When choosing a stringed instrument in the violin family, there are many factors to consider. But one of the biggest decisions you'll have to make as a new player or student is whether to pick a viola or a cello, two major stringed instruments you’ll find in any orchestra.
Both instruments have their own unique sound, benefits, and playing techniques, making it hard to decide which one is right for you. In this post, we'll look at the key similarities and differences between violas and cellos, as well as some things to remember when making your decision.
So, what are the key similarities between violas and cellos?
Are There Similarities Between the Viola and the Cello?
According to Wikipedia, both are part of the four-stringed violin family, including the violin and double bass. The violin and bass are on opposite ends of the sound spectrum, with the violin offering the highest pitch and the bass the deepest tones.
The viola and cello are cast right in the middle. Both instruments, being stringed, are played with a bow. In an orchestra, the viola and cello also have one section, compared to the violin, which usually has two.
What Are the Differences Between A Viola and A Cello?
Size is probably the most conspicuous difference between the cello and viola. The viola is notably smaller than the cello, with a full-size viola being 40cm (16 inches) long while a full-size cello is 120cm (47.5 inches) long.
However, you do not have to worry about the instrument size when deciding what instrument is best for you. Both cello and viola come in varying sizes to accommodate even the 'smallest' player, say, a 6-year-old music enthusiast.
The cello comes in eight sizes: 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, ¼, ½, ¾, 4/4, and 7/8. Since the player must be seated while playing, your best cello size will depend on your hand span and height. The 4/4 is the full size, but most adults go for the 7/8 because it allows for a slightly smaller hand span.
The viola has sizes ranging from 11" to 17" or larger. Most violists choose sizes 15.5" and 16". If your hand span is greater or you have a sturdier frame, you can play the larger sizes. There is no popular size here; it all depends on each violist's preferences.
b) The strings and range of each string
The viola has thinner strings, which allows it to reach higher notes. On the other hand, the cello has longer, thicker strings that provide lower, deeper tones.
The viola is usually tuned in fifths and has a low C and an octave below the middle C. On the cello, the thinnest, highest string is A, with D and G following, then C as the lowest, thickest string.
The cello’s tailpiece holds its strings in place as they are strung along the length of the instrument over its fingerboard and bridge.
The viola’s use of a lower string helps it produce a deeper tone whose upper and mid ranges can be described as mellow, richer, and velvety.
A cello’s tones are deeper than the viola’s, and music is written and read in bass clef. As you progress through to advanced levels, you can learn the three clefs in addition to the bass clef, so you can hit higher notes.
c) The sound
The difference in strings brings forth another important difference: the sounds they produce. For instance, the cello offers a low pitch. Its sound is strong and deep and comparable to the human voice.
Still, its tones range from light and bright to melancholic and deep. Go for the cello if you want to play an instrument that can maintain the base or harmony or offer a strong addition to the melody.
On the other hand, the viola is only five notes lower than its smaller stringed counterpart, the violin. As a result, it offers more eloquent and brighter sounds. The viola often provides a lively addition to the rhythm and harmony of the violin during orchestras.
d) The position in which they are held
The viola is usually nestled between the musician’s shoulder and chin, while the cello is placed between the player’s legs while seated.
While playing the cello, the bow is drawn horizontally, and its endpin bears its weight. Violists lean heavily on the strings while playing and take time to master producing decent sounds.
e) The bow used
The bow used to play the viola is slim and long compared to that used to play the cello, which has to be heavier and short to produce clear sounds in the lower tones. A viola's bow also has a smaller frog than a cello's bow, which affects how the players hold them.
The cello and viola have different playing challenges based on their build and size. The factors that affect the difficulty of play include the player's endurance, experience, and size. Therefore, what may be easier for adults may not be the same for younger players.
The cello, being the larger instrument, may be slightly difficult to master for children. However, there is a slight advantage as it is played while seated. The viola may be lighter-weight, but it has more complex and faster melodies that take time to master fully.
g) Role in an orchestra
A viola player supports the orchestra through their harmonies, while a cello player has three roles: to play the melody, harmony, and offer bass support.
Which Instrument Should You Choose Between A Viola and Cello?
When choosing between a viola and a cello, the most important factors to consider are your career goals, playing technique, instrument price, and portability.
a) Career goals
The cello is incredibly popular and well-known and would open many career doors compared to the viola. Many students go for the higher-pitch instruments, making cellists rare and thus of higher demand in performances.
b) Instrument’s register
When deciding what instrument to choose, also consider their register: if you prefer an instrument with a lower register, go for the cello. On the other hand, if you prefer a higher tonality, the viola is the better instrument.
c) Your style of play
Before deciding on an instrument, you may wonder how to play it in an orchestra or as a soloist. Many believe a cello's distinctly lower tones limit the number of works you can learn on it, but this is not always the case.
While the viola and its higher-pitch cousin, the violin, have more alternatives, you can still learn a vast range of musical pieces on the cello. There are also many solo works that you can learn on the cello.
d) Instrument’s cost
The instrument cost is also another crucial factor. For example, the cello is more expensive than the viola due to its bigger size and crucial role in an orchestra.
The cello's size also makes it bulky. Younger players may find handling it, traveling with it, and hauling it around more difficult, especially when they are the same size as the case.
The cello weighs around 7kg (15.4 pounds), including the case, which may not be easy when using a bicycle or public transport. A viola is considerably lighter (580g), which is about the weight of an average backpack.
Both the viola and cello have varying ranges of melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and baselines to offer, and either would make an excellent choice for you. Still, you need to choose the one that aligns best with your goals and dreams as a musician, and hopefully, the tips above will guide you.