What's the difference between an electric viola & a silent viola?
January 10, 2015 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm an adult and I've never played any instrument before. I would like to learn to play the viola just for fun and maybe to eventually play at gatherings. But my building has a serious issue with noise (it was found that the contractor cut corners when it came to noise insulation).

When someone flushes the toilet in the apartments above or next to me I hear it so loudly for a moment I wonder if some stranger managed to flush MY toilet. My neighbors can hear me too even though I live alone. Any phone conversation can be heard... I know when my neighbors are making love or having a serious discussion. Noise complaints are the norm even though everyone who lives here are professionals and not party hippies. Basically- I can't practice any instrument unless it's silent. When I look online there seems to be something called a silent viola, and then there's electrical ones that you can just plug earphones in. What's the difference between the two and is the silent viola really silent? Please help me figure out what equipment to get.
posted by rancher to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total)
Here's a post from Shar music about silent violins.

If you've never played an instrument before and are interested in starting I would strongly recommend renting instead of buying. What would really be ideal is going to a music store that rents electric instruments and trying several out before picking one. Then take it home and give it a few months of daily practice, maybe 15-30 minutes a day, before committing to buying one. Having a teacher will speed along the process and will also help you with technique and pointing out errors. If there's a college nearby with a string program you could probably find a student willing to help you out relatively inexpensively.

Be aware that an electric instrument is not truly silent. They aren't nearly as loud as an acoustic (due to having no amplification box), but they can be heard even without an amp. Probably not loud enough to go through even a thin wall, though.

On the offchance you want to consider an acoustic instrument instead (there are more available in all price ranges; I got my violin at a garage sale 20 years ago), you can get a practice mute in either metal or rubber. This will significantly dampen the instrument's sound. Be sure it is a practice mute, though, not the much smaller orchestral mute which changes the instrument's tone without a large effect on volume.
posted by lharmon at 6:36 AM on January 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Forgot to add, you may also want to consider a 5-string electric violin. The extra lowest string is a C, the same as the lowest on the viola. I've never used a 5-string, but my understanding is this would give you the versatility to play both violin and viola music (the highest three strings on a standard viola are the same as the lowest three strings on a standard violin). The tone of a 5-string violin will be different than a viola, but the tone of an electric viola will be different from an acoustic anyway.
posted by lharmon at 7:40 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

First off, understand that "silent" viola (or violin or etc) is a marketing thing by Yamaha corp - they sell a line of "silent" instruments. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just: if you talk to people at random and say "silent viola", not everyone will know what you're referring to.

That said: the Yamaha instruments are intended for people like you, ie, they're intended to be very quiet. Electric instruments are (probably) not as quiet - the point with an electric instrument is (usually) to make it louder (or to provide a signal for processing / recording). I think that one of the Yamaha instruments could work well for you, but I would strongly recommend that you find one and inspect it to see if you're happy with its build quality and construction. I have a Yamaha EZ-EG MIDI guitar, which appears to share some of the same build and materials - it's a fun toy but I certainly wouldn't take it on stage.

I'd suggest looking at youtube for demos, and if you're still interested, I see these pop up on Craigslist for cheap every so often.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:25 AM on January 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What's the difference between an electric viola & a silent viola?

I don't think there is one, as far as I can tell, it's two different marketing terms for the same thing (although I'll second doctor tough love in that Yamaha seems to be the main user of the "silent" term.)

Calling an instrument a "silent" viola is meant to get the attention of people who want a quiet practice instrument, while "electric" viola is meant to get the attention of people who want to amplify the instrument, like they want to play live with a rock band. (Speaking from much experience, putting a microphone on a standard acoustic violin/viola/cello/etc. doesn't actually work all that well if you want to make it as loud as a rock drummer and a Marshall guitar amp.) But they're actually really the same thing - there isn't a "silent" violin that I can find that doesn't have some kind of electronics or pickup in it, which means they are all "electric" violins.

is the silent viola really silent?

Whether you call them "electric" or "silent", they are not actually 100% silent. There are still strings vibrating and moving air molecules. Here's a youtube video where someone actually compares several different models of the Yamaha silent violins with each other and with an acoustic violin with a mute attached in terms of how loud they are acoustically, without amplification. Note that they all measure somewhere around 75 decibels (decibels are the common measurement unit for how "loud" something is.) For comparison, 65 decibels is sort of the standard for normal conversation. So even the "silent" violins are slightly louder than that.

So it's hard to say whether an electric/silent violin would actually be loud enough to disturb your neighbors; given the situation you've described, it sounds like it might still be too loud, but maybe you could rent one and try it out and see if your neighbors complain.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:53 AM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two notes:

1) If you've never played an instrument before, a bowed instrument like a viola has a bit more challenge/learning curve than a fretted instrument like a guitar. Someone has probably mentioned this by now.

2) If you are thinking of playing viola because you like John Cale, then you rock. Many of John Cale's riffs and melodies are actually relatively simple to pick up by ear if you want to go that route. (I'm thinking of 'Paris 1919' etc.)
posted by ovvl at 9:10 PM on January 12, 2015

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