How to Tell the Difference Between a Viola and a Violin

The viola, a stringed instrument similar to the violin, is hundreds of years old. In fact, some reports say that it is the oldest sting instrument. It has evolved over time and was not perfected overnight. Famous composers/musicians Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven all played the viola. Popular rock bands have used the viola in their music, including Velvet Underground, The Who, Van Morrison, The Goo Goo Dolls, and Vampire Weekend. But how can you tell the difference between a viola and violin? Listed below are some tips to help you!


  • The viola is slightly bigger then the violin and has a lower and deeper sound.   For centuries viola makers have been experimenting with the shape and size of the instrument to make it smaller and lighter, but still keep that unmistakable viola sound. A full-sized violin has a body length of 14 inches where a full-sized viola can be anywhere from 15 to 18 inches, the most common size being 16.5 inches. While a couple of inches may not seem like much, it makes all the difference in the sound of these instruments.
  • The viola is the middle voice of the string family between the violin, which is the soprano or high voice, and the cello or the tenor voice.
  • The alto is the only instrument to use the alto clef when writing down music. The violin uses the treble clef.
  • Because the viola is larger in size, the notes are spread apart further on the fingerboard and require different fingerings. This also requires the player to have great technical skill…more skill then a violinist.
  • The viola is held in the same way as the violin, but because it is larger some adjustments need to be made. A violist has to adjust and use wider-spaced fingerings and they must bring the left elbow farther forward or around so that they can reach the lowest string. This allows them to press more firmly on the string to create a nice, clear tone.
  • The viola has heavier strings then the violin, which requires the player to lean a little more on the strings. Because of the heavier strings, a violist needs to begin moving the bow a little sooner than a violinist if they are playing together because the heaviness slows things down for them.
  • The viola’s vow has a wider band of horsehair than a violin’s bow. This causes the viola to have a different bowing technique and they have to lean more on the strings.
  • The range of the viola is a perfect fifth below the violin. It has the same A, D, and G strings as the violin and also has a C string added.
  • The viola has less solo music written for it than the violin. It has been overshadowed by the violin for pretty much it’s entire existence. In fact, in early orchestras, viola players were often the ‘failed’ violin players. If they couldn’t make it as a first or second violinist, they were moved to the viola.
  • The range of the violin is seen as being bright and brilliant sounding, and it gets to play the melody in most orchestral music. The viola usually plays a counter melody or harmony, or it shadows the bass part. The viola has a melancholic timbre that, for most people, doesn’t compare to the brightness of the violin.


These days, the viola has become more recognized, and has more of a personality of it’s own, free from the violin. It has made a significant contribution to the history and development of music even though it is often overlooked. If you would like to take lessons on the viola, take a look at our OSMD website and get signed up today!

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