Viola & Violin - What Is The Difference?

Viola vs Violin - Whats the difference

They look the same, so you’d be forgiven for wondering what the actual difference is. There are a few key points that separate the two instruments, and worth knowing just in case it’s the deciding question in a quiz!

A Viola is Larger Than a Violin

Starting with the simplest of differences the viola is large than the violin. A full-size violin is 36cm long, but a viola can be between 39cm and 41cm.
It is also worth noting that younger players can start playing the viola on a violin. This is purely due to the physical size of the player. Violins can be strung as a viola in the early days until they are the correct size for a full viola.

Viola Strings are Different

A viola has different strings to the violin. The notes start lower, which makes the strings thicker. The viola from lowest to highest (thickest string to thinnest) is C, G, D, A where as the violin G, D, A, E

Viola Music – Alto Clef

Generally, the viola uses the alto clef, which is less known as it is not all that common. Violinists use the treble clef, which is one of the most recognisable symbols globally.
The difference? The middle line on an alto clef is middle C (C4 on a piano) where as on the treble clef middle C sits under the stave on its own ledger line.

Treble Clef - Violin vs Viola

Treble Clef

Alto Clef - Viola vs Violin

Alto Clef

The Sound

The viola has a deeper/lower tone than the violin. The highest open string on a violin is the E string whereas the viola is A, seven semitones lower. It makes for a much more mellow sound which lends itself to such music.

The Bow

The viola bow is heavier than the violin equivalent and (in most cases) has a different shaped ‘frog’.

Violin Bow - Violin Vs Viola

Violin Bow - Straight edged frog

Viola Bow - Viola Vs Violin

Viola Bow - Curved Frog

What came first?

Violin, violincello, & viola are the names of all the instruments in the violin family and date back to the 16th century. All these names were derived from the word viola. Within the viola family there are two types.

  • Viola Da Braccio (viola of the arm)
  • Viola Da Gamba (viola of the leg)


As you have probably guessed he Viola Da Gamba is a larger instrument, looking more like a cello. So, the violin evolved from the Viola and became popular in the 18th century. The video below demonstrates perfectly.  So there we have it, the main differences between viola & violin! We hire something close to 30 violins for every one viola, so it is clear which is the most popular instrument.

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