What’s the difference between a violin and a viola?“The difference between violin and viola is that the viola is a violin with a college education”. – William Primrose, Famous Violist
Violas have much in common with violins. They are a little larger, but they are held the same way. The viola has a beautiful tone lower in pitch and deeper in timbre than the violin. Violists read music on the C clef, instead of the more commonly used treble clef violinists read.
Violas are used mainly in classical music in orchestras and chamber music. There is not as much solo music written specifically for viola as for violin, however many pieces originally written for violin, cello, clarinet, or voice have been transcribed for viola. Violas are not used as often as violins in folk and bluegrass music as violins, however fiddling methods books and ensemble pieces are available for student violists.
Violas are made in a range of sizes, including small sizes appropriate for young musicians. The smallest violas are approximately equivalent to a 1/2 size violin. (Note: Violins come as small as 1/16 size.) Violists often start first with violin and transfer to viola around age 12. Violists are almost always in demand to play in orchestras, string quartets and other chamber music groups.
Young violists often begin by studying with teachers who teach the Suzuki method. Slightly older students may be able to start to learn to play through school orchestra programs, as well as with private teachers. Private teachers often teach both violin and viola.
Where To Buy a Viola
Violas for beginners can be found at both local or online stores that specialize in Orchestral Strings, and occasionally at larger retail or online stores that carry a broad range of music and electronic gear.
See “Where To Buy Musical Instruments” for general buying advice on:
- Buying in a Specialty Store vs. “Big Box” Stores
- Buying Online vs. In-Person
- Renting vs. Buying
- Buying Used Instruments
How To Buy a Viola
Viola are made in several different sizes to accommodate younger students with smaller fingers. A full-sized viola is 16.5”, while the smallest size normally available is 12”. In between, violas are typically available in 13”, 14”, 15”, 15.5” and 16” sizes. At a local store, the salesperson can help you determine the right size based on your arm length. Online stores often have videos and other help resources via website or phone to help with this as well. The best option for giving advice on which size to choose, though, can be your own teacher if you have one.
Viola prices vary widely, depending on the quality and age of the wood and the skill of the makers. While a very inexpensive instrument may be a tempting buy, trying to learn on a poor quality instrument can be very frustrating for students. In addition to good workmanship, the quality of the sound, of course, is an important factor. It is also very important to have well-fitting tuning pegs that are easy to turn and then hold the string in tune.
Sample Viola Prices
$150 – 400
$500 – 1,200
If you are buying your instrument from a specialty music store, inquire about a trade-in policy. When your student is ready for a larger or higher quality instrument, they will often give you a good portion of the original instrument price back when you trade it in.
In addition to the viola itself, a violist will need a good bow and case, as well as a shoulder rest. A tuner and metronome are also recommended, along with a music stand. Also, a violist needs a cake or block of rosin to rub on the hair of their bow to enable it to grip the strings and make sound.
Bows can range in cost from approximately $25-100 for a beginner bow, to $250 – 700 for an intermediate and $750-2500+ for an advanced player. In addition to traditional wooden ones, bows made from synthetic materials, ranging from fiberglass to carbon-fiber, are now available. These durable synthetic bows are a good alternative for younger players. Choice of bows becomes more important as the student advances and develops techniques that produce different sounds. Bows vary in weight and flexibility, allowing for differences in dynamics and tone. By the intermediate level, most players notice differences in bows and start to develop personal preferences.
Tuning Your Viola
The viola will need tuning every time you play it. From lowest to highest, the viola strings are C, G, D and A. Start by tuning the “A” string to a tuner, accompanying instrument, such as a piano, or designated instrument in an ensemble (usually the oboe in an orchestra). Then tune the other strings by ear in perfect fifths to that (or continue with a tuner if you are using one). Lastly, perfect the tuning by using the fine-tuners to make any needed small adjustments.
Viola Care and Maintenance
Viola strings must be replaced every few months. It is wise to have an extra set of strings on hand at all times, as a string will break on occasion. The “bridge” of the instrument, the part that raises the strings, should be checked and straightened often so that it stays perpendicular to the viola. Occasional inspection and conditioning by a skilled technician is also recommended.
Stringed instruments are very sensitive to temperature changes and extremes. They should be stored with care to avoid very warm or cold temperatures. They should not, for instance, be left in the direct sun, next to a heater or in a warm or cold car or trunk. When they have by necessity been carried outside in colder temperatures, they should be allowed to warm up to room temperature inside the case.
Stringed instruments are also very sensitive to humidity fluctuations and extremes. Storage at humidity levels of 40-60%, or use of a “Dampit” – a device that is soaked in water and than inserted into the instrument to provide humidity – is recommended. After playing, wipe the instrument carefully with a soft cloth to remove fingerprints and rosin.
The bow also needs good care. Be careful not to leave your bow where it can fall, be knocked down or stepped on. The horsehair on a bow shrinks and stretches with changes of humidity. To avoid damage, loosen it when not in use and then tighten it before playing. The hairs wear and occasionally break with use, so the bow also needs to be re-haired periodically – usually about twice a year.