January 19, 2024

About the Author: Stefan Joubert

Stefan Joubert manages the London Violin Institute, a premier destination for adult violinists seeking individualised instruction and progress towards their musical goals. He believes anyone can learn to play regardless of age or ability!

Distinguishing between violas and violins can feel like a musical maze, leaving you wondering if they’re just two peas in a pod.

Are they equally easy to play, or is one the clear winner?

Don’t worry—we’re here to unravel the strings and help you make sense of it all.

Beyond their shared family ties, violas and violins each have their own groove.

We’ll break down the differences and toss in some tips so you can confidently pick the one that strikes the perfect chord for your musical journey.

Let’s turn confusion into harmony!

Woman playing violin


The most striking and immediately noticeable difference between the violin and viola is their respective sizes. The viola is notably larger than the violin, a characteristic that profoundly influences the range and the instrument’s timbre.

While a standard full-size violin measures approximately 35.5 cm in body length, the size of violas exhibits more variation, typically falling within the 38 to 43 cm range. This increase in size allows for a longer string length and larger resonating cavity in the viola, providing its characteristic deeper, richer sound profile.

This difference in size not only impacts the physical handling of the instrument, necessitating a slightly adjusted technique but also contributes to the distinct musical roles these instruments often play in ensembles.

The larger body of the viola supports its role in delivering the deeper alto voices in orchestral and chamber music, in contrast to the violin’s soprano lines.

Furthermore, the physical dimensions of the viola demand a specific design in bows and accessories, such as cases and shoulder rests, to accommodate its larger size.

This fundamental size disparity between the violin and viola is a key factor in their divergent sonic identities and ergonomic considerations.


Violin and viola strings are distinct in their construction and performance characteristics, catering to the specific needs of their respective instruments.

Viola strings are longer, thicker, and under higher tension than violin strings to accommodate the viola’s larger size and deeper tonal range.

While both instruments’ strings may be made from similar materials, such as gut, steel, or synthetic cores, viola strings enhance the instrument’s ability to produce warm, rich sounds.

The tuning of viola strings (C3, G3, D4, A4) is a fifth lower than that of violin strings (G3, D4, A4, E5), contributing to the viola’s lower pitch range.

The increased gauge of viola strings also requires more bow pressure and a slower bow speed, resulting in a sound that is generally deeper and warmer than the bright, crisp tones produced by the violin.

Violin with dark background


Violin and viola bows, while similar in appearance, have distinct differences tailored to the needs of their respective instruments. Viola bows are generally heavier than violin bows, aiding in producing the viola’s richer, deeper sound.

This difference in weight is often accompanied by a slightly altered balance point, favouring a bit more weight toward the frog for better control. The design of the frog and the width of the hair ribbon can also vary, with viola bows sometimes featuring a wider hair ribbon to suit the viola’s thicker strings.

Additionally, the tension and flexibility of the bow may be adjusted in viola bows to effectively resonate with the viola’s larger string diameter. These subtle yet significant variations ensure that each bow type optimally complements the specific characteristics of the violin or viola.


The violin and viola have their own special sounds, mainly because of their size and tuning.

The viola, being a bit larger, has a lower pitch range than the violin. When we talk about tuning, the violin is set to G3, D4, A4, and E5, while the viola goes for C3, G3, D4, and A4.

This difference in tuning gives the viola a deeper, richer sound.

So, in a nutshell, the violin and viola each have their own unique tunes and pitches that make them stand out in the world of string instruments.

Violin and bow with music sheet

Clef and Pitch

In the intricate language of musical notation, the violin and viola wield their distinct signatures through the choice of clef. The violin gracefully glides across the treble clef, a familiar notation gracing many a musical composition.

On the flip side, the viola takes centre stage in the alto clef, a slightly rare sight on the musical staff. This subtle variance in clef selection holds profound implications, influencing how notes are transcribed and performed.

The alto clef, less commonly used in the broader spectrum of music, emerges as a crucial symbol, predominantly adorning the pages of viola music.

This unique affiliation with the alto clef sets the viola apart and grants it a special status within the tapestry of string instruments, emphasising the nuanced role it plays in bringing musical compositions to life.

Role in Ensembles

In the world of orchestras and string ensembles, violins and violas play distinct yet complementary roles.

Violins often take the lead, showcasing their bright melodies, while violas contribute by adding harmonies and counterpoints to the musical blend.

This delicate balance allows the viola to shine, bringing depth and richness to the overall ensemble sound.

With its unique warmth and mellowness, the viola’s contribution is integral, ensuring that each instrument, whether leading or supporting, plays a crucial role in the collective musical conversation.

Two ladies playing violin

Distinctive Playing Approaches

Playing the viola involves learning some different techniques compared to playing the violin, mainly due to its larger size. The adjustments are needed in both how you use the bow and where you place your fingers on the strings.

This shift can be a bit of a learning curve for those used to playing the violin. Adapting to the larger size means changing how you handle the bow, considering the longer strings. The spacing between your fingers also requires a bit of fine-tuning to ensure accurate notes.

So, transitioning from the violin to the viola isn’t just about size; it’s about embracing a set of techniques that make each instrument unique and interesting to explore.


When it comes to the music they play, the violin and viola take different paths. The violin boasts a wide range of solo pieces, including famous concertos and sonatas by well-known composers. Its ability to stand alone has made it a star on its own.

In contrast, the viola, though expanding its solo collection, has traditionally found its home in group settings like chamber and orchestral music. The viola’s distinct sound and harmony contributions make it an essential part of musical ensembles, where it plays a role beyond the spotlight.

As music evolves, both the violin and viola continue to add their unique flavours to the ever-growing and captivating world of classical music.


Understanding these differences is key to appreciating the unique qualities and roles that both the violin and viola bring to the world of music.

We hope this information assists you in deciding which instrument aligns with your musical preferences.

If you’re intrigued and looking to explore the violin further, we welcome you to explore the possibility of taking violin lessons at the London Violin Institute, offering you the chance to begin a fulfilling adventure of musical exploration and learning.

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