To someone that’s not in the know, stringed instruments like violins and violas are all the same. Little do people know that these instruments are much different in the way they sound and play. Not only that but they are sized considerably different.
Even within the two instrument families, multiple sizes are available. It’s not uncommon for new musicians to become overwhelmed at the prospect of having to size and fit their bodies to an instrument, but it must be done. Getting the right size of violin or viola can make a huge difference in how the instrument is played.
This is especially true with younger kids. They need to be able to go through the motions without feeling discomfort, otherwise, they may get turned off from music. So how exactly does sizing work?
Violin vs Viola
Before getting into how sizing works and why it’s important, it’s good to know how to distinguish the most commonly mistaken instruments. Violins and violas look very similar at a glance. They have the same materials and construction methods. However, the two instruments sound very different.
In terms of appearance, the viola instrument is slightly larger than a violin. Violas measure roughly 15-18 inches in length while violins only measure 14 inches in length. It might not seem like a huge difference, but when placed side by side, the large size is quite obvious.
If you can’t see the two instruments but still want to figure out the difference between a violin and a viola, give the two a good listen. Violins play in a higher register than the viola.
In fact, a viola is a mid-range alto voice that plays in the alto clef while the violin is the soprano of the family and plays in the treble clef entirely. Violins are the highest instrument in the family.
There are a few other ways to differentiate the two stringed instruments, but those two are the easiest. It’s all about listening and looking. Once you know the differences, separating the two is a cinch.
Why Are There Multiple Sizes of the Same Instrument?
Whether you’re looking at violin sizes or viola sizes, you’ll quickly find that there’s a variety of different options available. But why? Basically, there are multiple sizes to accommodate different types of people.
A wide variety of people play the instrument. Due to the nature of how it’s played, a single size simply wouldn’t work for violinists like a single keyboard or drum would. Musicians need to be able to move their arms and get their fingers into position comfortably without straining
There are instruments for kids as young as 1 or 2 years old. These instruments all sound the same in terms of pitch, but their bodies are longer or shorter depending on the needs of the player. They make it possible for orchestras of different types of people to sit together and play in unison.
Typically, sizing is only ever a concern for children when finding a kids violin. A full-sized instrument is designed for adults and will fit most fine, though there are some exceptions.
Representing Different Sizes
Violins and violas use different naming schemes to differentiate between the sizes.
To differentiate the numerous violin sizes, musicians use a fractional measuring system. The largest violin available is a full-sized model. To represent this size, violins refer to it as a 4/4 violin.
As sizes get smaller, so do the fractions. For example, the next size down would be 7/8. Not every manufacturer does each individual fractional size. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see many that only offer only a handful of the common fractional sizes.
Musicians don’t use the fractional measuring system on violas. Instead, they use the actual length of the instrument from the bottom to the top of the scroll. This system is much easier but isn’t often exact because of slight discrepancies among manufacturers.
A full-sized viola made for an adult would be referred to as a 14-inch. As they get smaller, so do the measurements.
How to Size a Violin or Viola
Sizing charts a common sight in music stores across the world. These charts have information that could help you choose the appropriate size for yourself or a violin for kids at a glance. Charts go by age group and length of the arm.
While these methods are great for getting a general idea of how an instrument will fit, there’s no better way than to physically try the instrument. Those slight differences in manufacturer sizing can make a huge difference.
Many charts include an appropriate age range for a particular size. Of course, this sizing method isn’t foolproof, as kids and adults can veer off the average. This information is simply going off average heights and arm lengths.
Arm measurements are the most accurate way to see what size a player will be comfortable with. It’s a good idea to learn how to measure arm length correctly. It requires players to extend their left arm fully with a straight elbow and their palms facing the roof.
Now simply measure from the neck to the wrist and back from the wrist to the neck. This will give you a better idea of what size violin you should be looking at. If you are measuring for viola, simply change where you’re measuring.
The player should extend their left arm the same way. However, instead of measuring from the next to the wrist, measure up to the base of the fingers and back to the next. Violas are supposed to be a bit larger, so the added inch or so will provide players with a bit of wiggle room.
Understanding the Measurements
Now that you’ve measured from your neck to your wrist and back up, what’s the best violin size for you? There’s a reason why you need to measure twice. The first measurement from the neck to the wrist represents the largest size you should go.
If the violin or viola is for a child, they will likely grow out of the instrument in a couple of years. In that case, go for something slightly larger as long as it doesn’t affect their student violin or viola performance. The measurement from the wrist up the neck is the most accurate reading.
This is used by professional Suzuki teachers to accurately fit the instrument. If you’re an adult looking for the right 4/4 violin or smaller, this method is a great option.
Once you’ve found your measurements, take a peak at a viola or violin size chart. Most have arm length ranges that are best suited for a particular size.
Finding the Right Size Without a Measurements Chart
If you don’t have a chart available, you can easily see if the instrument fits your body by measuring against your arm. This method can actually be more actuate than taking specific measurements, as it simulates the real playing experience. It can be done with both violins and violas.
Rest the instrument on the left shoulder as if you were about to play it. The instrument should be extending about 45-degrees from the side of the body. Now, just reach up with the left hand, grab the scroll from beneath, and try to curl the fingers over the scroll.
The perfect violin or viola fit will have your arm bend at the elbow comfortably. If the arm is too straight or too curled, the instrument is not the right size. The arm should be relaxed and have no problem reaching around the scroll.
Violin Dimensions and Sizing
- 4/4 violin: Also referred to as a full-sized violin. It measures roughly 14 inches in length and is used by musicians over the age of 11.
- 7/8 violin: Measures approximately 13.5 inches in length and is used by small teens and adults.
- 3/4 violin: Measures 13 inches in length and is used by 9-12 year olds.
- 1/2 size violin: Measures 12.5 inches in length and is commonly used by musicians between the ages of 7 and 9.
- 1/4 violin: Measures 11 inches in size and is used by violinists between the ages of 5 and 7.
- 1/8 violin: Measures 10 inches long and used by musicians aged 4 to 6.
- 1/10 violin: Measures only 9 inches in length and is used as a student violin by kids ages 4 to 5.
- 1/16 violin: Measures 8 inches long and is used by violinists between the ages of 3 and 5.
- 1/32 violin:A very small violin, these instruments measure 7.5 inches in length by kids as young as 1 to 3.
Viola Dimensions and Sizing
- 0 to 16.5 inches: Typically used by large adults with an arm length of 26 inches or more.
- 5 inches: Used by average-sized adults with an arm length of at least 25 inches.
- 15 inches: Used by a small adult and children between the ages of 10 and 12 with an arm length of at least 24.5 inches.
- 14 inches: Also referred to as a 4/4 viola, these are used by players aged 9 to 12 with an arm length of at least 23 inches.
- 13 inches: Sometimes referred to as a 3/4 viola, these are played by musicians between the ages of 7 and 9 with an arm length of at least 22.5 inches.
- 12 inches: Known as a 1/2 viola, is used by violists aged 6-7 with an arm length of at least 20 inches.
Finding the Right Size Instrument
As mentioned earlier, the only true way to see how a violin fits you is to try it out. Visit a music store and give the model a try before buying it online. You may find that the manufacturer runs a little short or long, allowing you to make that change before you buy.
Sizing a violin or viola doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Use this guide and sizing information to take measurements and fit an instrument to you or your child’s body. Regardless of whether the instrument is for you or a young student, finding the instrument that fits like a glove is important.
It will put you that much closer to reaching your full musical potential.