The violas and violins, both members of the string family, look and sound similar to many people, who wonder how they can be told apart. There are several cues you can use to distinguish them.
If you are watching an orchestra concert, one way to distinguish the violins and violas is by the seating arrangement. In most orchestras, the first violins sit to the conductor’s left, with the concert master in the chair on the edge of the stage and closest to the conductor. Generally, the section extends from the conductor back towards the wings. Farther in on the stage beyond the first violins, sit the second violins. To the conductor’s right sit the violoncellos, or cellos. And between the cellos and the second violins, you will find the violas, often directly in front of the conductor in about the center of the stage.
Another way to distinguish violas and violins is by size. The body of violas is larger than that of violins. Violins have a standard length of 35.5 centimeters (about 14 inches), while the length of violas, although not standardized, is always larger. Violas may range from 38 to 48+ centimeters (about 15 inches to nearly 19 inches or more). But, interestingly, viola bows are about 1 centimeter (.39 inches) shorter than violin bows.
A third way to distinguish violas and violins is by the sound. Violins are the highest pitched instruments in the string family, sometimes referred to as the soprano members of the family. The violas are the second highest pitched string instruments, sometimes called the alto members of the family. The four strings of violas are each tuned a fifth below the four strings of violins. This means that the range of violas is lower than that of violins.
A fourth way to distinguish violas and violins is by their role in the orchestra. Most orchestras have larger violin sections than they do viola sections. And more often than not, the violins contribute to the melodic line or solo parts, while the violas are more often employed as part of the harmony.