Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass! What is the difference?

The four main string instruments of an orchestra are violin, viola, cello, and bass. All 4 are made from the same wood and have many of the same parts but there are more differences than there are similarities. Meanwhile, Daisy Slots brings a new musical theme that uses violin and bass for newly published games. Whether your 6th grader is trying to choose an instrument for her elective or you’re just curious about what distinguishes one from the other, here are some obvious and not-so-obvious differences:

Size -Violin Viola Cello Bass

violin viola cello bass
Smallest to tallest! Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass

Most people can recognize each instrument based on their sizes. Bass is the biggest, then cello, then viola, and finally violin. Viola is slightly bigger than the violin and looks exactly the same despite the subtle size difference. The important thing to realize about instrument size is that it doesn’t matter how big or small the student is. You can actually read on MusicCritic about artists who all started with no clue and became musicians who developed and mastered their craft. All instruments come in several sizes to match up with even the tiniest kids. Small girls can play bass and big guys can play the violin (and even better with private violin lessons)!

Strings and Range of each String Instrument

Basses are tuned in 4ths (E, A, D, G) and Violins, Violas, and Cellos are tuned in 5ths (A, D, G, C). Violin strings are much shorter and thinner than bass strings which are several feet long and thick in diameter. Violin has the super high notes all the way to A7 and can play as low as G3. Viola can play from C3-E6, so slightly lower than the violin and not nearly as high. Viola also has a deeper tone than the violin. Cello can play from C2-C6 and bass can play from C2-C5. Bass sounds an octave lower than the cello.

Position

Violin and viola are played propped up between the shoulder and chin. Cello is played sitting down and in between the players knees, with the end pin stuck in the floor for balance. Bass can be played sitting or standing and it also uses an endpin for balance. Each one also holds their bow a different way.

Role in the Orchestra

The violins are typically the melody and are the leaders of the orchestra. The first chair first violin player is called the Concertmaster and he tunes and helps lead the group. The violas play harmonies, cellos typically go between support, harmony, and sometimes melodies, and basses are usually on supportive bass lines.

Competitive Advantage

Everyone plays violin and cello these days. The great thing about playing viola or bass is that fewer people do so you have a better chance of doing well in chair tests and auditions like region and all-state. People who play either violin or viola can easily learn the other one since they are so similar, which makes them much more versatile.  Because of this, finding viola teachers or cello teachers is relatively easy.
Based on everything I just wrote, I’m pretty convinced I should have played the viola, instead of cello! Good thing it’s never too late to learn and you can always learn faster with private music lessons in your home.

15 thoughts on “Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass! What is the difference?

  1. I recently commented regarding tuning in fourths or fifths. I did a little more research and learned that the double bass is tuned in fourths. How interesting! However the violin is definitely in fifths ( that’s the instrument I play). Same notes, different order. Anyways, still thought you’d like to know!

  2. Bass is a very cool choice for another reason besides reduced competition. If you are a bass player you have opportunities to play MANY different types of music in addition to classical music and school orchestra pieces. Bluegrass, folk, gospel, country, jazz, rock–every kind of music needs a bass line and there are lots of opportunities to play in groups and bands. One big drawback is carrying the bass around, but in many school environments the school’s bass is left in the orchestra room, and the child can practice at home on a rental bass. It is an easy transition from stand-up to electric bass later in a young player’s musical journey.

  3. Violins are actually tuned in fifths, not fourths – low to high GDAE. Basses are strung backwards from a violin, and so are tuned in fourths – low to high EADG.

  4. Seven years’ experience playing violin allows me to say with certainty that violins are not tuned in fourths. They are tuned in fifths. Some fact checking is needed here. Also, if the bass’s lowest string is E, how is the bottom of its range C2? Even if it is tuned down, some explanation is needed.

  5. My son is Grade 5 piano and wants to pick a string instrument as his second. Reading this article was very helpful.
    The last paragraph says those who learn violin or viola are more versatile and can learn other two. Assume that means if you start with Bass or celo you don’t have the same advantage of being able to easily switch to a violin or viola. Is that correct? Can you explain what causes this difference?
    Also if violin leads the melody, and other 3 are mainly harmony or supporting, does that not make the other ones a bit more ‘boring’ for a child to play?
    Thanks

  6. Hello there.
    I asked Google whether a bass and a cello were the same thing and you jumped in. So. What’s a fiddle in this array? As in square dancing. What’s a 4th? a 5th? What does A7-low G3 mean? etc.
    I play the Prelude for Unaccompanied Cello on my 88-key 6′ Kawai but I’m self-taught and pretty ignorant about the rest. Thanks

  7. Hello Terry. I’m a 5th grade pianist and just started learning violin. Though I just started, I have been with piano for 5-6 years. Here are some answers:
    Fiddles are the exact same instruments as violins. Violin is the word for when you use it to play classical music and fiddle for bluegrass, square dancing, etc.
    4ths and 5ths are notes separated by 2 (4th) or three (5th) notes. C to F is a 4th and C to G is a fifth. Why 4th and 5th if separated by 2 and 3 notes? Because you count the two notes you’re saying are a fifth apart. So, C, D, E, F, G are five notes, so C and G are a 5th apart with 3 notes in the middle. There are also 2nds, 3rds, 6ths, 7ths, etc.
    I’m almost sure that piano wise, an A7 is an A in the seventh octave and a G3, a G in the 3rd octave. So from there, just take the letter as the key and the number* as the *th octave.
    Did this help you?

  8. This article ia bit confusing regarding the tuning of the strings on the various instruments. Bass strings are tuned in fourths as indicated: E-A-D-G, going from lowest string to highest string. The upper three string instruments ARE tuned in fifths, but the order listed should be reversed: C-G-D-A, from lowest to highest. And that tuning applies just to the cello and viola, with the viola strings being tuned an octave above the cello strings. Violins are tuned G-D-A-E, from lowest string to the highest string, so a fifth above the viola strings.

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