16 inch Viola : standard size ?

December 7, 2017, 5:44 AM · I read in a lot of topics here that 16 inch violas (called full size viola) are the most sold by luthiers, the most easier to play and give a complete viola sound (comparing to smaller size).

What's about your experience ?

Replies (38)

December 7, 2017, 5:58 AM · I think that's a general consensus although some will say that it should be 16.5 and others will say that if you look hard you can find 15.5s that sound okay. Larger than 16.5 is difficult for lots of people to play unless you've been playing viola since your childhood. I have a 16 Ming-Jiang Zhu "AA" viola that I bought for about $3500 and I'm happy with the sound. I wish it could be a little more responsive but that could just be because I'm used to the responsiveness of my violin, which is a quite good instrument.
December 7, 2017, 6:53 AM · There is nothing like a "full size viola".... some violas under 16 inches will sound darn good and are being played by professionals and soloists.

But, yes, violas over 16 inches are, in general, more difficult to sell, but violas are always a bit difficult to sell anyway.

Violas are a very particular market within the violin market.

December 7, 2017, 7:10 AM · @LUIS : So what's the difference between small and big viola ?
Edited: December 7, 2017, 8:13 AM · A 15 or 15.5 inch viola can compete with a 16 inch if the body air volume is the same (the body just has to be slightly thicker). Also the maker can adjust the size of the sound ports (ft-holes) for improved low frequency response.

One of the problems of viola size differences is the differences in string tension that result. A shorter viola at the same tension would be higher pitched and thus requires lower string tension or thicker strings - and vice versa for a longer viola. Fortunately some string brands are sold in two lengths with different physical characteristics for smaller and larger violas. From what I recall, the suggested cross-over is the 16 inch viola size.

Personally I like a 16 inch viola because the finger placement matches that on a violin rather perfectly for a given left-arm extension. So in viola 3rd position my finger tips will be the same distance apart sat for violin 1st position. Of course if one's arms are not long enough for a large viola, one has to play a smaller one. In "my" chamber orchestra several of the women are playing 15.5 inch violas and they seem OK to me, but I can't really hear them well when I'm playing. I notice that their violas appear to be a little thicker than mine.

The maker of one of my violins showed up at an orchestra rehearsal (that I attended only once 45 years ago) with an 18 inch viola that he had made just for himself (without any purfling) because of the incredible sound he could get.

I think violas often get a reputation for having a "nasal" sound, but I suspect this is because they naturally have a stronger resonance in the 1.2 - 2 KHz range than good violins. I would think that the good viola makers avoid this with proper "viola graduation." My violas don't seem to have this problem. I'd like to know more about this - for sure.

In my opinion a viola is not just a "scaled-up" violin, as some unfortunately are. Ergonomic features have to be incorporated, such as a relatively narrower neck to accommodate normal hand sizes - so I think the viola neck cross section must be closer to that of a violin rather than scaled. ff-holes should be sized to the air-cavity volume to get the best C-string sounds. And so on.

My personal viola experience is limited to the two 16 inch violas i own, and the very few I tried for a very few minutes at three of the traveling Cremona shows when they were at Ifshin's some years ago.

December 7, 2017, 9:18 AM · The viola sounds one octave above the cello, so, ideally, its soundbox should have half of the air volume of a cello, but that would render the viola unplayable. That's why good sounding violas are difficult to make.

While making or choosing a viola, be it small or big, these are the problems in general we will face: a too narrow dynamic range (you change your bowing and almost nothing happens in terms of volume and sound color), slow response, dead C string, slow response, bad sound in the upper positions of the C string (wolves, rasped notes).

That's why many makers will prefer not making violas, violins and celli are much more predictable in terms of sound.

Confort playing is not only related to the size, but also to string length, weight of the instrument, rib depth, upper bouts width, neck thickness, etc.

Viola auditions are very difficult, in general it is easy to play a smaller viola than a big one. Very tall violinists play "normal" violins.

Violists in opera pits sometimes have to play for almost 6 hours (as in Wagner's Meistersinger), that can be a pain in a big viola. I sold a small 15.5 viola for a very tall player of the Gewandhaus Leipzig, he mentioned expressly Wagner's operas.

In my experience, a violist will move to a smaller viola as soon as he finds one that sounds as good or better than his big one.

December 7, 2017, 9:30 AM · Luis, what are your thoughts on unique viola shapes such as the Tertis wide body type shapes?

There seems to always be a tradeoff with viola design. What are the characteristics of a Tertis?

Edited: December 7, 2017, 9:35 AM · An interesting article on viola design elements, especially bottom of page 2

https://helenviolinmaker.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transcript-of-talk-to-Chets-viola-day-Jan-04.pdf

I had a Maggini model viola for a while, nice, short playing length, but having the bridge up relative to the C-bout made my bow hand knuckles bang into the corner on certain notes....it's always something with a viola.....

Edited: December 7, 2017, 10:13 AM · No standard size. Do you want a big tenory sound, get a larger 17-19”. 16-16.5 often sound quite nasal. 15-15.5 often sound thinner and or nasally. It took quite a while to find my 15.5 EHRoth. Nice round tambre in a smaller violinistic frame that allows me to play above my ability on other violas. The viola originally came in two predominant flavors often voiced differently- larger and smaller.
Basses also have no standard size and players still have fights over range, tuning, and mechanisms. Every method book is different in fingering and left hand technique.
Similarly, on larger violas, cello style fingering may work
better in lower positions.
Playable instruments for both at physics determined optimum sizes would be impossible for normal humans.
That said- get what works for you, because everything is a compromise!
December 7, 2017, 10:11 AM · Craig, I think that the main features of the Tertis model are flat, low archings with almost no scooping near the edges coupled with deep ribs.

The model may favour a quick response and a good dynamic range, but it may lack colours in the sound.

I don't know a viola maker that uses the Tertis model today.

December 7, 2017, 10:14 AM · Eastman builds one, sodo shar and some other makers, but arching will vary.
December 7, 2017, 10:14 AM · I tested a few violas last year before buying one, a nice student instrument for playing chamber music (we so frequently have a surplus of violinists and no one to play second viola and I thought it was time for me to learn.)

I tested larger instruments (16.5", 16") and landed on a 15.5" instrument. We were prioritizing playability and pleasant tone over distinctive viola-type voice. There wasn't a ton of nice inventory in the sub-16" category in our local shops, however. It's good to hear that it's possible to buy something of professional caliber in a smaller size.

Edited: December 7, 2017, 10:46 AM · 15.5 violas can sound dark too, with a true viola sound. Here Kim Uwate plays one of my 15.5 (39.6 cms.) viola:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM9WaMBT8yI

Edited: December 7, 2017, 11:12 PM · Here's my sizing scheme for full size violas:
15": extra small
15.5": small
16": medium
16.5": large
17+": extra large
It's like a clothing size scheme. 16" does seem to be the most average size. Bigger violas usually have more depth and are often more penetrating than smaller violas. I think smaller people tend to go with smaller violas and bigger people tend to go with bigger violas body-length wise, but there's many exceptions. Body length isn't everything, though, because there's a whole bunch of other things to consider (neck dimensions, weight, etc). I think that choosing a viola size is a very personal choice because you must consider playability and sound preferences together in order to find a good fit for yourself. Viola sound varies much more than violin or cello sound at the full-size level because of the numerous sizes available. Plus, each player has their own preferences for sound quality and comfort levels. Personally, I'd stick with a 15.5" viola because I'm smallish and I want to prevent strain injuries. Plus, there's lots of nice 15.5" violas out there, as mentioned above. I would only use a 15" viola if
1. you're growing or
2. you're small to the point that you're not comfortable with anything bigger
If violas were sized to be acoustically correct, they can only be held cello-style.
December 7, 2017, 1:13 PM · Really nice sound in an "extra small" viola, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPgUL4CYIjs. Too bad she's not represented in this country.

Of course recordings can be spoofed but she specializes in small violas and I think her recordings of her small violas sound better than those of her bigger ones.

December 7, 2017, 4:35 PM · I have a 15.75" viola from Bernard Sabatier (Paris) inspired by a 2-cornered "Lyra Viola" in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford UK. It has a comfortable 14" string length, and wide middle and upper bouts. It has more of a deep contralto sound rather than the more baritone quality of longer violas, and is warm, powerful, and not nasal.

Tertis? "Real" Tertis-model violas are 16.75" long, with a 15" string length. They have wide lower bouts and narrow upper ones. The tone has boomy low notes and often reedy higher ones.

December 7, 2017, 9:17 PM · At a viola congress several years ago, I tried a viola made my a woman in NM whose name I don't recall. The lower bout that touches your neck was indented like the upper part of a heart shape. It had the effect of sitting the viola very comfortably kind of wrapping around the the neck. It also had the effect of essentially making the viola feel like an instrument that was an inch smaller.

Not a very good description but maybe makes sense.

As far as the question asked: my experience is that each instrument is different and you have to try them out and find the one that feels good to you and sounds good to you.

Personally, I don't like the feel of the instruments with thick ribs and find them harder to get around on than a larger instrument with thinner ribs.

I remember once when my viola was in the shop and the one they loaned me was a smaller viola but the reaches were significantly larger.

December 7, 2017, 9:17 PM · At a viola congress several years ago, I tried a viola made my a woman in NM whose name I don't recall. The lower bout that touches your neck was indented like the upper part of a heart shape. It had the effect of sitting the viola very comfortably kind of wrapping around the the neck. It also had the effect of essentially making the viola feel like an instrument that was an inch smaller.

Not a very good description but maybe makes sense.

As far as the question asked: my experience is that each instrument is different and you have to try them out and find the one that feels good to you and sounds good to you.

Personally, I don't like the feel of the instruments with thick ribs and find them harder to get around on than a larger instrument with thinner ribs.

I remember once when my viola was in the shop and the one they loaned me was a smaller viola but the reaches were significantly larger.

December 7, 2017, 10:16 PM · Rib height is misunderstood by most. The two plates have the greatest affect on sound, not the amount of air inside. Robert Spear really showed that with his violin shaped narrow bout double bass.
December 9, 2017, 9:02 AM · Thank you for every answer,

However, I need others about this case :

I'm violinist and I would like to switch and discover viola sound. So I'm going to a luthier, and he propose to me 03 viola sizes 15.5" 16" and 16.5" for the same price 1000€ (same category just different sizes).

How to manage every choise ? Especially in term of sound and confort.

December 9, 2017, 9:35 AM · Robert Spear makes an ergo viola with a near violinstring length and 16” body
December 9, 2017, 10:03 AM · Amine, will you have a chance to try the three different sizes side-by-side? That might go a long way toward answering your questions.
Edited: December 9, 2017, 10:23 AM · Phillip Dukes plays a viola as described by Laura McDermott. It has a tremendous typical viola sound and looks very comfortable .
Paul Silverthorne principal viola of the L S O plays a 17 5/8" viola!!
December 9, 2017, 12:31 PM · Amine, I remember you're a violist playing Andalousian style with viola in your lap (cello style), so I think a large instrument should be fine for that.
December 9, 2017, 1:37 PM · @David Burgess : I want a "theoretical" answar when I can't try :-)

@Ella Yu : I play my viola like in my picture, not really cello style.

December 9, 2017, 2:03 PM · Laura, you might be refering to Ann Cole's version of the Gasparo Lyra-Viola that inspired my own, from Bernard Sabatier.
December 9, 2017, 6:55 PM · So it's in your lap, not on an endpin, right?
December 10, 2017, 2:21 AM · Just before the knee :-)
December 10, 2017, 3:57 AM · In that case, I don't think a larger viola would have the challenges for you, that it would for someone who plays under the chin. Very generally speaking, a larger size will enable a deeper, darker, more open sound. So is that the kind of sound you would prefer, or a sound which is a little more "treble"?

In my experience, players generally prefer the deeper and darker sound of the larger instrument, if the technical challenges of playing it are not too great. However, if and when the time comes to sell, the larger instruments (over 16.5 inch) can be more difficult to find a buyer for, if that's something that matters to you.

December 10, 2017, 7:19 AM · Yo-Yo Ma played the Bartok viola concerto on one one Robert Spears (I think it was his) physics appropriate alto - a viola equivalent. I think it’s about 21” and has an endpin for playing vertically. It sounds BIG
December 10, 2017, 4:16 PM · I know little about violas but perhaps this thread can tolerate a question which will make me feel smarter.

The viola is available in several lenghts and played accordingly. No problem. HOWEVER, why doesn't the VIOLIN enjoy similar freedom?

Why is there not a 13.5 and 14.5 " violin ? I would welcome a little more bass!


December 10, 2017, 4:48 PM · Darlene, there are larger violins, but then you don't have your choice of 500 different brands of strings.
Edited: December 10, 2017, 7:02 PM · I think full-size strings should be okay for an ever-so-slightly larger violin. Plus, a 13.5" violin is a 7/8 violin, and they do exist as you know. Slightly-larger-than-normal violins are available, but rarish.
Edited: December 11, 2017, 3:15 AM · Darlene, a 14 inch violin is about the ideal size for the violin's acoustical range, given the type of sound we have come to expect from it. So is the cello. But to have the size of a viola correspond with the tuning in a similar fashion, a viola would need to be something like 20 inches long (depending on which resonances are emphasized). Since that is larger than most people are willing to play, they are fudged down to a size that players can handle. And since the reduced size means that they won't be "right" anyway, that leaves the door open to more variation.

Historically, larger violas were more common (back when violas didn't play much more than the "oom-pah" part), but as repertoire became more technically demanding, these fell out of favor.

December 11, 2017, 3:00 AM · Maybe a 15 inch Viola body with lower bridge can be used as a "big" violin ?
December 11, 2017, 4:13 AM · Amine, I do just that!
I have setup a 15" viola as a a violin for two reasons
- to demonstrate left-hand technique to my slender-handed young lady students:
- to avoid the narrower intervals of the "real" violin disturbing my viola playing.

It's not a very good viola, and the E-string is near breaking-point.
It should count as a "mezzo" violin, tonewise.

But I use my real violin to demonstrate tone and articulation...

Edited: December 11, 2017, 8:50 AM · There are some practical considerations with 17" plus violas .If you wish to play on perlon strings choice is very limited .
Very large violas sometimes have peg box plus scroll in violin like proportions . It is much better for them to be on the small side and as light as is possible without compromising strength . On a very long viola the scroll is far from the player therefore every gram of extra weight makes the instrument much more tiring to play .
I agree with everyone who has said that there is no such thing as a standard viola. One thing that makes viola playing exciting is that the instrument unlike the violin is still evolving !!
Edited: December 11, 2017, 10:43 AM · Darlene, a 14 inch violin can deliver all the bass you could want. One of my violins (Fernando Solar Gonzales) has an incredible G string - all the way up and all the way down - pretty good match in quality to the G string of my (Charles Woods) 16" viola, which is also terrific. I think it is up to the wood and the maker.

Another of my former violins (the Charles Woods one my granddaughter chose for her own, when it was time) had G and D strings so well matched that it was possible to get the same sound on the D string as going up the G string (on those pieces where it makes a difference).

I found that my Woods viola's C string sounded grainy in first position but more like it's great G string above that. It was also Ok sounding if I loosened the C string a bit so I reasoned that perhaps a lower tension C string might improve things - so I am now using a Peter Infeld weich C string - the other strings are Pirastro Permanent mittel - seems to be a great combo.

December 11, 2017, 12:56 PM · 4/4 violins can really vary in terms of depth, especially the low register. There are a fair number of exceptionally deep-sounding 4/4 violins in the world that almost sound like small 4/4 violas depth-wise. In Amine's situation, a 17" viola would be fine size-wise because it's not held between chin and shoulder.


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