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The Differences Between Violin, Viola, Cello and Bass

The four primary stringed instruments in an orchestra are violin, viola, cello and bass. These are also the stringed instruments generally taught in elementary school music programs, and students are given the option to choose between them. They are not, however, limited to the confines of orchestral music.

For budding musicians, learning one of these four instruments provides an excellent introduction and foundation on which to build. Violin, viola, cello and bass can be used to play many different styles -- everything from classical to contemporary music. Many popular singers and bands use, if not one instrument, a combination of all four.

The main differences in the instruments are size, strings, range and position in which they're played

Line-art drawing of a violin, Viola, Cello and bass with sepia tone background

The Big Differences

The size differences among the four can be easily recognized even by novices. The violin is the smallest, followed by the viola, which is only slightly bigger and looks similar. The cello is significantly larger than the first two and the bass is the largest.

The size of the strings also varies in both thickness and length, which plays a role in the instrument's range of notes. For example, the shorter, thinner strings of the violin and viola allow the instruments to hit higher notes. Whereas the long, thick strings of the cello and bass provide a low, deep tone, with the bass able to reach notes a full octave lower than the cello.

Another variance between the stringed instruments is the position in which they're held. Both the violin and viola nestle between the musician's shoulder and chin. To play a cello, the player sits with the instrument between their legs. For bass, they stand or use a stool. An interesting fact here is that the size of the person learning the stringed instrument should not be a determining factor when choosing what to play. All of them come in several sizes to accommodate people of all different sizes.

Another deciding factor that goes into choosing the right instrument is the role in the orchestra each play. Violinists generally play the melody and harmony depending on which section they are in, viola harmonies and bass support with the bass line. The role of the cello encompasses all three.

Picking out your instrument? Consider this…

Given the popularity of violin as well as the cello, choosing either as an instrument opens many doors and also comes with more competition than others, such as the bass or viola. There are many reasons for this, including that violin and cello are more well known when compared with the viola, and that the size of the bass can feel prohibitive to some.

There's a lot to think about and many decisions to make, and we're here to help. With friendly, knowledgeable staff ready to answer all your questions and the best stringed instrument shop online, we'll make the process easy for you.

Additional Resources

Carriage House Violins

Located in Newton, Massachusetts, Carriage House Violins is the instrument sales division of Johnson String Instrument.

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Johnson String Project

A charitable foundation whose goal is to provide high-quality instruments to children who live in under-served communities and who are participating in El-Sistema-inspired programs in Massachusetts.

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