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I have just started to learn violin. But I was thinking of buying a viola too. Mainly because the intonation is a bit easier on the viola due to longer scale length.

But I wonder how hard they are to combine those two. My fear is that it might be hard to move between them. Like if you're used to violin, you would play everything flat on a violin, while you would play sharp on violin if you're used to viola. I play guitar and bass, and that's no problem, but they have frets so I guess that helps. I also play mandolin, and it's not very hard to switch between that and guitar so the different tuning is not really an issue. But how is it with the intonation?

I might clarify that I'm not aiming for professional level. I just want it to sound ok in amateur environments. Perfect intonation is not needed. It just should not sound out of tune.

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  • It is common for musicians to learn more than one instrument, especially several in the same family. – user50691 Jul 20 '20 at 0:24
  • It's more a question of how much you can afford in $$$ and time as you start out. Lots of folks double on violin & viola, to the point that dual-instrument cases are very common. – Carl Witthoft Jul 20 '20 at 13:56
  • Keep in mind that violins have a standard full size but violas don't. The difference in where to put your fingers between the smallest and largest full size violas is about the same as the difference between a standard violin and the smallest full size violas. Once in a chamber group one of the violinists and the violist switched instruments between movements. The "new violist" found learning alto clef much more of a challenge than figuring out how to get good intonation on the viola (which was on the small side). – Alexander Woo Jul 20 '20 at 22:26
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But how is it with the intonation?

My violin teacher is primarily a viola player. He started off playing the violin and switched after a year or two to viola. He brings his violin along to lessons and occasionally plays. In the interests of maintaining a good relationship I keep my mouth shut and instead tell myself "Not bad intonation for a viola player". By the way, there is a long tradition in the violinist world of telling violist jokes.

Of course there are top class players who can play both, Maxim Vengerov would be the obvious example. At his level putting in the extra hours of practice to maintain good intonation on the viola as well is probably not a problem but you should understand that good intonation on either instrument requires a lot of practice. Having good intonation on one instrument will not give you good intonation on the other.

To have good intonation on both instruments you will need to put in the practice on both instruments. However there is an important crossover. Both instruments have the same pitched (although different length) G, D and A strings. That means the finger patterns for scales on these three strings will be the same. For example. G major scale starting on the G string will go whole step, whole step, half step and this is obviously the same on both instruments and this will save you learning time. Of course a whole step in first position on the viola will be fractionally longer than the same on the violin.

Is it a bad idea to learn both violin and viola?

As long as you have the time and inclination learning to play another musical instrument is always a good idea.

Most social playing in the classical string instrument world is in string quartets - two violins, a viola and a cello. Having a violinist who can also play the viola can save the evening for a string quartet when the violist has to pull out at the last minute.

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    +1 for string quartets (and opportunities in general) as motivation for learning both. Indeed, I wonder why more violinists don't also play viola. Is the big barrier switching clefs, size of instrument, stigma, or just plain expense of two instruments? – wrschneider May 29 at 12:04
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Once you learn how to play violin, viola will come easily, assuming that you can stretch your fingers a little bit more. The techniques to play violin and viola are nearly identical (although slightly more advanced techniques such as vibrato are marginally different).

You should learn to listen to your intonation and adjust accordingly– preferably whilst practising and not when playing with others.

You will also have to adjust to the different clef. Violin uses Treble-clef (G-clef), and viola uses the oft-forgotten Alto-clef (C-Clef).

Source: I'm a musician who plays (at an amateur level) violin, viola, and cello

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  • another minor technique difference is playing thirds (double-stops). On violin I would play C#-E as 3rd finger on G string, 1st on D string. On viola, I might use the 4th finger instead of 3rd, because the interval is just that tiny bit bigger. – wrschneider May 29 at 11:57
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If you are interested in both violin and viola, then go for it for sure. You would have to learn the alto clef which could be a bit confusing to start with, but it helps your brain to define the difference between the two instruments. I'm intrigued that you say intonation is a bit easier on viola! In my experience this is not necessarily the case. The difference could be compared to playing both the guitar and ukulele. It's good for the brain to be flexible in that way.

I don't see that you might play one sharp and one flat. Your ear is always your guide and would be as exacting on both instruments.

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  • Well, I have tried to play cello and double bass. I have also tried fretless electrical bass. My conclusion is that on a fretless bass, I can often be 2-3mm wrong and it still sounds ok, but on the violin it's just fractions of a millimeter. Also, I often find it hard to keep the fingers as close as needed because of the short scale length. – klutt Jul 19 '20 at 23:31
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    I'm actually considering buying a 5-string viola with an extra high E-string. Then the different clefs would not be an issue. It would be like a large violin with an extra bass string. – klutt Jul 19 '20 at 23:44

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