At first glance the violin and the viola are tricky to tell apart. Both are string instruments, both are played on the shoulder with a bow, and both can be a little painful when played by a beginner.
So what are the differences between them?
The most obvious difference you’ll notice when you place a violin and viola next to each other is their size. The viola is bigger, with an average body length of between 15.5 and 16.5 inches for adults, compared to the violin which is between 13 and 14 inches.
A little harder to spot is the discrepancy between each instrument’s bow – or, to be precise, its ‘frog’. This is the part of bow that players grip. On the viola bow the frog is chunkier and often curved, compared to the straight edge on a violin bow.
Even harder to notice is the difference in strings. The order on the violin from lowest to highest is G, D, A, D, but viola strings begin an interval of a 5th lower down, starting instead on C. Because of its size, viola strings must also be thicker than a violin’s, although both are made from the same materials – most commonly a synthetic core wound with metal.
So how do these differences affect the sound? Well, firstly the viola can go lower, making it better suited to playing music in lower registers. This is why viola players read music in the alto clef (rather than the treble clef that violin players use), and sit right in the centre of an orchestra in between the cellos and violins.
Another difference is the way each instrument ‘speaks’. Because of its thicker strings, the viola will ‘speak’ lower than the violin. This means the sound it makes is more mellow, and takes a little longer to be heard. Therefore, viola players need to stay right on top of the conductor’s tempo, and play with more pronounced articulation than violinist, so as not to get lost in the texture.
Recommended listening for viola: Benjamin Britten, Elegy for solo viola
Recommended listening for violin: Arvo Pärt, Fratres