You know that the violin, viola, and cello are the main string instruments in the orchestra. Perhaps you or your child would love to learn to play one of these string instruments. But if you had to identify them by looks or sound, you’re not sure if you could tell them apart.
You may also be wondering if one of them is easier to play than the other or if one is a better choice for a beginner.
We’ll guide you as you consider cello vs. violin vs. viola as we highlight:
- The differences in each instrument
- Factors to consider when choosing which one to learn to play; and
- Frequently asked questions about these instruments
Table of Contents
- Violin vs. Viola vs. Cello: What’s the Difference?
- Cello vs. Violin vs. Viola: Which Instrument Should You Choose?
- 4 Factors to Consider When Choosing Between the Cello, Violin, and Viola
- Frequently Asked Questions About the Violin, Viola, and Cello
- Are Stringed Instruments, Like the Viola, Violin, and Cello, Good Choices for Children?
- Are the Viola, Violin, and Cello Similar Enough That You Can Learn How to Play Them All?
- Where Can I Learn to Play the Violin, Viola, or Cello?
- Northwest School of Music Can Help You Learn the Viola, Violin, and Cello at Any Age
Violin vs. Viola vs. Cello: What’s the Difference?
To better highlight the differences between the violin, viola, and cello, let’s look briefly at their similarities:
- They are all stringed instruments.
- They are all played with a bow or can be played by plucking the strings.
- They have similar body shapes.
- They all share some of the same strings (D, G, and A).
- The body of each instrument is hollow to allow the sound to resonate.
- They have the same parts;
- Tuning pegs
Though these three instruments are similar in many ways, they also differ in some significant ways, including:
- Type of strings
- How they are played
Type of Strings
The violin, viola, and cello have four strings that vibrate to produce the sound. Strings are characterized in three ways:
- The pitch that sounds when the string is plucked or played with a bow
- The length of the strings; and
- The thickness of the strings
Let’s look at each instrument according to these characteristics.
- The violin has four strings with the pitches E, A, D, and G. The E string is the highest pitch, and the G string is the lowest pitch. Violin strings are the shortest and thinnest of the three instruments and thus have a higher pitched sound. The violin strings of a 4/4 violin are 32.5 cm long. The thickness, also known as the gauge, varies between light, medium, and heavy. A thicker string produces more volume and a deeper sound, while a thin string produces a higher and brighter sound.
- The viola also has four strings but with different pitches than the violin. The viola strings are C, G, D, and A (no E string on a viola). With the viola, the A string is the highest, and the C string is the lowest. Viola strings are between 37-38 cm long, and like the violin, thicknesses vary from light to heavy.
- The cello also has the same four strings as the viola, but they are pitched an octave lower. This is why cello music is written in the bass clef. Like the other two instruments, the thickness of the strings varies, but cellos have the longest strings at around 70 cm.
Probably the most noticeable difference between these three instruments is their size.
The violin is the smallest instrument, and the cello is the largest. The viola is somewhere in between the violin and cello but is much closer to the size of the violin.
- Violins range in size depending on the size of the person playing them. Violins come in eight main sizes (from smallest to largest):
The body of the smallest violin (1/16) measures 9 inches, while the body of the 4/4 violin measures 23-23.5 inches long.
- Violas are generally 1 to 5 inches longer than violins. The standard viola body size is 16 inches long, but violas are also made at lengths of 13, 14, and 15 inches.
- A full-size adult cello measures 48 inches tall and is also available in five smaller sizes for junior students:
In addition to other factors, the size of the instrument affects its sound. Shorter instruments have higher sounds, while larger instruments have lower sounds.
The sound of a violin may be described as bright, warm, rich, or smooth. Though the violin and viola are similar in appearance, the larger viola body and thicker strings give it a dark, full, warm, and robust sound. The timbre of the cello is even lower than the viola but has a full, rich, and vibrant sound.
Because of the sound and tones each instrument produces, music written for these instruments is written in a different clef:
- Violin music is written in the treble clef.
- Viola music is written in the alto clef.
- Cello music is written in the bass clef.
The violin, viola, and cello share a similar design. Each instrument has the following parts:
- Pegbox and pegs
Of course, the difference in these parts for each instrument is their size. The neck of a cello will be longer and wider than that of the viola and violin.
Though they share many similarities, there are two important differences in design:
- The chin rest
- The end pin
Both the violin and viola have a chin rest, which is missing on the cello.
Additionally, all three instruments have an end pin, sometimes called an end button on the violin, which holds the tailpiece in place. However, the end pin does more than hold the tailpiece in place on the cello. It also lengthens to rest on the floor to support the weight of the instrument.
Instrument and Hand Placement
As mentioned before, the violin, viola, and cello can be played by either running the bow across the strings or plucking them with the fingers.
The violin and cello are played by placing the instrument between the shoulder and the chin, while the cello is played by placing the instrument between the musician’s knees.
Hand placement is also different for these instruments. The violin and viola are held the same way with the same hand placement. The lower bout (the widest part of the instrument) of the violin and viola is held near the shoulder/chin, while the fingers hold the neck of the violin away from the body.
The cello is held in essentially the opposite direction. The lower bout of the cello is pointed toward the floor, while the neck of the cello is held near the shoulder.
Cello vs. Violin vs. Viola: Which Instrument Should You Choose?
Choosing which instrument to play can be challenging. Maybe you want to be able to play them all.
How do you decide? Consider these four tips when choosing which instrument to start with.
4 Factors to Consider When Choosing Between the Cello, Violin, and Viola
When deciding to learn how to play a string instrument, doing some research can help give you some important details that will inform your decision. Considering …
- Age and size of the student; and
- Motivation for playing
… can help students know which instrument to start with.
Violins, violas, and cellos can vary vastly in cost depending on the brand and materials used.
In general, because they are smaller instruments, violins tend to be cheaper than cellos.
If your budget is really tight, starting with a lower-end instrument — whether it’s a violin, viola, or cello — may be the way to go.
As you progress in your skills, you’ll probably want to consider spending a little more on a higher-end instrument. If you play professionally someday, you’ll undoubtedly spend even more money on a professional-grade instrument.
In general, you can expect the costs of these string instruments to look something like this:
- Violin: $50 – $500 for a children’s violin and $600 – $5,000 for an advanced player’s violin
- Viola: $300 – $500 for mass-produced violas and $1,500 – $10,000 for advanced violas
- Cello: $300 – $1,200 for beginner cellos and $2,500 – $10,000 for advanced cellos
#2: Size of the Student
As mentioned above, these three instruments come in a variety of sizes, with some that are very small for very young children.
However, if students are very small (three to four years old), they will naturally have an easier time with a smaller instrument that will match the size of their tiny hands. If a small child wants to learn the viola, they could always start out with a violin that has viola strings until they are old enough and big enough to switch to a viola.
When thinking about size, students will also want to think about the size of the instrument and whether they are willing to lug a big instrument, like a cello, with them when they go to lessons and concerts.
In the end, the size of the student or the size of the instrument shouldn’t stop them from choosing an instrument they love.
When considering the size of instrument you need, our teachers at the Northwest School of Music can help you choose the one that’s most appropriate for your size, age, and skill level.
The level of competition among the violin, viola, and cello is also something to consider when choosing which instrument to play.
As you progress in your skill, you may want to play in a school, community, or professional orchestra, so choosing one instrument over another may give you a better chance of being able to perform in one of those arenas.
Violins tend to be a popular instrument, and can be very competitive on the professional level. Violas, on the other hand, aren’t as competitive.
That being said, the violin section of an orchestra includes first and second violins and is much larger than the viola or cello section. Because the violas and cellos only have one section, it may be a little more competitive to play in those sections.
Cellos and violins are also popular solo instruments that can heighten the competition.
Surely you’ve been to an orchestra concert and have been enamored at the sounds of each of these instruments.
You’ve heard the violins play fast, lively pieces while being able to play soft and controlled high notes.
Perhaps you’ve been swept away by the rich, full sound of the viola section as they get their moment in the limelight.
And maybe you’ve closed your eyes as you’ve listened to the low, deep tones of the cello section or a beautiful cello solo.
When choosing which instrument to play, the student should consider the sound of the instrument and which one they like the best. If they prefer the high tones, they may want to choose the violin, but if they love the more robust tones, they may want to give the viola or cello a try.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Violin, Viola, and Cello
Are Stringed Instruments, Like the Viola, Violin, and Cello, Good Choices for Children?
Children can learn to play the violin, viola, and cello. Each of these instruments comes in various sizes for children of different ages.
Very young children may find it easier to begin with the violin because of its smaller size. Though children may start string lessons at different ages, many instructors recommend starting cello, viola, and violin lessons between the ages of five to seven.
Are the Viola, Violin, and Cello Similar Enough That You Can Learn How to Play Them All?
Because the violin, viola, and cello are relatively similar, it is possible to learn how to play them all.
The violin and viola are held and played the same way, making it easier to switch between the two. Though the cello is held differently, there are still enough similarities that make it possible to rotate among the three instruments.
When you become proficient at one instrument, it’s much easier to learn how to play another string instrument, though you’ll probably always be more confident with the one you learned to play first.
The biggest challenge to switching instruments may be learning how to play on a different clef.
If you’ve played the violin for five years and are used to reading music on the treble clef, switching to the bass clef for the cello may be a challenge — not to mention the alto clef for the viola, which is another thing altogether.
Where Can I Learn to Play the Violin, Viola, or Cello?
School-age children may have the opportunity to learn to play the violin, viola, or cello at school, but private and group lessons are also a great way for children and adults to learn to play a string instrument.
The Northwest School of Music offers year-round music lessons — including violin, viola, and cello lessons.
Northwest School of Music Can Help You Learn the Viola, Violin, and Cello at Any Age
If you are a beginner or want to sharpen your skills on a current instrument, Northwest School of Music has qualified and experienced instructors teaching lessons for:
- Bass guitar
- Cello; and
- Kinder Music
We provide lessons without large upfront fees, contracts, huge materials fees, and semester minimums.
Want to take lessons month to month? We do that!
We keep our students motivated by being the only music school in Oregon that offers the patented Musical Ladder System.
Learning an instrument has never been so much fun! Register today and get a free session.