The difference between a viola and violin is a recurring question, especially when presenting the five-string electric violins. A viola has five strings, but there is an additional string used as the C string, and so does the electric violin. Today we discuss the viola vs violin to know their major differences.
Both instruments are part of the bowed string instrument family together with cello and double bass. The viola takes the middle register in the string family, and it is tuned the same way as the violin in the fifths only that it is in the lower fifths.
Andrea Amati was the first to make these instruments in the 16th century. Their first forms were used to copy soprano and alto voices of operas and early choral works until they transformed to their modern-day versions.
Viola Vs Violin
At first glance, the violin and the viola are similar to an average person, especially if they are presented side by side and that’s why the discussion viola vs violin is very common. They have more similarities than the appearance as listed below.
- They are placed on the shoulder
- Both have five strings
- They have a similar shape
- Both are played by rubbing a bow on the strings.
However, with all these similarities, you will notice their difference in size once both instruments are presented before you and all the rest listed below.
1. The Size
It is not much of a difference, but to those with no idea, a Viola is between 39-41cm while a full-size violin is about 36cm. A closer look at both instruments will help you get it. The viola is broader than the violin, and the latter comes in nine different sizes while the other comes in 4 major sizes.
Also, viola beginner students use smaller ones that come in 12” while some start learning the violin then switch to the viola when they can better handle the bigger instrument.
2. The Clef
Violinists read their music from the treble clef, while violists learn from the alto clef which is not as common as the treble clef. Their concept is similar to the middle line being C4 rather than a B5, but everything else happens from there. The alto clef has been used in memes.
The violin is the highest instrument in the string family, and they are known to be sopranos of any ensemble. The treble clef is known as the G Clef and is found in the middle of the bottom circle. Counting from the G note, you can find C in the middle and other notes above or below. At times, viola music contains some notes in the treble clef, and many violinists know how to read both clefs.
3. Bow Frogs
A frog is the end of a bow where you hold, and it is decorated with a colourful slide and small circle. A viola’s bow is a little heavier and curved at times instead of being straight-edged.
The violin’s top string is an’ E’ while viola is five notes below that to the ‘A’. Generally, the pitch from a viola will sound lower and mellow than that from the violin. The instruments have different strings, their notes also vary, thus their major distinction in pitch.
Viola notes range from C (lowest open string) to A (upon the string) while the violin notes are from G (lowest open string) to B up on the E string which varies on the player’s fingers – how far they can go yet producing a good sound. Both instruments can be played within a 4-octave range and higher notes.
A viola sound is four steps lower than the violin, which puts the instrument between the violin and the cellos. The difference in note range explains why the viola is used more as a harmonic instrument in some symphonic literature than the violin, which is suitable for the solo type.
The latter plays the melody line in orchestral and ensemble music in the string family instruments. Violins have the E string, and they can go higher than violas which qualifies it for a solo type of device resembling the soprano voice.
Viola’s strings are a bit thick from the highest C, G, D, A while those of a violin are thick from G, D, A, E. Both instruments are played on four strings, but the electric models have up to six strings. Both instruments can be tuned with a fine tuner on the tailpiece or the peg in the pegbox.
The viola plays in the lower range, which explains why most people are drawn to the violin. Its strings are thicker requiring a faster bow tempo and more weight, unlike the violin.
6. Their place in the Orchestra
Violinists sit near the front when performing in an orchestra while violists are in the middle next to the cellos. Sometimes they might be mixed up by the conductors to place the violins opposite the first violins, but anytime it happens, the violas will be in the thick of it.
7. Which one came first?
The violin family appeared in the 16th century, and all family instruments like the violin, violoncello, viola come from the term viola. There were two families from violas: the viola da braccio (viola of the arm) and the viola da gamba (viola of the leg).
The terms describe where the instrument is played from, the arm, leg like the modern-day cello. The violin is the modern-day viola which evolved from the viola da braccio, and it came into existence in the 18th century after the death of tenor viola.
The viola produces a deeper and mellower sound compared to the violin because it is played on lower C string notes. Both instruments share some letters like the G, D, A strings but when played on a viola, it sounds more of a sombre tone because it is bigger with thicker lines.
Violas provide rhythmic and harmonic elements, and that’s why they are used in symphonies and chamber ensembles. In ensembles, violins outrun violas: in symphony orchestra violins are placed in two areas whereas the viola section is only in one section. Violins are most likely to carry the melody line in the music, and they can be compared to the lead guitar in a band.
Originally the stringed instruments were first discovered in the 15th century and were known as Viols and they resembled the modern-day cellos. They were played by holding the string between the legs, and after they were adopted, the instrument was played while holding it under the player’s chin. The instruments evolved through many stages to the violas and violins we know today.
Although it is believed that the viola came before the violin, there is still no definitive proof. The viola vs violin battle is endless, but the original instrument was played like a cello than a gradual transformation to play higher notes. It is only logical to conclude that the viola was first then it was transformed to produce higher notes, thus birthing the violin.
Music might not be your thing, but a few visual differences will help you pt them apart. The viola is larger, and it has thicker strings. Also, their location in symphonies is in between cellos and the second violin set up. Violins produce higher notes and play most melody lines in a symphony.
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