Sukamto Sia plays the violin, and sometimes the viola, with the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony. The two instruments are very similar, but there are a few easy ways to tell them apart, as Sukamto Sia explains. The best way to tell the viola and the violin apart depends on whether or not you are holding them or watching them play in an orchestra.
If you have the viola and the violin on hand, the most obvious difference between a violin and a viola is that a violin is smaller, says Sukamto Sia. Similarly, to go with its larger size, the viola has a heavier bow. At the end where you hold the bow, known as the frog, a curved edge signifies a viola bow, while a straight edge indicates a violin bow.
When trying to tell the difference between a violin and a viola, run the bow across the strings, says Sukamto Sia. A higher pitch indicates that the instrument is a violin, while a lower pitch indicates a viola. This is because the violin has a high E string, while the viola has a low C string, explains Sukamto Sia. The violin has no C string at all, while the viola has no E string.
If you are still left with questions, see if you can check the associated sheet music. Violins play on the treble clef, while violas often play on the alto clef. If both are playing on the treble clef, which is sometimes the case, the violin typically plays in the higher registers while the viola plays the lower notes on that same clef, Sukamto Sia clarifies.
Of course, sometimes you are trying to tell the difference between a violin and a viola when they are playing in an orchestra. This is perhaps the easiest situation to tell them apart in. As Sukamto Sia explains, when looking at an orchestra, from left to right, you will see the first violins, then the second violins, then the violas, and next to the violas, the cellos. Sukamto Sia must deftly move from his usual place among the first violins to a seat next to the cellos when he changes instruments during a piece.
Be careful to look at the instruments compared to their neighbors, though, Sukamto Sia says, because some orchestras, particularly small neighborhood ones, may not have a dedicated viola player, relying on someone like Sukamto Sia who changes instruments depending on the piece.