takes him ages to learn the music because he is struggling and procrastinating unpleasant practicing. But whenever he’s done with the “hard” part of studying, I can work on the piece with him like with a grownup.
I wish the few violin students I used to have would have had such an attitude. They always wanted to learn fancy virtuoso pieces without caring about musical depth.
Maybe I could sum it up by saying that viola playing is purely about making music whereas violin playing somehow includes a large proportion of sportive elements.

This, again, is said about an amateur level, only.

Edited: April 10, 2020, 5:27 AM · Left hand?
- To keep a curved 4th finger, the other three fingers must open backwards to make way. And we often adopt grouped fingerings, like a 'cellist.
- The longer, heavier strings need a firmer hold on sustained notes, and more vigorous fingers action in fast slurred passages. This does not facilitate a flexible vibrato..

Right hand?
- Usually a slower, heavier stroke, but graduating from slow & heavy on the C to faster & lighter on th A. The heavier bow avoids extra tension in the hand.
- All strokes need a slightly biting attack even in pianissimo, to get the heavier string (and wood) moving.

April 10, 2020, 7:57 AM · Viola music is traditionally written on an Alto clef. For a violinist, this can be confusing because the notes on an Alto clef correspond to different fingerings than the G clef of violin music.

If you are mostly interested in playing the viola for your own enjoyment, a "trick" you can perform with music notation software is change the G clef of a violin piece to a Mezzo-Soprano clef. You can now read the music as if you are playing a violin with the same fingerings.

Using the notation program to transpose the piece a key a fifth lower will usually adjust the music to place the notes in the same staff positions as the violin piece, but with the viola tuning.

Also, a viola piece written on the Alto clef can be imported into the notation program and then converted to the Mezzo-Soprano clef. It will remain in the same key as it was originally written, but now you can read the music with fingerings like it was a violin.

Of course, if the goal is to play the viola with an ensemble, you might encounter so much printed music in the Alto clef that it becomes impractical to import it into a notation program and convert it to a Mezzo-Soprano clef.

This little trick made it so much easier for me to switch between violin and viola that I wonder why viola music was ever written on an Alto clef.

Of course, violists can make the same claim about violin music. >grin<

April 10, 2020, 11:10 AM · I can hardly imagine anything more frustrating than trying to play viola music while reading mezzo-soprano clef. I tried something similar once when attempting to transpose Suzuki piano accompaniments from a violin book to accompany a viola student (transposing the pitch of my digital piano so that I could read and finger the notes as usual while the pitch came out a fifth down) and I just could not do it. It drove me crazy to be fingering one set of pitches and hearing another, and my hands kept trying to adjust to match what my ears were telling them.

It really doesn't take that much effort to learn to read alto clef.

April 10, 2020, 12:27 PM · Hi,

I have read all all jour interesting answers and another question came to m'y mind:

Is it possible to get a viola that is as long or a bit longer than a fi size violin?(may be a dumb question)

I don't have problems to read the viola's key(alto clef)

April 10, 2020, 12:48 PM · You can yes, it just won't sound too good
April 10, 2020, 1:10 PM · What is fi size violin?
April 10, 2020, 1:12 PM · Full.size
Edited: April 10, 2020, 1:21 PM · I once heard the viola is a violin that runs on diesel.
Edited: April 10, 2020, 1:21 PM · Minimum viola size for the best viola sound is 16". Violas are made that are smaller than violins, but the best violas will be at least 16". I don't know why Jake disagrees...
April 10, 2020, 2:03 PM · There are good violas between 15 and 16 inches. They're just harder to find. The main reason violinists who moonlight on viola want something close to the size of a violin is so the switch is more manageable, but if you're going to play viola regularly even if you switch back and forth all the time, I would look into a decent-sized viola that fits your frame (at least about 15.5").
April 10, 2020, 3:28 PM · Erin I didn't disagree. I meant that smaller violas don't sound as good as bigger ones. Mine is 15.5" and sounds pretty decent (I really like it anyway)
April 10, 2020, 3:39 PM · Forget about the "tricks" to reading alto clef. Such as fingering like you were in third position on the violin and the likes (rewriting in mezzosoprano clef was new to me). If you want to live in France learn french and if you want to play the viola learn the alto clef. It is not that difficult.....
April 10, 2020, 3:42 PM · Thank you, Jake; we agree on the size issue! I started on cello, then went to violin which is an ongoing struggle, but I have to say for some reason the viola was an instant hit when I found it.
April 10, 2020, 3:58 PM · Violas are awesome.

The bow stroke is different, you have to almost “pull” the sound from the strings.
Finger spacing is different, you get very good at second position, at least I did. It’s ideal for being able to move around quickly on the instrument.
Choose one that you can play comfortably, it’s a regular occurrence when older players need to downsize their instruments because it is simply too big. You’ll want to make sure you can play all the way up the strings, on every string, if you can’t, a smaller size is worth it.
Make a point of learning alto clef, it’s pretty easy once you pick it up.
Enjoy playing, it’s a delicious instrument to play. If possible, find a teacher who is a viola specialist, I have done this and it has really paid off in terms of technique and achievement.
Every viola is slightly different, so it’s worth shopping around until you find one that is just right.
You may find that the chin rest and shoulder rest combination you have on violin will not work on viola. Be prepared to experiment and make sure you’re comfortable.

I play a 15.5inch viola, however I have a 15.75 inch viola on loan, which I can also play very easily. For both instruments, I am very very happy with the sound. 16 inches apparently is the optimum, but genuinely there are slightly smaller instruments that are just as boomy!

Currently working my way through the arpeggione sonata, and my hand size isn’t making it difficult, I’m actually finding it to be surprisingly easy as a piece?

Like Erin, the viola was an instant hit with me, I’ve not looked back.
I love being in the middle of the orchestra, playing all the gooey middle bits (unless it’s a waltz, in which case I don’t like it).

Enjoy your viola adventure!!

April 10, 2020, 5:48 PM · "It drove me crazy to be fingering one set of pitches and hearing another, and my hands kept trying to adjust to match what my ears were telling them."

Music is all relative to me. I do not associate the notes on the staff with specific tones. Transposing to different keys or starting on a different string seems natural.

Do you have some version of perfect pitch? I've seen people with perfect pitch struggle with transposed music, especially if it is a tune they have already memorized.

I understand people's points about learning the Alto clef. It just is not worth it to me. I can put the violin down, and throw a viola on my shoulder and continue playing without changing the sheet music by simply shifting the string I start on.

April 10, 2020, 6:37 PM · My second teacher (My father was my first), Winifred Copperwheat was small and had small hands. She taught and played both instruments (I think she had a quartet that she led) and the viola she played was a Richardson (No wonder she said the Walton was the most difficult!).
I learned viola from age 8 (3 years after violin), and the "viola" I played then (My father just moved the soundpost) became my violin in my teens and is my violin now (Sadly it got damaged and later repaired with added wood and hasn't quite the tone and power it used to have when it had had an unsafe repair from Nemes Senior - it might have lasted if we hadn't forgot his warning and moved the soundpost).
Edited: April 10, 2020, 7:08 PM · Carmen, I have very good relative pitch, not quite perfect although I can usually identify pitches by using timbre clues as well— it’s really obvious to me when a string instrument is playing in A Major or D Major, for example. But something sounding a fifth off from what my eyes are seeing is untenable.
April 14, 2020, 3:19 PM · I agree, it's easier to just learn alto clef than resort to weird tricks. In two weeks I was able to read alto clef usably, and it just got better after that. Now it's harder to switch back to treble clef when playing violin.

I play a 16 1/2-inch viola. It takes me 5 or 10 minutes when switching between viola and violin to adjust my finger spacing, and there are a few 4th-finger stretches that I can get away with on violin but not viola. Aside from that, the main difference is how much more you have to dig into the strings to get them vibrating on viola. But it's a lot of fun to hand my viola to a violinist and get them to draw the bow across that C string. The look on their faces is something to see.

Welcome to the dark side!

Edited: April 14, 2020, 4:27 PM · One other thing that is different is that, when you play the viola, even if you stay in position (particularly first), your left hand is likely to move a bit most of the time to reach notes, unlike violin where your left hand can be stationary in a position and play the notes.

If you are a violinist, it is worth playing viola for the opportunities it provides for chamber music.

Edited: April 14, 2020, 7:52 PM · I agree with Bo. I learned alto clef by interpreting relative to bass clef. But in the end you just have to read a bunch of stuff until you're comfortable in the clef. I bought myself some Hofmann viola studies because I figured with any kind of transposed violin studies or Bach suites, I would be able to cheat because I already know the tunes. The Hofmann etudes are great for this purpose because they're such unmusical drivel that you can't predict what notes will come next -- you have to read. The first few pages were bloody murder. By the time I had read through half the book I was ready to play in community orchestra. I made a few mistakes early on, but of course I learned the right notes before the concert. Nowadays I have relatively few "clef fails."

What Tom Holzman said is entirely true. It will feel different in first position. And you will have to recalibrate your left elbow to play the lower positions in tune. The other thing that is a little different on the viola is the decision-making process regarding whether you reach for notes like D# as a high 4 or a low 1. You will find yourself in half position more frequently because the wider distances will make it hard to just reach back for stuff without moving your thumb.

Other than that, my advice is to just dive in, knowing that a few things will be a little different. Be sensitive and flexible and it'll work out just fine.

You asked about violists performing transcribed cello concertos. I have never seen this happen. Cello concertos sound better on the cello. One thing you will learn is that the far upper register of the viola sounds like crap. The cello has a much larger practical range. The only thing that would work are baroque cello concertos, of which I think there are maybe a grand total of three decent ones (CPE Bach, Monn, Vivaldi double, etc.). You can forget stuff like the Rococo Variations or the Elgar. If you play those on the viola your cat will die. William Primrose even said (and in rather colorful language) that the fifth and sixth Bach cello suites are not suited to the viola.

If you are a normal-size guy you can play a 16" viola.

April 14, 2020, 7:47 PM · Paul I did the same thing with alto clef, but it being relative to treble. I starter with some scales and then went inti a full scale production of the musical Evita at my high school haha. What a bad decicision that was, although it was immense fun
Edited: April 14, 2020, 8:46 PM · Also note that you may have to ignore what your violin teachers have said about your left thumb and wrist. Your left thumb will almost certainly not be opposite your first finger; depending on the context you may find yourself placing it opposite your second finger, or pushing it back toward the scroll, in order to reach. While violinists generally play with a straight wrist, many violists use a gently rounded wrist. As fingerings go, violists tend to shift more often and use internal (2nd and 3rd finger) extensions rather than 4th finger extensions. Playing a 15.75" viola with very small hands, I find that the "normal" 4th finger is already at maximum extension in first position and do not use 4th finger extensions at all below third position.

I think the bowing is much more different than most people realize. When I hand my viola to violinists, often they resist digging into the string enough because it also goes against what they've been taught. (And I can often tell quite easily if someone playing viola has recently switched from violin.) On the other hand, because I play viola almost exclusively and rarely play violin, I also find the most difficult thing about switching to violin is bowing. When I play violin, it takes me only about 15 minutes to adjust to the left hand finger spacing, but it takes me several days of consistent violin practice to adjust my bow weight; on the first day it feels like I have to use pianissimo bow strokes all the time.

April 14, 2020, 11:08 PM · The only vi0las I have played are 16". I find that the finger spacing on a 16" viola 3rd position is virtually the same as 1st position spacing on a violin - AND the left elbow angle is the same as 1st position on a violin. This is very handy; if you an relate your elbow angle to your finger spacing (as we must do on any string instrument when we change position) the finger spacing problem vanishes.

It turns out the finger spacing on a cello from first octave harmonic on up is very similar to that for the two chin instruments - so when i started cello studies in my mid teens I had no trouble spacing my fingers in the upper thumb positions.

That said, I have other left-hand difficulties with viola, because my joints are just too damn old, and getting older every day.

April 15, 2020, 4:29 AM · Andrew Hsieh,
“digging into the string” - that’s what I am jealous of as a violinist whenever I play a few moments on my son’s viola.
I love that and I always had to remind myself that the pressure gets too high, too easily, on the violin. On the violin, you have to let the bow “fly”, and this involves some psychological trust in your bow. Whereas on the viola, you can just dig into the string and shape the music like clay. A wonderful feeling!
But I guess, life is too short for me to start out on the viola, myself.
April 15, 2020, 4:44 AM · "One thing you will learn is that the far upper register of the viola sounds like crap"
Agreed, but it's even worse with this wretched habit of using a steel-cored A-string with three nice warm synthetics. I want a viola, not a trumpet! (BTW I love the trumpet..) I use a synthetic A with longer, lighter strokes, singing sweetly up to the end of the fingerboard. This does mean more re-bowings, though.

(Four steel-cored strings with a different setup is another matter.)

Edited: April 15, 2020, 7:16 AM · If the far upper register of my G string (above A) sounded like crap, it would be an improvement. I've never tried the far upper register of my A string. It will be interesting to try.

I just tried it. No problem for two octaves. I didn't try higher.

April 15, 2020, 10:38 AM · I'm not the best at playing in the upper register of the viola because I don't need to regularly so I don't bother trying to get super good at it. I will practice high register stuff when the time comes.

I agree with just about everything that was said about the differences. For me personally, switching back and forth isn't a major problem as the instruments are very separate in my mind and I play both regularly. It's funny that for me if I stick to just one instrument for a few days I kind of forget the other and when I pick up the other instffument it takes me a minute to feel like "this is the norm", but if I switch back and forth often, I just get used to the differences and don't feel anything weird.

I seem to get used to the spacing difference immediately, but sometimes the differences in bowing technique feel weird. Like if I've been playing violin really intensively for awhile and then pick up my viola, it's like "oh my I'm working so hard to make a big sound". On the other hand, if I play viola intensively for awhile and then pick up my violin, I feel like "oh no, I better be careful or I'll crush the heck out of my violin." Thankfully these moments last for a very short time and I adjust immediately.

April 23, 2020, 2:29 PM · One other danger with the viola is the combination of the extended arm with the firmer finger pressure in the 3rd and 4th fingers. This can lead to an excruciating case of "Viola Elbow" (as in Tennis Elbow, and for the same resons).
April 25, 2020, 1:47 PM · I don’t have anything more to add than my own experience as a doubler on violin and viola, sometimes in the same chamber music sessions. My playing (and intonation) vastly improved when I got a 90 year old 15.5” viola with an almost violinistic neck. I was able to use a more violinistic hand frame, rather than cludging between quasi-celloistic closed hand and open frame violin fingering. The shorter reach also helped my position and reach. I can now play for hours on end without the fatigue that I had. I can also approach the more violinistic works of the viola repertoire, including transcriptions of violin pieces. R Strauss and other more challenging orchestral parts are much more playable. The older instrument that I play has a warm, full timbre that you would not expect in a smaller instrument with narrow bouts and I can belt every bit as much as my larger orchestra section mates.
Robert Spears makes a modern ergo viola with a diminutive neck and full size body that you might want to look at. I would if anything ever happened to my EH Roth.
April 25, 2020, 1:51 PM · N.B. imho steel strings like Spirocore Tungsten, Larsen A, Jargar, Superflexible, and Kaplan Forte are much better than synthetics on smaller violas. Most of the things I wrote previously did not apply until I switched to SpiroTungsten C, Silver G, Regular D with Larsen A or Jargar DA.
April 25, 2020, 1:53 PM · Ed Maday has a nice small viola model. He moves most of the air volume to the back, which has a remarkable bulge. It ends up sounding like a viola, though, and is quite easy for players with small hands or short arms.
April 25, 2020, 1:56 PM · Also, when doubling violin and viola in the same session, it is easier if I use the same bow manufacturer and model when switching, so I can adjust the arm weight and draw much more consciously without drastic changes in balance, etc. I have glasser braided carbon fiber backup bows for all four, violin, viola, cello, and bass. Additionally, because they lack the ‘personality’ of wood bows, I don’t get distracted by that change when switching between pieces in a chamber session.

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