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Torn Between Two Strings: Violin or Viola – What’s the difference?

If you are thinking about taking up a stringed instrument, the first that comes to mind will probably be the violin. But then, if you weren’t already familiar with it, the Viola is also an alternative. Immediately you might be Torn Between Two Strings: Violin or Viola.

They look very similar, but that is about as far as it goes. The differences between them make each of them unique. They also have different functions in the orchestra. But it must be said that the violin is the ‘glamor’ instrument. If it were in a rock band, it would be the lead guitar.

More pieces are written for the Violin than for the Viola. Therefore, the chances of taking center stage are in favor of the Violin.

The same but different

The same but different

As we said, they look very similar. But then you could say that the cello and the double bass look the same. It’s about size. The violin is about 23 inches long, the Viola about 26 inches. But in the case of the latter, that can vary.

They are tuned differently, and they sound different. But even though there are differences, if you can play one, you can usually play the other. The difference comes when you read the music. There is another difference as well, which we will look at later.

Undecided on which to choose?

To a certain extent which you choose will probably come down to which sound you prefer. We say to a certain extent because there are other factors involved. Firstly the Viola is slightly easier to learn than the violin.

But secondly and having some importance is how you see the future. As there are fewer Viola players, it could well be easier getting a position in an orchestra. Indeed, there are usually more violins in the orchestra, up to twice as many. But there are more than twice the number of Violin players over those of the Viola.

Listen to them

If you are undecided, the best thing to do is to listen to both. There are plenty of Violin and Viola pieces on Youtube. Have a listen to a few. You will hear the difference in the sound, and it may help you make a decision.

But let’s look at the differences a little closer.

The size

The size

As we have already mentioned, Violas are larger than the Violin. You can, of course, buy different sizes of both depending on the age and size of the person learning. But the Viola, pro-rata, comes up bigger at every age grouping.

Unlike most other instruments, the Viola is not always ‘full-size.’ In fact, there isn’t really a full-size, and they are bought based on how easy and comfortable they are to play. An adult then is often seen with a smaller Viola if they have smaller hands.

Reading the Music

As mentioned earlier, there are differences when reading music. Music for the Viola is scored on the C, Alto Clef. It is the only string orchestral instrument played that way. The tuning is in perfect fifths, the strings being C-G-D and A. The Violin is G-D-A and E and uses the G-clef.

For the Viola, middle C is on the middle line of the staff. The Staff of the C-clef then will be F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G. If you are familiar with G-Clef, then going to C-Clef might be difficult at first.

The Tuning

We have established then that the tuning is going to be different between Violin and Viola. This, of course, has an effect. With the Viola tuned a fifth lower, the biggest impact is the depth of sound. It is going to be deeper than the Violin and have richness and warmth.

This is what persuades many to take up the Viola rather than the Violin. It is simply a matter of the way it sounds. Those with a liking for a little more bass in their sound will prefer the Viola.

Of course, they will probably prefer the Cello, but carrying that around is a whole different thing. The Viola is much easier.

The Sound

The slightly larger size and slightly heavier strings mean that the Viola can produce deeper sounds than the Violin. Actually, four steps lower. The other side of that coin is that the Violin can play higher notes than the Viola.

Because of that, the Violin tends to get the melody lines to play. The Viola is therefore consigned to playing the harmonic accompaniments. Hence our reference earlier about the Violin being the ‘glamor’ instrument.

Let’s now briefly sum up some basic differences between these two great instruments…

Torn Between Two Strings: Violin or Viola – The Advantages and Disadvantages of both

Torn Between Two Strings

 Advantages of the Violin

  • The violin tends to have a more prestigious place in the orchestra.
  • It requires less physical effort to play as it is smaller and lighter, and string tensions are slightly less than the Viola.
  • It is versatile and can even fit into today’s modern pop, rock, and jazz idioms.
  • There are more pieces written for the Violin.


  • There is more competition as there are more people playing the Violin.
  • It is harder than the Viola to master.

Advantages of the Viola

  • The sound will appeal more to some people as it has greater depth.
  • It tends to be easier to play for the beginner.
  • Less competition for orchestral places.


  • Doesn’t allow the performer to stand out in the orchestra.
  • It is very much a background instrument most of the time.
  • It requires slightly more physical effort to play as it is larger.
  • The strings will be slightly harder to push down.
  • The Violas music is written in Alto Clef.

Here are examples of both to give you an idea of the prices for each. You will see there is little difference in like-for-like instruments. The Cecilio CVN-200 Solid Wood Violin and the Cecilio CVA-400 Solid Wood Viola.

And you will need a tuner; an excellent choice is the Martian Clip-On Tuner for Violin, Viola, Chromatic Tuning.

Looking for more options?

Then check out our reviews of the Best Cremona Violins, the Best Student Violins, the Best Electric Violins, and the Best Violin for Kids currently on the market.

It’s also worth taking a look at our reviews of the Best Violin Bows, the Best Violin Cases, the Best Violin Rosins, the Best Violin Strings, and the Best Sheet Music Stands you can buy in 2023.

Torn Between Two Strings: Violin or Viola, What Do You Choose?

They are both great instruments and, as we said, the same but different. If you prefer the deeper, warmer sounds, then you will probably lean towards the Viola. But if you prefer to play the melody or solos, then the Violin will be the natural choice.

But above all, the most important thing is that you play. So, practice, practice, practice, and become the musician you want to be!

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