Your Guide to 3 Common String Instruments and Which Is Best for You

Your Guide to Learning 3 Common String Instruments
Table of Contents

String instruments have made some of the most beautiful music humanity has ever created, and that makes them an attractive choice for a beginning musician. The violin, viola, and cello are three of the more popular options, and are all string instruments played with a bow to produce notes that resonate from their hollow wooden bodies. Their pitch and range is one big difference: 

  • Violins play the high notes, and students learn to read music on the treble clef.
  • Violas have a medium pitch, and students learn to read in alto clef.
  • Cellos play the deep sounds, and students play music using the bass clef. 

All three are tuned using tuning pegs at the top of the instrument, and there are fine tuners close to the bridge to make smaller adjustments. Your music teacher can show you how this works. This guide will walk you through the key features of the violin, viola, and cello, and hopefully leave you feeling like any of them would be a fun option. 

Details of Each Instrument

Violins, violas, and cellos have hollow bodies with f-holes (which are named that because of their shape) and sound posts inside their elegant structures. Here are a few fun facts to keep in mind:

  • They are designed to allow sound to vibrate as the player draws a bow across the strings.
  • Sometimes players will pluck the strings instead of using the bow (a technique called pizzicato ). 
  • The bow for each instrument is made of wood with strings of horsehair.
  • Each instrument requires slightly different techniques for holding the bow, including the bow tilt used. 
  • None of the three has frets to identify finger placement on the fingerboard (unlike guitars). 

Beginner students instead use tape to guide finger placement until they adjust to finger placement naturally. Consider the fundamental differences of each before deciding which is best for you:

About the Violin

violin as one of the string instruments

The violin is the baby of the string family, with the highest pitch range and a soprano sound. Violins have four strings: G, D, A, and E. The E-string is the highest pitch of the four. Violins come in eight sizes – 1/32, 1/16, 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4. Most adults will play a 4/4, and a younger teen or child will play a 3/4. Small children can learn violin on a 1/16 or even a 1/32-size violin, but many younger children start playing on an instrument that is 1/10 size. It is worth doing some preliminary research before choosing the best beginner violin for your child. 

About the Viola 

Woman playing viola

The violin might be the baby of the string family, but that would make the viola the middle sibling. It delivers a middle-range pitch because the instrument is larger, with wider strings than a violin. Viola strings are G, D, A, and C. Violas range in size from 11 to 17 inches. Most adults play a 15.5- or 16-inch viola, depending on their forearm length and individual preferences. A viola’s neck and body are wider than that of a violin, but players hold the viola the same way as the violin (in a horizontal position under the chin). 

About the Cello 

Playing the celo

The cello has the deepest-sounding voice and the largest of the three. The most common sizes are 1/10, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and 4/4. Most adults play a 4/4 cello, which is played from a seated position. Cellos have four strings: C, G, D, and A, to play deeper sounds and a variety of tones. The cello is a much bulkier instrument to manage, particularly for young players, but it produces a beautiful, deep sound if played correctly.

The fundamentals of all three stringed instruments are the same – with four strings (tuned in fifths), pegs used for tuning and played with a bow. The way the musician uses the bow, however, varies across each instrument, and this distinction is not just about sound but rather about student comfort and avoiding injury.

Learning and Playing Stringed Instruments 

The main difference between the three instruments, apart from the size and your playing positions, is the range of pitch produced and the repertoire of music they can play. The viola has the most limited repertoire of the three because it’s played using the middle clef. It is a magnificent instrument to learn, nonetheless, and violas are a key part of most orchestras.

Bow Tilt: Violin/Viola Versus the Cello

Those who play the violin and viola tilt the bow away from themselves, whereas cello players tilt it toward themselves. The bow is tilted away from the bridge in either case to produce the best possible sound and to ensure the musician’s comfort. Your music teacher can advise you on the best posture while playing.

Learning Violin and Viola at the Same Time Can Be Beneficial

It is not uncommon for violin students to alternate between playing violin and viola. Doing this can improve your technique across both instruments as you develop muscle memory and strength playing the bigger instrument.

Learning Violin and Cello at the Same Time Can Be Confusing

Students should avoid trying to learn violin and cello simultaneously because these instruments are played quite differently, not just because of the seated versus standing playing positions. Cello strings are much thicker than violin and viola strings, and students playing cello have to master thumb placement at the back of the instrument while playing chords. This can be confusing for students transitioning back to violin after playing cello for a while. 

Beginners will usually learn faster if they focus on one instrument at a time. Your choice of instrument should be determined by your degree of comfortability with playing each one. You may want to consider renting any instrument before deciding if it’s best for you.

Enroll Your Student in String Instrument Lessons Today

The string instrument family is one of the more versatile and elegant choices for music students, and a little dedication can have them playing lovely music in no time. Sloan School of Music is full of passionate teachers and musicians who delight in imparting their love of music to their students.

Contact our school today to sign up for lessons, which we offer online and at our two Maryland locations. Our skilled staff can give you specialist advice so you can make an educated choice about introducing your child to string instruments.