Descending from the 16th Century Viola da Gamba, our modern-day Violin and Viola have evolved over time.
Viola da Gamba was actually the generic term used for the Viol family of bowed, fretted stringed instruments that first appeared in Spain and Italy in the mid to late 15th Century. Played upright, supported between the players legs, their design and amount of strings differed much to today’s instruments. No ‘under-the-chin’ technique necessary!
So, “Every day’s a school day”; don’t confuse Viola and Viola da Gamba! Frets on a Violin/Cello-style instrument, who knew? You do now!
Are they the same size?
If you compare a full-size Violin and Viola, and you will notice immediately that the Viola is larger than the Violin. The typical sizes of Viola bodies range from 15” up to 18“ in length, whereas Violin bodies average 14” for a full-size instrument. The Viola is also wider than the violin.
There are smaller Violas for beginning students that come in 12” sizes, and some beginning students will start on the Violin and then switch over to the Viola when they are better and able to handle the larger instrument.
Which clef do they play?
Another big difference between the Violin and the Viola is the clef that they play in. Viola is a mid-range alto voiced instrument, and is the only string instrument to use the Alto Clef for notation. The middle line of the Clef symbol is the note C, and that is why we call this the C Clef, or Alto Clef. Once you know where middle C is, you can determine the other notes up and down the staff.
The Violin is played in the Treble Clef, and is the highest pitched stringed instrument in the family. Violins are known for being the “soprano” voice of any orchestra or ensemble.
“Every day’s a school day”; Sometimes Viola music will contain notes that are in the treble clef, so many Violists are proficient in reading both clefs.
Do they have the same strings?
The Viola and Violin are both stringed with 4 strings.
The Violin, from highest pitched string downwards; E A D G
The Viola strings, highest first; A D G C
The strings on both instruments are tuned with the main tuning pegs and the fine tuner on the tail piece. The fact that the Viola plays in a lower range than the Violin is exactly what attracts many of its players and fans. Viola strings tend to be thicker, requiring a faster bow tempo and more bow weight than Violin strings.
What are the note ranges?
Because the strings are different on each instrument, the range of notes varies as well, and this is one of the most distinctive characteristics that separate the two.
Viola notes ranges from C, the lowest open string, to A, way up on the A string. Violin notes range from G, the lowest open string, to B, way up on the E string. (This varies according to how high a player’s fingers can reach and still sound good.) A Viola can sound notes that are 4 steps lower than the lowest note on the Violin. This range of sound puts the Viola right in between the Violins and the Cellos. This is why the Viola is used as more of a harmonic type of instrument in most symphonic literature, rather than a solo type, like the Violin. Harold in Italy accepted!!
Violins most often play the melody line in orchestral and ensemble music, at least in the string family. Violins can go up higher than Violas, since they have the E string, and this ability to play notes in the higher ranges qualifies it for a more solo type of instrument because it has the closest resemblance to the soprano voice.
Do they sound the same?
The Viola has a deeper and mellower sound than the violin, due to the lower C string and the notes that can be played on it. There are many notes that are shared by both instruments, such as the notes on the G, D, and A strings, but when they are played on a Viola, they still sound different and carry a more somber tone, because the viola is larger and the strings are thicker. Violas often are used in symphonies and chamber ensembles to provide more rhythmic and harmonic elements rather than melodic and lyrical lines.
There are not as many Violas as there are Violins in ensembles. If you notice in a symphony orchestra, there are two sections of Violins; the first and second Violins, yet there is only one Viola section. In fact, the Violins are the only string instrument to have two sections in a symphony. That’s because the Violins almost always carry the melody line in the music. You can compare the Violins to the lead guitar in a band, or the soprano voices in a chorus.