String instruments are regarded as being particularly challenging to play. The cello and violin are similar – both are played with a bow hand and a fingering hand. They both require correct tension and utilize mutual techniques such as vibrato.
The size and shapes of the instruments has an impact on difficulty. There are other elements to consider such as the fact advanced cellists need to learn to play in three separate clefs.
Violin is more difficult than Cello mainly because it is smaller in size. It is more challenging for violinists to play in tune and produce a high-quality sound. But cellists experience a higher barrier to entry since cellos are more expensive and there are fewer available teachers.
Within this article, we compare the difficulty of the cello and the violin across 5 main categories.
Is The Violin Or Cello Harder To Play?
I played the cello for over 15 years and attempted playing the Violin a handful of times. The Violin always felt small and fiddly. At the time, I assumed that was simply because I was used to a larger instrument, but it turns out the violin actually is small and fiddly.
The fact that the violin is smaller than the cello makes it more difficult to play. Whilst there are certainly advantages to playing a small instrument (such as for players with smaller hands, or for pieces of music with lots of sticcato) overall this creates a lower margin for error for mistakes.
In this article, we compare the difficulty of the violin and the cello across five main points – playing in tune, the size of the instruments, the amount of competition, barriers to entry, and the difficulty of the music. Check out the below table for a summary of my findings:
|Area of comparison||What's more difficult?|
|Playing In Tune||Violin|
|Size & Shape Of Instrument||Violin|
|Amount Of Competition||Cello|
|Barriers To Entry||Cello|
|Difficulty Of Music||Violin|
Playing In Tune
Both the cello and the violin are unfretted instruments. This means that the tuning of the note being played is dictated by the hand position and finger placement of the player.
This distinguishes the cello and violin from instruments such as the guitar (being a fretted instrument) or piano where the notes being played should always be in tune.
If the finger placement of the player is slightly inaccurate on the violin or cello, the instrument will produce an out-of-tune note. The violin is a much smaller instrument than the cello, measuring 14″ long compared to the cello at 30″. The notes are therefore further apart on a cello compared to the violin.
Due to the violin being smaller, the need for accurate finger placement is more demanding than for cellists. In other words, the margin for error for playing in tune is greater for cellists compared to violinists.
The Size Of The Instruments
The cello is far larger than the violin, at 30 inches in length compared to the violin at 14 inches. We’ve already discussed the implications of this to playing in tune, but within this section, we’ll evaluate the implications of difficulty in playing these instruments.
Here are some comments on the shape and size of the instruments:
- With the violin being a smaller instrument, fast shifting is easier as the distance covered is less than that of the cello.
- The violin is played standing whereas the cello is played sitting. Many think that the cello is played in a more natural position compared to the violin.
- People with large hands may find the violin more challenging to play than the cello. People with smaller hands may also struggle to play the cello (fast, large shifts may be tough) but in general, this is less limiting.
- The margin for error with the bow hand is greater for the cello. Fast, finickity bowing techniques are more likely to sound scratchy on a violin (note how beginner violins tend to sound like dying cats, whereas beginner cellos don’t sound quite as bad).
Whilst there are arguments on either side, the size of the instrument in general makes the cello easier.
The Amount Of Competition
Within a symphony orchestra, there are 30 violins and 10 cellos. Based on this, it’s more competitive for a cellist to get a spot within an orchestra compared to a violinist.
However, I can’t estimate how many people play the violin compared to the number of cellists. Through personal experience, I do know that the violin is a more popular instrument than the cello. This is probably due to the fact that it is more affordable and lightweight.
Becoming a professional string instrumentalist is very competitive, with many professionals having passed grade 8 in their early teens or before.
Since we’re trying to determine the overall difficulty of these instruments, we’ll give a point to the cello for difficulty based on our guess that it’s more competitive.
The Barriers To Entry
An average mid-range cello costs $2500 – $10,000 whereas an average mid-range violin costs $900 – $2000. The cello is therefore a more expensive instrument to purchase than the violin, making it more challenging to learn and progress.
There are also more violin teachers and resources available compared to the cello. A quick search on Youtube for ‘learn violin’ and ‘learn cello’ reveals videos with 3m views and 454k views respectively (at the time of writing – Sept 2022). This demonstrates more online instructional content exists for the violin compared to the cello.
Being a more expensive instrument with fewer teachers and resources available, the cello, therefore, has higher barriers to entry compared to the violin.
The Type Of Music Played On The Cello Or Violin
The final area I’ll be reviewing is how challenging the usual types of music are for the violin vs the cello.
In most orchestral works, the ‘first violins’ play the melody whereas the cellos play the accompaniment. As a rule of thumb, the melody is more challenging than the lower accompanying parts. Another example backing this up is the difference in the difficulty of the first violins vs the second violins, where the very best violinists chair the first violin section.
The melody within the violins is also arguably more exposed within a concert setting compared to the cello’s part. If violinists play out of tune or out of rhythm, the audience is more likely to hear mistakes.
Therefore, the type of music within classical ensembles played by violins compared to cellos tends to be more challenging. However, it is worth noting that cellists must learn to play from three clefs compared to the violin’s one.
Whilst each instrument is unique and can be perfected with enough practise and natural talent, it seems that the violin is in general the more difficult instrument.
It also seems that the violin is more prohibitive for large-handed people compared to the cello and small-handed people.