The Violin and the Viola
By Emma Vachon-Tweney
How many times have you heard the phrase "Is that a fiddle you've got
there?" Many non-musicians assume that the violin -or fiddle- is the only instrument that belongs to the violin family. However, the family actually includes three, or maybe four, instruments. The highest in pitch is obviously the violin. The second highest is the viola, an instrument often mistaken for a violin, but which in reality is completely different. The third instrument in this family is the violoncello, often shortened to
'cello. The fourth member is the double bass. However, it is debatable as to whether the double bass actually belongs in this family, due to structural differences. People sometimes consider it a member of the viol family, a distinct, though related, family to that of the violin.
The two instruments that look the most alike to the untrained eye are the violin and the viola. The violin, however, is a lot smaller then the viola, and its strings are tuned to G, D, A, and E. The G-string is the thickest and the E-string is the thinnest. The body of the violin is smaller than that of the viola, and the instrument has a brighter tone. It is often used as a solo instrument in all styles of music. From classical music to jazz, to rock, to country, to fiddle and baroque, the violin is the only universal instrument, found in every country and culture. The violin is an essential instrument in any orchestra, and it is also sometimes used in pit and concert bands.
The viola is the big - though quiet - sister of the violin. There are rarely any solo works written for the viola. Most of the standard conservatory repertoire for the viola has been transcribed from that for the violin or cello. The viola is in fact more like a small
'cello than a big violin. The strings are a lot thicker than those found on a violin. These strings are tuned to C, G, D and A (this A is the same as the violin A), and are in fact are tuned an octave higher than the strings found on a
'cello. Since the viola body is smaller than it actually should be, the strings are therefore much thicker in proportion to those found on the violin. (The reason the viola body
isn't as large as it should be is because it would then be too large to hold on our shoulders, but too small to put on the floor like a
'cello.) The thicker strings result in a more muted sound, and the tone is hardly as bright as that of the violin. This could be one reason why it is rarely a solo instrument. However, like the violin, the viola is an essential instrument in the standard orchestra.
Violin and viola bows are very similar. Sometimes violin bows are sold as viola bows, and vice versa. The viola bow is thicker than the violin bow and slightly shorter maybe by about a half a centimetre or so. The viola bow is heavier than the violin bow, and a violin player who really likes playing with a heavier bow, might choose to buy a viola bow instead.
So next time you see some guy with a fiddle, maybe you should ask him,
"Hey Buddy, is that a viola you've got there?"