Violin or Viola Sound?

August 31, 2021, 6:22 AM · Greetings,
these days there are some excellent violin technique videos on youtube by Max Baillie. He is clearly an outstanding violinist/musician (two separate things?) I was there fore ratherimpressed to find he records viola music such as the Bach Chromatic Fantasy.
Clearly the guy has the chops and is gracious enough to put out quality stuff on youtube to watch between ‘cat smack sleep farting dog,’ videos. However, as I was listening I got a slight impression of the voila being played as a violinist would play it (of course not that bad). I wondered if I was imagining it and did try listening to the Bach cello suites played on viola by career violists to try and see if my imagination wasn’t just running wild. I would be interested in any opinions from serious viola players or players such as Max who can do both as to any really subtle underlying differences or essential criteria.
I think in the old days it was compulsory to play both instruments in the Russian school (Heifetz/Oistrakh did) and Vengerov has carried on that tradition or whatever. Personally I would never have had the time at music college so I am not sure how that was worked out…

Replies (43)

August 31, 2021, 11:19 AM · I think the upper strings do have a sort of violin timbre but the C string definitely sounds "viola." Different strings, bows and rosins do affect viola sound. The equipment recorded does seem to respond well and quickly to light bow pressure.

My take on what I heard and saw. I play violin (82 years) and viola (46 years) (and cello (72 years)) but I am not a pro. I have several instruments of each type and many bows so I am somewhat familiar with a range of what one has to do to play different instruments with different tools.

August 31, 2021, 11:23 AM · Maybe we are used to people playing the viola as they would be trained to play to fit into an orchestra? There is a difference between any instrument played as a soloist would and as an orchestra member would. The video you give us clearly has the viola played as a solo instrument, such as Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello. Mr. Baillie is not just chugging along here.
Edited: August 31, 2021, 12:05 PM · I did get the feeling of an instrument being forced into unfamiliar territory. I get a similar impression with the cello sometimes - is this actually a pleasant sound I'm hearing? Whether it's a problem with the viola, the player or the piece (maybe even the recording) I couldn't say.
August 31, 2021, 12:13 PM · In addition to the foregoing, I'm guessing that 90+% of pro violists started out as violinists and didn't switch to viola until they were pretty well along in their studies. And normally you can't really switch to viola until you're big enough to hold an actual viola that can make a sound on the C string that doesn't sound like a fart (sorry, Buri inspired me). And by that age, most kids who are bound to become pros have already licked the Paganini Caprices and most of the Romantic concerto literature on the violin. So I'm curious to learn the "process" by which such an individual becomes a "real violist" and to play with the correct viola sound and so forth, because presumably they're learning that from another violist who emerged from the same process, so the question becomes recursive.
August 31, 2021, 3:04 PM · Andrew I would disagree. In my experience with my own instruments, my viola sounds like a viola regardless of what string I am playing on. Its more obvious when my violinist friend and I play together and my viola G, D & A sound different to his
August 31, 2021, 5:08 PM · Jake, I was describing my impression of his viola sound, not yours or either of mine, which are different than each other.
Edited: August 31, 2021, 6:07 PM · Greetings
I’m not really getting at choice of repertoire or whether violas just chug. I’ve heard enough viola virtuousa soloing, playing in orchestra and quartets to know it’s capabilities. Primrose banging out Paganini caprices so wonderfully is a case in point. Maybe my feeling is more psychologically orientated. The viola has a certain unique mellowness and depth that takes a little more depth and time? to produce and register perhaps? So the same piece played by Bashmet might, I suppose be equally superbly played but give the instrument just a little more chance to ‘breathe’ in its own way.
I listened to a very interesting performance of Mozart Duo Concertante with Vengerov and Bashmet. Vengerov plays superbly but I could not help feeling his ego was not completely compatible with his marvelous colleague…:)
Edited: August 31, 2021, 7:20 PM · That has a "small viola" sound to me - not in any derogatory sense...presence and tone. I wonder how much is technique and how much is the instrument. Sean Bishop in London has one by the same maker and year at that has more of an alto tone at least in his hands.
August 31, 2021, 9:38 PM · I think it really depends... violas do sound deeper and warmer overall but they can have a virtuosic and showy character too.
August 31, 2021, 9:44 PM · Greetings,
yes. I’ve always been fond of the concept that they can play along with the show off violinists and the more down to earth lower sections. Sort of ‘marriage counseling with on the job shoulder ache.’
Edited: August 31, 2021, 9:49 PM · I don't think Yuri Bashmet has any shortage of ego. At that level of playing, ego is a primary virtue.

Here's my experience with viola sound. I started as a violinist but I bought a viola and learned the clef because all of my local orchestras are, from time to time, short violists. Sometimes I am the only violist. Then whilst attending Suzuki camp with my daughter, I had a lesson from the violist and I played a page or so of a Bach Gamba sonata. I told him I was struggling to manage my tone on the viola and he took my instrument (a decent MJZ) and had no trouble producing a good sound. He said that my exact problem was the fact that I was fighting the instrument. He said I should not play nearly as much into the string as I would on violin, and also that I should push out my sound point a couple of millimeters toward the bridge. He said something like, "The viola isn't going to just do whatever you demand, like the violin can." Ever since then, I try to fight it less, and I find that I am able to produce what I consider to be a more "violistic" sound. But for me, violistic is NOT soloistic. Its a much more blending kind of sound, which is, of course, appropriate to the task facing me.

It suddenly occurred to me that Sauvignon Blanc is supposed to have an aroma and taste profile that reminds one of freshly mown grass. I have this on good authority from a professional sommelier. To me, the viola sound is kind of like that. Not really more raw than the violin, but somehow greener.

September 1, 2021, 1:37 AM · I haven't heard many violists solo (A wonderful player, whose name I don't know, played the Walton with our orchestra a million years ago, and I fell in love with the piece), but I did hear Antoine Tamestit play a recital a few years ago, and it was truly a magical experience to hear such a rich sound (the playing itself was very musical).

I don't know if really nasally sounds are a function of the player or the instrument, but it's a real treat to go and hear someone with a rich and deep viola tone. I get why Mozart preferred to play viola.

Paul, I know a landscaping crew that can scrape together a really nice glass of Napa Valley grass water.

September 1, 2021, 2:52 AM · Christian,
I don’t know if you have heard them, but the recordings of Paganini capricesby William Primrose are quite staggering. For me, Primrose combine the ideal viola sound with an absolutely virtuoso technique. Presumably this is why Heifetzwas very happy to have him as a chamber music partner.
September 1, 2021, 3:05 AM · The recording by Primrose and Heifetz of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante is amazing.
September 1, 2021, 8:54 AM · I think Heifetz's chamber music recordings with Primrose, Piatigorsky, etc., show Heifetz at his best. The Cesar Franck piano quintet remains one of my favourite quintets.
September 1, 2021, 11:10 AM · Another incredible example is Heifetz playing the Schubert in C (op. 163). I'm not a Heifetz fan per se; but, that has to be one of the all time great chamber music recordings.
Edited: September 1, 2021, 1:15 PM · I took violin lessons with a violist who demonstrated everything on the viola instead of the violin. I learned a lot, especially around positioning the instrument and bowing. The Bartok duets sounded pretty good with a violin/viola combination.
Edited: September 2, 2021, 11:33 AM · Luosha Fang, winner of the 2018 Tokyo International Viola Competition, concertizes on both viola and violin. Her performances are available on YouTube.
September 2, 2021, 7:38 AM · I remember William Primrose as the violist who said that the last two Bach cello suites were not worth bothering with on the viola. I have his edition of the suites, and there is an introductory message written by him in which he issues this statement in entirely unambiguous and even colorful prose.
September 2, 2021, 10:23 AM · For my education, I just compared three performances of Paganini's Caprice No. 24 played by William Primrose on viola, Jascha Heifetz on violin, and Hillary Hahn with hula hoops.
September 2, 2021, 10:43 AM · That Primrose is excellent. It almost makes me think that they might be worthwhile compositions.
Edited: September 2, 2021, 2:44 PM · I have played both Violin and Viola most of my life. I never say which I prefer and I have not owned a quality instrument for either. For me the Viola is a stubborn mule with more inertia. Most every note requires extra persuasion from the bow arm. The Violin seems like it is in a delicate balance, too easy to over-play. I prefer a fat viola because increasing the air space resonance is the cheapest way to get a better C string sound, and I want the instrument to feel different from the violin. When younger I would sometimes start a practice session on viola, for the exercises, scales, etc., before switching to Violin, which would then feel like an easy toy. Doing my classical jobs on Viola and non-classical "fiddle" jobs on violin was a good combination.
For composers and arrangers, my advice is: Viola is an excellent blending and supporting role instrument. If the Viola section doubles the Cellos, the audience hears a louder Cello sound. Beethoven did that all the time. If the Viola section doubles the Violins, the audience hears louder Violins. The Viola A string is distinctive, different from the Violin A, nasal, or dark, or more soulful, which can be used to great advantage on solos. The Viola C has a heavier, fuzzy, sound compared to the same notes on the Cello.
If orchestra violinists win their auditions on the second half of the E string, violists win theirs on the C-string.
September 2, 2021, 10:59 PM · This is maybe the place to bring up a question I have wondered about for a long time. Back in the day when I was young the violist Franz Hirschfeld, of the Tonhallequartett in Zurich (also voice leader in the orchestra) had an instrument with a distinctly nasal tone (reminding of the French "an" or "on" sounds). Other violas I heard also showed that feature but less distinctly. The instrument of the soloist in the Telemann concerto we played with the youth orchestra also had a nasal tone.

At first I found this strange but soon I liked it. It gave the viola a distinctive sound which is particularly pleasing (or so think) in a chamber music context. It has been a long time since I heard such a viola the last time. I find it sad that violas now are desired to have a big but less distinct sound, almost cello like in many instances.

The question is: Was this nasal tone a local fad or was there a global change of taste in this matter?

September 3, 2021, 10:41 AM · continued-- We Want the Viola A to sound different from the Violin A. Some of the different A string sounds between different Violas is because the Viola is not a standardized instrument; different body lengths, shapes, air volume. And there are the choices of A string; steel, synthetic, gut. I am using the steel A
September 3, 2021, 11:12 AM · Albrecht, I tried a violin once that had a very nasal quality and was told that the person speaking to me considered it a "French violin sound." I remain sceptical.
September 3, 2021, 3:16 PM · Re. violas
The STRAD Magazine, Sept. 2021

"Size Does Matter"

September 3, 2021, 3:54 PM · The A string on my viola sounds nothing like the A string on my violin.
Edited: September 6, 2021, 2:54 PM · Nasal tone?
This is characteristic of many violas and can be accentuated or reduced by bridge trimming and sound-post placement. It has little to do with the player.

My older viola is a narrow bodied JTL. My original English bridge broke and I mended it with superglue. To be safe, I asked my Parisian luthier for a new one. The new bridge, thinner, with more extreme cutouts, accentuated the nasal tone. I have since recovered my "English accent" with a bridge similar to my old one.

My new viola from Bernard Sabatier in Paris (his symmetrical 2-cornered model, not the 3-cornered lopsided one) has the same body length (15.75") and vibrating string length (14"). It is wider bodied, deeper, and more highly arched, with much wider middle bouts. It has a warm, round tone and is not at all nasal! The JTL for Mozart and the BS for Brahms?

A string?
Unlike many violists, I want plaintive, sweet high notes: I can play more "aggressively" when I want! I use Pirastro's Eudoxa-Aricore A while stocks last... Then I shall have to return to Tonica or Dominant A's.

Before changing to a new set, I swapped over the A and D strings: The A then sounded more like a violin A, and the D gained in clarity.
Messed up the fingering, though!

My preferred synthetic A's need a noticeably longer, lighter stroke than the lower strings. This is a problem in high D/A double stops, e.g. the finale of the Casadesus "J.C.Bach" concerto. Here I would use a steel A such as Obligato or Jargar which have a warmer tone than many others, without screaming..

Other edit.
I reduced the nasality of my JTL viola a little by sticking a pea-sized blob of blu-tak on the upper wing of the treble f-hole. If I find the ideal adjustment, I could replace it with a sliver of wood of the same weight stuck under the wing. These wings will be too small to radiate sound directly, but they seem to have a cantilever effect.

More other edit.
My violin, (Nicolas Morlot ca. 1820) is a little oversized and sounds like a child's viola.
I got it when I was rejected on viola but invited to play 1st violin. Go figure.

Yet more.
I have met violinists who played on my JTL viola like Baillie or Primrose (i.e.much better than me.) But with my BT viola I feel it's like a violin with 10% cello mixed in: depth plus a slower response, glowing rather than brilliant.

September 9, 2021, 6:48 PM · When I took up viola, I first thought of it as a large violin. That got me going, but I soon realized that it's better to think of the viola as a separate instrument. You have to dig into the strings more, and give it time to respond. I found that compared to the violin I tend to creep too close to the bridge; I'm trying to counteract this, because it results in a thin sound full of harmonics.

When I play violin now, it feels so light and tiny, and I have to be more delicate on the strings - unless I'm playing bluegrass fiddle.

Now that I have a fairly solid tone, I'm trying to put more power into it. On any of our concert recordings, we violas can barely be heard. More cowbell!

September 10, 2021, 2:00 AM · Practicing viola strengthens my left hand; practicing violin refines my bowing. I like to play "the other instrument" at the end of a session.

I intend to make a video of Brandenburg 6, playing both parts, on different violas; then post it and ask friends and students to replace one part. Or both!

Edited: September 10, 2021, 5:46 AM · Scott Slapin (look him up), who often has featured here on, has repeatedly maintained that you *should* approach the viola more or less exactly as if it were a violin...
Edited: September 10, 2021, 6:35 AM · It works for him, and those with big hands and responsive, more "reedy" violas. My "mezzo" viola is less different from a violin than my "contralto" viola.
Edited: September 10, 2021, 11:31 AM · I also play both all the time and consider the difference in tone production to be one of the most important differences. For me, using arm weight properly is critical to playing both violin on viola except on viola it is more exaggerated. I guess violinists don't make quite as big of a deal about using arm weight properly as you don't need to exaggerate it as much but my teacher did make a pretty big deal out of it with me and I'm really happy about that because that certainly influenced my viola tone production. As far as left hand, yes it depends on your hand size and all. I do have small hands and admit that my left hand positioning on viola is different. It is more flexible and mobile, I tend to reach back with my index finger a lot more which means my whole hand is balanced more towards my fourth finger and my thumb is much more on the underside of the neck.

All that said, I do think there are a ton of transferable skills between violin and viola. I have never studied viola formally but I guess I just happen to be lucky that the vast majority of things I was taught on violin were as important, if not more so, on viola.

September 11, 2021, 4:31 AM · Thanks Ella and others, very interesting thread, it seems all viola players are in agreement here!
September 12, 2021, 10:11 AM · I would think the instrument being played is a big factor determining the "violin sound" or "viola sound". Violas are not as standardized as violins or cellos. This variation applies both to the dimensions and the timbre.

A 15/15.5-inch viola will sound different from a 16.5/17-inch one. Generally speaking, smaller violas sound more like violins, and bigger violas sound more "viola" (although there are always exceptions).

On the timbre, I think there's a difference in opinion among makers/players of whether the sound should be more "violin-like" or "cello-like". This manifests in the build and set up of the instrument. For example, some violists use the Larsen A D/Spirocore G C combo, which is a very popular string choice for cellists.

September 13, 2021, 9:26 AM · Compared to my mezzo and contralto 15.75" violas, I find you only get that more tenor/baritone quality in the longer instruments.
Too much for my stubby fingers and aging joints, though. Pity.
September 13, 2021, 11:15 AM · Same. I do agree larger violas tend to have a deeper, more tenor-like sound, but personally I do tend to gravitate a little more towards the more contralto/mezzo viola sound anyway being a violinist as well (maybe that has something to do with it). Plus, my arms are too short for anything over like 15.75" so...
September 13, 2021, 2:08 PM · If we go back to the first generation of the modern string family, c. 1550--1600, there were some very large Violas made, subsequently cut down.
One of the first uses was to double the choir parts in church, alto viola and tenor viola. We have been stuck with the Alto clef ever since. Some early Baroque string orchestras would have two viola parts (Lully?) And then much later, Wagner tried to bring back the extra large Viola (Ritter Viola). No thanks Herr Wagner, your opera string parts are already very long and sadistically difficult.
Edited: September 13, 2021, 3:29 PM · Joel says: "If we go back to the first generation of the modern string family, c. 1550--1600, there were some very large Violas made, subsequently cut down.
One of the first uses was to double the choir parts in church, alto viola and tenor viola. We have been stuck with the Alto clef ever since. Some early Baroque string orchestras would have two viola parts (Lully?) And then much later, Wagner tried to bring back the extra large Viola (Ritter Viola). No thanks Herr Wagner, your opera string parts are already very long and sadistically difficult. "


Why don't we hold a cello like a violin? That's obvious. Because it's too big.

I humbly submit that a decent-sized viola is also too big for the majority of people to hold like a violin without developing repetitive stress injuries. The problem, IMHO, isn't the size of the instrument but the crazy way it's held.

The torquing of shoulder and elbow and wrist in order to hold a violin or viola is a highly unnatural position. Doing it for hours a day for years on end... it's a wonder that anyone can do it - and a lot of people can't.

A cello hold, OTOH, is one of the most natural, comfortable postions in the whole orchestra. Compare the number of injured violinists and violists to injured cellists.

I bet there would be a lot more violists coming up the ranks if it was taught from the beginning to be held like a cello. I bet there would be a lot more violists happily playing huge, glorious violas if they felt they had permission to hold it like a cello.

I feel sad for everyone who would like to play a viola but doesn't because it's "too big."

The problem isn't the instument being too big, but that people insist on holding it in a way the human body was not designed for.

Because, why?

Edited: September 13, 2021, 4:46 PM · There are a remaining handful of Stradivari's "contralto" violas, but only two of his giant "tenors". In The Way They Play, Paul Doktor is shown playing on the "Tuscan" tenor viola (on the shoulder!)

Yoyo Ma has recorded the Bartok concerto on one of Carleen Huthins' "vertical violas" (with a spike). Wonderfully deep, round tone, and high notes reached with an ease enough to make us violist weep with frustation!

As with the cello, the classic period favoured the smaller viola for greater virtuosity. The romantics favoured the larger ones.

September 13, 2021, 7:10 PM · Violas held like a cello is certainly something that would've made life different if it were the case. That being said, I think it's historical reasons why the viola is held in the current position. Do keep in mind cellists can get injured too, but the types of injuries are different, predominantly arm and hand injuries, but that's another story. Also, on an unrelated note, many eastern bowed string instruments do appear to be held vertically
September 13, 2021, 7:15 PM · In many cultures even violins are held vertically, in the lap. So are 3-string lyras that are similar in size and played similarly.
September 14, 2021, 4:25 AM · ..not to mention the entire viol family!

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Virtual Sejong Music Competition
Virtual Sejong Music Competition Business Directory Business Directory

Antonio Strad Violin

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases


Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Metzler Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin



Johnson String Instrument and Carriage House Violins

Potter Violins

String Masters

Bein & Company

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine