The Violin Family Explained with Video Examples

by | Mar 7, 2024 | 4 comments

Different orchestral stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello and double bass) explained with beautiful music examples

How many instruments are in the violin family?

The standard violin family consists of only three instruments: violin, viola, and cello.

You may be wondering, “What about the double bass? You know, that giant instrument in the back?” It is debated whether double basses can be considered part of the violin family, which we will discuss later on. For now, to avoid confusion, say “violin family” when talking about the violin, viola, and cello, and “string family” when talking about the broader group of string instruments. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between violins, violas, cellos, and doublebasses. We’ll go over their range, tuning, types of repertoire, a bit of their history and their various roles in the orchestra.

How many string instruments are in the symphony orchestra?

The string family is incredibly important because it makes up the entire front half of the symphony orchestra. Typical symphonic string instruments include LOTS of violins, violas, cellos, double basses, and often a harp. Many symphonic pieces even call for piano, which is also a member of the string family. Violins vastly outnumber any other instrument in the orchestra. The standard symphony orchestra has about 20-24 violins split into two sections. This army is followed by ten violas, eight cellos, and five or six double basses.

What’s the playing range of the violin, viola, cello and double bass?

Check the chart below to discover how low and how high the orchestral stringed instruments can play. Watch this video to learn more about the violin family range.


The violin is the smallest instrument of the standard violin family.

Violin tuning

The violin is tuned in fifths: G, D, A and E. Read all about tuning your violin here.

Violin clef

The violin reads in the… violin clef, also known as the G clef. This is the same one as the right hand of the piano. Go here to see a chart of the violin, viola, cello and double bass ranges in sheet music.

Violin range

The violin’s range is G3 to about E7. (Violin fingerboards are often slightly different lengths, which means some violins can go a little higher than others.)

The modern violin is descended from baroque violins, which used to be smaller and have more irregular shapes. Stradivari was the first to really standardize the “perfect” violin proportions, and we follow his models to this day. Most luthiers today model their instruments off of those made by famous luthiers of the past such as Stradivari, Guarneri, or Amati.

Violin composers

Most famous composers of the past four centuries composed something for violin. The best-known composers of violin solos include Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, and more names than I could possibly fit in a single article. As both players and instruments become more advanced, violin repertoire is becoming increasingly complex. I can’t help wondering what Bach or Vivaldi would think of Ysaye’s or Ligeti’s sonatas! One of the best parts of being a violinist is having more repertoire at your fingertips than you could possibly explore in a lifetime.

Learn more about the 24 most important violin composers in this article.

Why are there so many violin in an orchestra?

Earlier I mentioned that the standard symphony has twenty violins. Why so many? Because the human ear is naturally drawn towards the high timbre of the violin, it usually has the melody. However, symphony orchestras are simply too massive for a few violins to compete. By splitting twenty violins into two sections, the second violins can often double the melody an octave lower, making sure it is always front and center.

Violin repertoire

Check out the other articles on this blog if you want tons of famous violin repertoire examples. If you are not very familiar with classical violin solos, start by checking out the concertos by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, as well as Beethoven’s sonatas.


Viola tuning

The viola tunes to the same notes as a cello (C, G, D, A), just an octave up. The G, D and A string of the viola have the same pitch as the violin strings.

Viola clef

The viola is the only standard orchestral instrument that uses alto clef, which places middle C right in the middle of the staff.

Viola range

The viola’s range is from C3 to A6. This is a bit conservative as it’s definitely possible to play higher, certainly with harmonics. Watch this video to learn all about the playing range of stringed instruments.

Viola size

Violas are slightly larger than violins and actually do not have a standardized size. While full size violins all should have the same proportions, violas can be slightly different sizes based on the player’s needs. Violas are always sized by inches, and commonly range from 15-18 inches. Read here all about viola sizing and which size would be right for you.

Viola vs violin playing technique

Violas have a resonate, mellow tone very different from a violin’s. Violas also have thicker strings which respond more slowly to the bow. The instruments are similar enough that most professional violinists also play viola, but this doesn’t mean any violinist can just sound good on viola instantly. It takes time to adjust the intonation (due to more space between steps), bow technique, and of course reading alto clef!
In the orchestra (where there are typically about ten violas), the rich middle harmonies of the viola bind the string section together. Watch this video to see how a violinist can play viola after one hour practice.

Viola repertoire

Historically viola parts were, ahem, not very interesting until the Romantic era. Many 20th century composers incorporated beautiful viola solos, and the instrument’s repertoire in general has greatly expanded. There is very little famous 18th or 19th century solo repertoire for viola. Exceptions include Berlioz’s Harold en Italie, Bruch’s Romanze, Stamitz’s Concerto in D Major, and viola sonatas by Mendelssohn and Brahms. More composers have written viola concertos in the past 100 years. The most famous are by Walton and Bartok.

How difficult is it to play viola vs violin?

Playing viola involves some particular challenges. It is harder for them to project in the orchestra due to their mellow, middle-register tone. It is also heavier than a violin and the notes are further apart, making intonation difficult. Usually a viola doesn’t play such high positions as the violins, which makes playing viola in an orchestra a bit easier. All instrument have their challenges and difficulties, so it’s hard to say if violin or viola is more difficult to play. Nevertheless it is still a valuable member of the orchestra that adds a unique color and resonance.


Cello tuning

Cellos are tuned to C2, G2, D3, and A3. This is an octave lower than the viola.

Cello range

The cello’s range is from C2 to A5. (C2 is the second lowest C on the piano, and A5 is just above the staff in treble clef.)

Cello clef

Cellists usually read bass clef, but when the notes go very high they use tenor clef to avoid leger lines. Here’s a video that shows the full musical range of the cello.

How many cellos are in an orchestra?

In the orchestra there are eight cellos. The section does not need to be as large as the upper string sections since cellos project more. Cellos provide the bassline in the rich string harmonies, so it is incredibly important to the orchestra’s texture.

Cello repertoire

There is also an incredible amount of solo repertoire for cello. Bach’s solo cello suites are as important for that instrument as the Bach Sonatas and Partitas are for violin.

Cello composers

Most of the famous composers including Brahms, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Chopin wrote cello sonatas. The most famous cello concertos are by Dvorak, Elgar, and Haydn. There are also several wonderful double or triple concertos that feature cello. Check out the Brahms double concerto and Beethoven triple concerto to hear cello interact with other solo instruments.

Cello history

Historically, cellos have a similar timeline to violins, first appearing in the 16th century. Everyone has heard of Stradivari violins, but many people are not aware he also made cellos, about 60 of which still exist.

Double Bass

Double bass tuning

The tuning of the double bass is a little less straight forward. The most common tuning if a four string double bass is E A D G, but often an extender is used, so that the double bass can play as low as the C1. Also some double basses are built or converted as a five string bass with a lower B0 string.

Double bass clef

Just as the cello the double bass reads the bass clef. However for the double bass the sound is an octave lower than it reads.

Double bass range

The lowest note depends on the set up, as mentioned above. It could be B0, C1 or E1. Highest practical note is G4.

Is the double bass a member of the violin family?

While we’re on the subject of instrument history, it’s time to talk about the double bass. As we discussed earlier, it is debated whether double basses can be considered part of the violin family; it makes more sense to place them in the viol family. (Viols are renaissance instruments from which the violin is descended, but they are different enough to be separate categories.) There are a few basic reasons for the differentiation. First, violins, violas, and cellos all tune in fifths. Double basses tune in fourths, which is traditional for viols. Shape-wise, double basses are more similar to viola da gambas than to cellos. Here is a picture of the three for reference. Mainly take a look at the ‘shoulders’ to see the difference in origin. However, please know that there are also ‘violin shaped’ double basses, which are more similar to the violin, viola and cello.

Double basses have been an essential member of the orchestra for centuries. In most classical compositions, the cellos and double basses read a single part together (the basses an octave lower), except when the composer put “senza bassi” to indicate that the cellos should play alone. Later, double basses receive their own part.

How many double basses are in an orchestra?

The standard modern orchestra has about six double basses, but that wasn’t always typical. Classical orchestras across Europe often had two, three, or even four basses for every cello! Some composers even wrote double bass solos, such as the ones in Haydn’s Symphony No. 31.

Double bass repertoire

The double bass is often thought of as a large, clumsy, slow instrument, the tortoise of the orchestra. However, with the right repertoire and a good musician, it is actually incredibly virtuosic. There are entire concertos written for solo double bass. Even Haydn apparently wrote a double bass concerto, but it has been lost and we only have the first two measures. For full double bass concertos, Check out Bottesini, Koussevitsky, and Dragonetti.

Hi! I'm Zlata

Classical violinist helping you overcome technical struggles and play with feeling by improving your bow technique.

Which stringed instruments is most difficult to play? Violin, viola, cello or double bass?

The violin is known as one of the most difficult instruments to play. However the larger size of the violin’s family members comes with their own difficulties. The violin is small, so the intonation (playing in tune) comes really precise and certainly the first violins need to play high up the instrument. On the other hand the large fingerboard of a cello or double bass (without frets) is quite intimidating to find the notes on. The viola is heavier to carry under your chin and the notes are further apart, so more of a stretch. Playing the solo, middle part or bass line in an orchestra all come with their own challenges. The cello and double bass need more strength to play.

Each instrument has their difficulties. When choosing an instrument, focus on what timbre you love most and go for it. If you play an instrument you love, it will be easy to find motivation to practice and you will overcome it’s challenges.

Closing notes

The violin, viola, cello, and double bass make up the instruments of the orchestral string family (not including harp and piano, that is.) Which of these instruments do you already play? Which one would you like to try? What is your favorite solo, chamber, or orchestral repertoire for your instrument? Leave a comment!


  1. Lorenzo

    Cello I play violin and viola

    • John

      What about the fiddle? What is the difference between violin and fiddle?

      • Zlata

        It’s practically the same instrument, mainly a different style of music played on it.

  2. Marva

    My violin is in a storage unit! I plan to have it next month home renovations we’re in process.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *