Fiddle vs Violin vs Viola: What’s the Difference?

The Fiddle, Violin, and Viola come from the same family of bowed string instruments and are all very similar. In fact, these musical instruments are so similar many insist there is no difference, especially when talking about the fiddle and the violin. They will tell you it is the style of play more than anything else that is the difference.

What are the common things musicians refer to when they site the differences between fiddle, violin, and viola. Is it in how you hold the instrument? Do you play violin for classical music while a fiddle player is found in playing western swing or in a bluegrass band? Is it just playing styles and techniques that differ? 

Or is it a case where the fiddle and the violin are two sides of the same coin? Lets find out! 

 

What is the difference between a Fiddle and Violin? 

​Ah. The great debate. Fiddle vs violin. Violin vs fiddle, whats the difference?

We will note early in this article that the differences in the viola are much more noticeable than the other two bowed instruments. The argument seems centered around comparing the violin to the fiddle. 

​We have asked this question in several interviews here at StringVibe and got several different answers! If you’re interested we recommend you check out the talks with Casey Willis and Patti Kusturok for their opinions! 

With that being said, we dug as deep into the three instruments as we could to clarify things, once and for all. 

 

The Frame of the Body

These three instruments are all made of hardwood that has been polished to give them a perfect, finished, look. However, they all have slight differences when it comes to their shape.

The Fiddle and violin have a smaller frame size than the viola in both width and length. The standard fiddle differs from the violin with an arched angle near the waist that makes it have a larger diameter. Most agree that telling the difference this way is not reliable, because fiddle and violin sizes differ depend on manufacturer. 

 

Strings and Tuning

Typically the violin strings are tuned G3, D4, A4, E5, and viola is tuned to C3, G3, D4, and A4. Fiddles have the same strings as violin, however, a fifth string has been introduced by modern fiddlers, changing the tuning to G3, D4, A4, E5, and C3.

This gives the fiddle style of music the folk country twang that harmonizes well with a banjo. Many fiddlers prefer the traditional four string musical instrument, especially if they were classically trained. 

A viola is naturally tuned at exactly one fifth below a violin, and it has a range of over 3 and a half octaves.

The pitch that a violin is played at varies from the strings G3 to C8 which corresponds to the highest notes of a modern piano. Nevertheless, the top notes from the violin family produce harmonics which are very different from a viola and fiddle.

Fiddle Bridge

Violin vs Fiddle Bridge

A fiddle has a flatter bridge that is less arched than a classical violin. This allows for double stop and triple stop bowing, popular in many types of fiddling music. A violin has a more arched bridge that is aimed for a note that is cleaner.

The Violin, viola, and fiddle also have different tone variations, and the style of playing each instrument is distinct from the other. The difference in the bridges lends itself to each style. A fiddle will require a lot of strings bending and multiple stops while bowing while violin requires just a single tone and a viola requires the player to arch strings with a straight bow for better tones.  

You can find more about the construction of a fiddle in our article about fiddle build or at FiddleClass.

 

Fiddle and Violin Sizes

The body size of a viola is between 38cm to 43 cm long while the fiddle and violin have a body size of 35.5 cm long. Conversely, the violin bow is around 1 cm longer that the viola bows and the fiddle bows are designed to size slighter longer than that of a violin.

 

Differences in music played and Sound

Violins tend to lean to a traditional, or classical music while fiddles are typically found in bluegrass bands, western swing, and folk music. You will also find the fiddle utilized in the Celtic cultural permanences.

Violins can normally be found in classical, jazz and country genres.

Lastly, the viola is standard in more contemporary pop music.

The viola produces a more mellow and deep sound than a violin, while the violin has a higher pitched sound compared to viola.

 

Clef

Music for viola is usually written in the alto clef; that uses the C clef while the music for violin and fiddle is known to be written in the treble clef. Music for the fiddle is also written with a C clef.

The advantage of viola over the other two is the fact that the alto clef is rarely used with other instruments.

 

Playing Styles and Techniques

We know that the viola is larger than the violin, so they do require a different technique and different fingering.

Viola is known to have a heavier bow and heavier strings than the violin, and this gives the player a chance to lean more powerfully on the ropes. The longer bow gives the player an opportunity to produce a lower register that is not as high as the violin but sweet enough to keep your audience on their feet. 

Violins are played with the left side of the players jaw resting precisely on the chinrest and the player supporting instrument with the left shoulder. The player’s left hand usually presses the strings to produce the pitch and using the right hand the player either’s plucks or bows the strings to create a sound.

Violins are known to reproduce the composer’s music with the precise accuracy. It is important to point out that a well-performed violin does not at any time deviate even in the slightest degree from its composer music notation.

Violin player

Symphonies will carry as many as 50 violinists to carry different pieces of the same music since they are required to be so precise. 

Then there is the fiddle, and they are known to bring their own interpretation to every music piece. A fiddler can, and often does, vary from an original melody making it unrecognizable. The style of the fiddle is known to benefit the performer showcasing his or talent in a unique way.

The fiddle can either be held steadily between the players chin and shoulder or the fiddler can opt to rest the instrument right on their chest. Placing the fiddle on the chest is never seen or done in a violin performance.

 

Composition and Accompaniment

Most of the chamber music, symphonic settings, or the orchestral includes some permanent violin parts while the viola compositions include Kegelstatt Trio, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, and Beethoven’s Serenade. A violin is mostly accompanied by the cellos, violas, symphonic horns and double basses.

The fiddle, alternatively, is often combined with some broad range of instruments that includes the banjo, electronic keyboards, drums, guitars and even mandolin.

 

Parts and construction of Fiddle, Viola and Violin

When it comes to the parts, construction and build of the fiddle, violin, and viola they are extremely similar. The only main difference is that chin rest of a fiddle is a separate piece, unlike the one for viola or violin which is part of the tailpiece. On the fiddle, the chinrest is mounted using an ingenious screwing mechanism. It comes in different designs, and it can sit on the side of the fiddle tailpiece or just directly over the top of the fiddle. 

That being said, many can easily tell the difference in musical instruments between a Hardanger Fiddle and a Stradivarius Violin (not to mention the price difference!). 

The Final Note

While we do not cover Violins or the Viola much on this site. but we have heard plenty of requests for the clarification of the difference between them and the Fiddle. Hopefully this will clarify many of the differences between violin and fiddle. 

If you have any comments or further clarifications we’d love to hear them! Leave us a reply below!

4 thoughts on “Fiddle vs Violin vs Viola: What’s the Difference?”

  1. My sister started out as a professional violinist at the age of 14! Joined the musicians union at 15. Studied at conservatory. Then, on the advice of her mentor, Issac Stern, switched to the viola. She spent over 20 years as lead violist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. 🙂 When she retired I sold her principal viola at auction in Boston (thank you Skinners)
    – it brought her $50,000 which she used to finish her house in Xalapa Mexico.

    • She also did a lot of session work with world-class jazz musicians, including Stephane Grappelli and Toots Thielmans.

  2. My dad was a fiddler all his life. I asked him that very question, the difference between a fiddle and a violin. I remember him telling me that the difference is ONLY in the bridge thickness which on a violin is much sharper where it meets the strings while a violin is much more blunt, Also in his violins he turned into fiddles he moved the location of what he called the “soundpost.” The idea for both of these modification being more support for chopping and harder play that fiddlers typically use. Dont know how accurate this is but I sure saw him doing these modifications a LOT to violins that other musicians brought to him.

  3. I’m a violinist/violist, and I’ve never seen one that had the chin rest connected to the tailpiece. It’s a separate piece, like you described for the fiddle. Otherwise, interesting article!

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