Can Violinists Play Viola? And If So, How Do They Differ?

Undoubtedly, the violin is the most challenging string instrument to learn. If you have already mastered the violin, you may want to consider trying out the viola. While it has a similar resemblance to the violin, the viola is slightly larger and produces a more rich and warm tone. So now you might wonder, will your techniques as a violinist transfer over to the viola?

Can violinists play the viola? Violinists can learn to play the viola, though the change may present challenges, including holding the larger structure of the viola, plucking and bowing the strings, fingering, and learning to read alto clef.

While learning to play viola can be difficult to get used to for violin players, knowing the key differences and challenges you may have while learning is beneficial to your learning experience.

In this article, we will take a closer look at what makes violins and violas different, how to learn to play viola as a violinist and recommended violas for beginners.

Related articles:
• Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Violin
Top 11 Best Online Resources To Learn How To Play Violin
Top 11 Best Violin Brands On The Market

Table Of Contents

What Is A Violin?

Violins are the smallest and highest-pitched members of the string family. They have four strings (although there are some 5-string violins) and are played with a horsehair bow.

The violin is usually tuned in 5ths: G3, D4, A4, E5 and is played in the treble clef. It is commonly used in classical music but is also found in folk, country, jazz and bluegrass music, sometimes under its other name, the fiddle.

In addition to regular violins, there are also electric violins. These are commonly used in (but not limited to) rock, metal, jazz and Latin music.

Electric violins do not have a soundbox and therefore need to be amplified through an amplifier or speaker to be heard.

What Is A Viola?

Viola is the middle or alto member of the string family. It is often mistaken for a violin as they look almost identical, with the exception of the size. The standard body length for an adult viola is between 15.5 and 16.5 inches, while an adult violin is between 13 and 14 inches.

The viola is the second highest-sounding instrument in the violin family between the violin and cello. It has four strings and is played with a horsehair bow. Similar to a violin, it is tuned in 5ths. However, the viola strings are tuned to C3, G3, D4, and A4.

Used in various genres of music such as bluegrass, jazz, pop, classical and more, the viola uses its own clef, the alto clef. This is sometimes referred to as C clef or viola clef as it is rarely used by any other instrument, except for the alto trombone.

What Is The Difference Between A Violin And A Viola?

One of the most notable differences between the violin and viola at first glance is the size. Not only does the size change the sound, but it will also pose more of a challenge to play. The viola is large in all dimensions and heavier in weight. This will force you to push your finger dexterity as the finger spaces are further apart. The reason is that the strings on a viola are spaced out further than on the violin. This will take some getting used to if you go from playing the violin to learning the viola.

Arguably the biggest difference between the two string instruments is the sound. Due to the viola's shape and size, it has a larger air volume inside, creating a more rich, lower frequency sound. In fact, the viola's sound is a fifth lower in pitch than the violin.

Along with creating different sounds, they also play at different clefs. The viola plays an alto clef at the key of C and G and uses the strings C-G-D-A, with C being the lowest string and A being the highest. In contrast, the violin plays a treble clef at the key of G and uses the strings G-D-E-A, with G being the lowest string and E being the highest.

How To Play Viola As A Violinist

When learning to play the viola as a violinist, there are a few things to be aware of that are different from the violin. Knowing the difference and expectations of a viola can help better prepare you when it comes time to play.

1. Size And Positioning

The way to hold a viola will differ from how you hold a violin due to the increased size and weight. It is important to find a violin with a well-fitted chin and shoulder rest, so your viola fits and feels comfortable. The viola will put more significant physical constraints on your arm, making it crucial to have the proper support rests.

In addition, you may feel limited in flexibility due to the larger-sized instrument and have to stretch your fingers a bit further to reach all of the strings.

For more information on violin shoulder rests, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
Why Do Violinists Use Shoulder Rests?
Is A Violin Shoulder Rest Worth Using? 5 Reasons Why

2. More Work And Pressure On Bow

When first switching from violin to viola, it is common for violinists to play the viola too softly. It will take some time and practice to put the right amount of weight on the bow to create the rich and full sound of the viola.

Since the strings are thicker, the bow on the viola is heavier and wider than a standard violin bow. Therefore, more weight is needed from your arm to your bow than you may be used to.

3. Learn To Read Alto Clef

And lastly, to learn the viola, you will need to learn how to read and play alto clef (C clef) music. This will take time to adapt and learn as violinists are usually used to reading the key of G. Try starting with learning the names of each note and the sounds they make, then onto simpler songs as you get used to reading alto clef, and finally make your way to the more challenging pieces.

Related article: Can The Violin Play Two Notes At Once?

When choosing a viola for beginners, student violas often are the model of choice as they are the most affordable while still being quality instruments to play.

Student violins tend to range between $200 – $2000+. They tend not to produce as rich of a sound as higher quality and professional violas. However, they are perfect for beginners to learn and practice the basics of viola: how to play, bow and finger, the tone, how to hold a viola and play in C clef.

Higher-quality violas are handcrafted and feature ebony wood in their designs, creating a richer sound and overall better playing experience. These violas can range anywhere up to $10,000.

Lastly, we have professional violas. These are the top-of-line violas, made with impeccable craftsmanship and the highest materials and woods. You can expect these violas to range over $10,000.

In no particular order, our top three recommended violas for beginners are:

1. Scherl & Roth SR42E15H Student Viola Outfit (link to check the price at Sweetwater)

Scherl & Roth SR42E15H

Scherl & Roth is a favourite when it comes to beginner and higher-quality violas. Handcrafted with a premium top, maple sides and back and ebony fingerboard and pegs, you can expect quality sound, tone and performance from this viola. In addition, it also comes with steel-core strings, a carbon fibre bow, a case and rosin.

To learn more about violin rosin, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
How Do You Use Violin Rosin?
Does Violin Rosin Go Bad Or Dry Out?

2. Mendini MA350 Viola (link to check the price on Amazon)

Mendini MA350

The Mendini MA350 viola is an affordable option for beginner violists looking to not break their bank. It comes with everything you need to get started, including a case, bow, rosin, bridge and strings. The viola has a solid wood spruce top with maple sides, back, fingerboard and pegs. Meanwhile, the bow is made from brazilwood and Mongolian horsehair.

3. Cecilio CVA-500 Viola (link to check the price on Amazon)

Cecilio CVA-500

Cecilio is another trusted brand that offers superb student violins. The Cecilio CVA-500 is beautifully crafted with solid wood spruce and flamed maple sides and back. The fingerboard, pegs and chinrest are all made from ebony, making them sturdy and long-lasting.

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement ( or producing music. Check out his music here.

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