It’s not an easy choice.
The violin and the viola are very similar. But there are a few key differences.
Thanks to those differences, they both have unique advantages for players who choose them.
The key to deciding on either the violin or the viola is figuring out which instrument’s advantages are more important to you. And which one’s disadvantages are easier to live with.
Once you have that figured out, you should be able to choose one over the other.
And the nice thing is: if you change your mind later, it is easy to switch. The instruments are very similar to play and the main difference is actually in reading the sheet music.
Should I Play The Violin Or The Viola?
The truth is: I can’t tell you to play one instrument or the other. The viola is better for some people, which the violin is better for others.
As mentioned, you need to figure out which instrument’s advantages are more important to you and/or match up better with your strengths. You also need to figure out which instrument’s disadvantages you can more easily live with and/or match up better with your weaknesses.
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of each instrument.
Advantages of the Violin
- The violin requires less strength to play. This goes both for the strength needed to hold it firmly in place and the additional pressure needed on the strings.
- The violin is much more prestigious. Its role in an orchestra is similar to the lead guitar.
- Many pieces are written exclusively for the violin, giving violinists far more opportunities to step into the limelight.
- The violin is extremely versatile. You’ll find it everywhere, from modern pop or rock music to jazz to classical pieces written hundreds of years ago. You can easily adapt many rock or pop songs for the violin.
Disadvantages of the Violin
- It is more difficult to learn than the viola.
- Because it is more popular, there is much more competition, both in terms of numbers and skill level. Most musical prodigies choose the violin; very few, if any, choose the viola.
Advantages of the Viola
- The viola is easier to learn for a beginner; if you can play the violin, you can also play the viola.
- There is far less competition with the viola, making it much easier to get a spot in an orchestra.
Disadvantages of the Viola
- The viola requires more strength to play. It is larger and heavier and thus more difficult to hold in place. You also need to apply more finger pressure to the strings.
- The viola does not allow the performer to shine. This is an instrument that fades into the background. In fact, in many pieces, most audience members can’t even hear the viola at all.
- The viola is played in alto clef, so you have to relearn to read music. Or if you haven’t learned yet, you would learn a clef used by virtually no other instruments.
As stated above, I can’t answer your question for you. Only you can decide whether you should play the viola or the violin.
But hopefully, breaking down the advantages and disadvantages like this will help you come to a decision. Just in case it could be helpful, I will now briefly cover some of the key differences between the two instruments.
Comparison Between The Violin And The Viola
- The parts are the same as the violin, but the viola is a few inches larger. It comes in four different sizes, while the violin comes in 9 different sizes.
- A viola bow is heavier than a violin bow, but both contain the same parts and perform in the same manner. Both bows require rosin to create friction.
- The violin is pitched higher. The instruments have three strings in common (G, D and A), but where the violin has the E string as its fourth, the viola has the C string.
- Violas use the alto clef (G clef), while violins use the treble clef (C clef).
- Violas have thicker strings and larger bodies, giving them a deeper, more somber tone.
Who Should Play The Violin?
If you’re the type of person who enjoys being in the spotlight, the violin is the right instrument for you. It’s role is similar to that of a lead guitar, while the viola disappears in the background and is often barely noticed at all.
The violin is also better for you if you enjoy taking on the most difficult challenges and competing with the best. It is the more challenging instrument to learn and far more people attempt to learn it. It is also the instrument most commonly chosen by prodigies.
While the level of competition is extremely high, there are also far more opportunities for violinists than viola players. Orchestras have two violin sections and there is far more demand for violinists in other musical genres as well.
Nevertheless, so many more people play the violin that it is still far easier to get a job in an orchestra as a viola player than a violin player.
As mentioned, the violin is undoubtedly the more difficult instrument to learn, but the viola presents a few unique challenges as well. As the larger and heavier instrument, and the one with thicker strings, it takes more strength to play and hold. The other problem is that viola music is written in alto clef, which means you have to learn to read music in a clef that is not used for any other instrument.
Summary: Choose the violin if…
…you enjoy challenges and competing against the best
…you want to be in the spotlight
Who Should Play The Viola?
If you don’t need the spotlight and are happy to contribute your part to a greater whole, then the viola might make more sense for you. If you also don’t care about the prestige that comes with the violin and are not motivated by competition, it is definitely your instrument.
As a viola player, it is much easier to find work in an orchestra, so it makes more sense to choose this instrument from a logical standpoint. The only reason not to choose it is if you need one of the other things that the violin offers: prestige, competition, challenge or spotlight.
Summary: Choose the viola if…
…you don’t need extra challenges and you don’t need to compete against the best
…you don’t care for the spotlight
…you want the best chance of finding work as a musician
As I mentioned at the beginning: I can’t make the decision for you. The best I can do is provide you all the information needed to make the right decision for you. Weigh all of the factors presented here and you should be able to decide on your instrument once and for all.
So which is it: violin or viola? Or perhaps the cello?