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What Are the Differences Between the Violin and Cello?

Violins are smaller than a cello.
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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 30 October 2014
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The cello and violin are members of the string group of musical instruments and easily distinguishable from one another. The violin is smaller than the cello, tuned differently, and produces notes that are over an octave above those played on the cello. Violins enjoy greater popularity than cellos and are used more often in ensemble settings. While the violin is held between the user's left hand and chin, the cello is placed on an endpin and played vertically as it is considerably larger. Both the violin and cello are heavily used in classical music and in various genres of modern music.

A violin is a substantially smaller instrument than the cello. On average, the total length of a violin is around 23.5 inches (60 cm). The sounding length, which is the distance from the nut to the bridge, is around 12.75 inches (32 cm). Not only does this compact form help the instrument produce high-pitched sounds, it also makes the violin one of the most portable string instruments. This gives violinists the advantage of being able to fit into any space, which is a major distinction between the violin and cello.

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To play the violin, one holds the instrument on the body's left side. The right hand usually holds the bow or, more rarely, plucks the strings. It is held between the left shoulder and the chin, where there is usually a chin rest for comfort and support. The left hand supports the neck of the violin, while the fingers of the left hand stop the strings. The right hand draws the bow across one or two of the strings to produce various sounds.

When playing the cello, the cellist must be seated. The instrument is not tall enough to be played standing up, like a double bass, and is too large to hold under one's chin. To be played correctly, a cello requires an endpin, which extends from the bottom of the cello to the floor, raising the cello off the ground so that it can be reached by the cellist and supporting its weight. While the violin is played in a horizontal position, the cello must be played vertically, though bent endpins can be used to decrease the steep vertical angle at which a cello usually stands. Like the violin, the cello is also usually played with a bow that is brought across one or two of the four strings.

The violin produces the highest sounds of all the instruments in the modern string family. Open, the strings are tuned to G3, D4, A4, and E5 — perfect fifths. The violin's range spans nearly four octaves, giving the instrument a considerable amount of versatility. The cello is also tuned in fifths, but it starts with A3, which is followed by D3, G2, and C2. C2, for reference, is two octaves below middle C, while the G3 on a violin is the G directly preceding middle C. Many consider the sound of a cello to be the closest sound to a human male voice.

Due to the unique voice of the violin and its wide range in pitch, there are usually two violin sections in any ensemble, even a quartet. There are almost always at least two spots for violins in any piece of classical music — one for the lead violinists, who will be playing melody and technically challenging sections, and another for a second set of violinists, who will play harmony, melody in a lower range, or accompaniment patterns.

Ensembles have much fewer slots available for cellos. It is not uncommon for the ratio of violin and cello to reach two or three to one. The cello is still valuable, however, but it often plays the bass voice in many ensembles. Despite the popularity of the violin, composers have written a considerable number of sonatas and concertos for the cello.

Both the violin and cello are used heavily in classical music, but they are also played outside this genre. The violin, also called the fiddle, is well represented in folk music around the world. It also sees some use in rock-and-roll as well as jazz. The cello is in much wider use by rock and heavy metal musicians than the violin.

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