Why is the maximum size of violins limited to traditional 4/4?

March 16, 2014 at 08:07 PM · There are things that everyone knows but me so maybe you could help me out.

Why is a violin limited to the standard 4/4? Why stop there? What's so magical about 14"

There are 7/8 "ladies" models out there and a bunch of sub-fractional versions for tots. Does 14" plus violate some sort of physical law?

I expect that a violin at 1 1/8 would not be a real violin but so what? A 7/8 ladies size isn't a violin either but seems to be acceptable.

I suspect that perhaps the 14" violin had something to do with people being smaller a few hundred years ago(?)

Replies (30)

March 16, 2014 at 08:44 PM · I think it has to do with the air volume that vibrates inside and makes the tone. It was found that 14inch violins produce generally the best tone and are also easier to play than bigger instruments.

March 16, 2014 at 08:52 PM · There are: long Stradivarius pattern, Maggini, and other Brescian makers of old.

Those violins sound great, but the models from "Golden" era of Strad became de-facto standard.

Some of contemporary makers ventured into long models with mixed results.

The question is not only about body size, but also vibrating string length that got standardized to 325-327mm.

March 16, 2014 at 09:42 PM · I'm not challenging the idea that the standard violin may be the one and only optimum violin design. My question is "why"?

March 16, 2014 at 10:03 PM · Because violinists don't want to be mistaken as violists.

March 17, 2014 at 12:36 AM · (Insert viola joke here)

March 17, 2014 at 12:53 AM · I second what kypros said. The size has to do with the amount of air vibrating inside. That is why a "full size" viola would be 21".

March 17, 2014 at 01:23 AM · I just received private information that the standardized modern violin size is related to the concept of mass production.

March 17, 2014 at 01:40 AM · The insight you are looking for can be gleaned by reading the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears".

A 4/4 violin is juuuuuust right.

March 17, 2014 at 01:42 AM · Darlene:

In the 1970's, the Catgut Acoustical Society developed a larger violin that is scaled up in all body dimensions from the Grand pattern Strad. It is called the Mezzo violin that has gone through four generations of improvement. The first generation mezzos measured 16", the second at 15" the third and fourth at 14 11/16" (374 mm). Joris Wolters in Belgium and Robert Spear in Ithaca, NY both make mezzos. Bob also sells mezzos made to his design and imported from China.

Nearly four years ago, I received one of the imported mezzos. It has matured into a lovely ringing instrument with a strong voice and it is a joy to play. But the voice is definitely that of a violin. And the price is very reasonable.

Try one, you will like it.

ABL

March 17, 2014 at 02:30 AM · That is good news!

I even found a demo on YouTube.

Just what I hoped for and expected.

Now I need only find the courage to look for the price!

Seriously, I appreciate the information.

March 17, 2014 at 10:11 AM · A word about Carleen Hutchin's Mezzo violins (Catgut Acoustical Society

Simply increasing all dimensions (as in a 15" viola) will lower the main wood resonance by, say a semitone, but the main air resonance by whole tone, giving a viola-like quality.

Ms Hutcthin's Mezzo has shallower ribs than a 14" violin to keep the air resonance one perfect fifth below the wood resonance: thus the Mezzo keeps a "violin-family" quality, which she wanted in all her new designs.

The vibrating string-length, and the neck length, retain standard violin dimensions.

March 17, 2014 at 12:40 PM · I'm impressed to learn about the design strategy for the Mezzo. Seems like an important instrument.

Unfortunately, I acquired a new violin only about a year ago so I have to endure some "Didn't you just buy a violin" abuse before I can buy anything else. However, I saw a $1000 price which I think is amazing.

March 17, 2014 at 04:36 PM · Since professional violinists spend so much time in very high positions (try a weekend of concerts playing Prokofiev or Copland...), it's important to be able to get around on the instrument. My own instrument is rather a stretch for me, and when I play even slightly smaller instruments it's definitely easier. There's no way I'd want a larger instrument, especially since it's likely to be heavier as well.

It's not simply length, but rib height and bout width as well. I think if the violin gets larger than standard, it will be harder to market to professionals and advanced players. Air volume may have some effect on sound, but if a player finds a violin heavy and hard to get around on, it won't matter that much.

March 17, 2014 at 07:03 PM · Actually, I basically agree with you and I was already thinking of the compromises. I like the freedom of a larger instrument particularly as regards the left hand. However, I'm sure I would not want to try certain music on an elongated violin as you point out.

March 18, 2014 at 05:59 PM · When I bought a Kun shoulder rest for my viola, it was labeled "5/4". So that's why violins don't get bigger than 4/4 - they turn into violas.

March 18, 2014 at 09:08 PM · Of course, while violins have stayed the same size since the 1750s, people have got larger.... ;)

March 18, 2014 at 10:01 PM · "Why is the maximum size of violins limited to traditional 4/4?"

Perhaps because there don't seem to be major advantages to making them larger, and because it's nice to be able to switch between violins without making compensations for size differences?

March 21, 2014 at 02:39 PM · While that makes a lot of sense David there could be other reasons as well. Why wouldn't the same reasons apply to violists?

( Of course they play in only 2 positions: first position and emergency position :)) But seriously:

violas come in a great variety of sizes. Didn't Primrose advocate real large ones? Or was it Tertis? They sure could get around on their instruments.

Even a relatively minor increase in size is a handicap in the pricing of violins: a 36.7 cm LOB Maggini model of say N.F. Vuillaume costs a lot less than a 35.7 cm LOB model.

Violins also tend to be much more restricted in the type of model as well: the greater majority look like a Strad golden period or sanitized Del Gesu or a variation thereoff. Maybe we violinists have become ultra conservative in this respect. And the makers follow: not a good investment to make a different model that stands out. Hard to sell.

Some fantastic older Viennese instruments are "oversize" as are many Brescians.

March 21, 2014 at 04:42 PM · What would a viola sound like with equivalent length violin strings on it?

March 21, 2014 at 06:34 PM · David. Why shouldn't the same apply to violas? Charles

March 21, 2014 at 07:13 PM · Ray, I haven't time (or a spare viola) to try your idea, but I have played for a few minutes on a 15" Quinton (CGDAE) for which Michel Corette wrote a brief method (available in facsimile).

The Standard violin E, (with some of the silk winding removed to allow the longer vibrating portion), withstood the extra tension; the overall tone was like a 15" viola (air resonance at middle-C); the A was a little sweeter than ona a viola, not being perched on the edge of the bridge. The E sounded more like a steel viola A than a violin E.

The 14" Quinton sounds more like a violin, although the 25% extra pressure on the bridge may restrict the tone somewhat.

Why 14" for the violin? Simply because it usually give the strongest air and wood resonances near the pitch of the middle open strings, ecouraging a balanced response across the playing range, (even in some VSO's!).

My own violin (Morlot) is high-ribbed (Middle-C air resonance again), and I think fairly soft grained. It would make a good child's viola! But then I am a violist who moonlights as a violinist!

March 22, 2014 at 04:27 PM · I am intrigued with the notion of balance across the strings/notes and I'll have to pay more attention.

However,there has to be more to the answer than just acoustics.

EXPERIMENT

EQUIPMENT Early EBay 15" viola, Ebay 16" viola and standard violin. Instruments have different brand strings. This is not a test of sound quality. The 15' never played well. The 16" has a great tone and almost no projection.

COMFORT TO PLAY. (MY RATINGS)

Violin.......chronic problem with bow arm. (36" sleeve) Do like the close proximity of higher positions. Vibrato mediocre.

In general, the violin seems to be restricting my space.

15" viola ........ MAJOR differences. Seems like everything is easier/better except for weight.

16" viola ..... Now this is heavy and 3rd position can't be that far away. (can it?) I just pass the "scroll hold" criteria with the 16" but within playable limits.

Again, the 16" is not cramping my style. I like the feel much more than the violin but not as much as the 15" (might be a case for a 15.5?)

Now, what is it that a person does to reconcile this problem?

Switch to 15.5 viola? (after years of violin clef?)

Pay a fortune for someone to build me a custom pattern?

Hold out and save up for the Mezzo?

Hmmmmm ...... I'm going to have to surf on manufacturers sites that give arm length/age criteria for sizing a student violin. Where will I fit in the matrix??

March 22, 2014 at 07:20 PM · Some pertinent trivia.

Following a quick survey of pedagogical sites it is obvious that there is no consensus about selecting a student size violin for people older than about 10 and/or having a neck to palm reach of about 24".

No site suggested going to a viola if the arm measurement exceeded the (violin friendly) chart. (This looks suspicious).

March 22, 2014 at 08:49 PM · Interesting. Thanks, Adrian.

March 22, 2014 at 10:09 PM · Charles Harmon wrote:

"David. Why shouldn't the same apply to violas?"

_________________

Violas are different, because the body is undersized for their register, compared to violins. In general, most people in the US (European tastes are slightly different) find that larger violas sound better than small, but there are ergonomic and technical challenges involved in playing a larger viola.

Violas are a series of compromises. This may kick off some viola jokes, but that's not really what I am up to at this moment. ;-)

March 23, 2014 at 03:53 PM · Thank you David for your response. But I really don't understand or believe in your comment "Violas are different, because the body is undersized for their register,

compared to violins." Where does this come from? Charles

March 23, 2014 at 06:35 PM · Darlene. I'll give my opinion briefly about the interesting subject you raised as follows. The violin is a miracle - one of the greatest inventions of man, thanks to Andrea Amati, his sons, N Amati, Stradivari, Guarnerius del Gesu, and many others all the way to modern and contemporary makers. The body length of 14 inches plus or minus 1/8" with a diapson of 195 mm plus or minus 1-2 mm (from edge to notch) remains a standard, with thousands produced. Most players and makers love the violin. The viola has a very different history. The two volume "The History of the Viola" by Maurice Riley is unfortunately out of print, but is worth tracking down in libraries. Briefly, Andrea Amati and his sons made a few contralto as well as tenor violas (for 5 part instead of 4 part quartets created by Haydn). There are only a few Amati and Stradivari contralto violas played today and there are none made by del Gesu. There remains confusion among many players today about viola body length and diapson, and there are makers who have experimented with various shapes and sizes. I hope that one day the viola will be loved as much as the violin and cello. Charles harmanviolins.com

March 23, 2014 at 09:28 PM · Thanks for the information.

I was hoping to find some simplified logic which would guide me from violin to some larger instrument. My purpose, as stated before, was to find a "larger violin" because of my above average arm length. Without a better remedy I simply put violin strings on my 15" viola. This doesn't sound good but it doesn't sound bad and the physical freedom is almost magic for me.

I think I will bide my time and contemplate the Mezzo instrument(s). I think their prices are very reasonable.

March 24, 2014 at 11:02 AM · "Thank you David for your response. But I really don't understand or believe in your comment "Violas are different, because the body is undersized for their register,

compared to violins." Where does this come from? Charles "

It comes from the instrument technical researchers. Hutchins was one of the early researchers to experiment with making violas where the size was proportional to the lower tuning. There are a number of different theories on this, but one is that to radiate sound most efficiently, a vibrating surface needs to exceed a certain size, relative to the wavelength of the pitch it is producing. (not that there aren't ways of getting around this, which stringed instruments already incorporate to some extent)

March 24, 2014 at 12:10 PM · "the body is undersized for their register,"

I've heard this even with the VIOLIN in connection with the G string - that the ideal size for the ideal resonance would be rather bigger. Indeed, I've experienced that if an otherwise good violin is going to have a problem, it will often be with the first few notes on the G string, up to middle C or C# - somewhat thin, tight, lacking in richness. Yet other violins of normal size are good right from the low G.

But that's why that new sloping tailpiece has started making inroads - it gives more space between the bridge and the holes on the G, and to an extent, the D on the tailpiece. How well this works, I'm not sure.

Oddly enough, I've recently seen this new kind of tailpiece on 2 violins by the same contemporary maker - one in a shop, one belonging to a colleague on a gig. I don't want to say the name, as it might seem to imply that there is a typical problem with his violins' G strings - something I don't know one way or another. Maybe just a coincidence.

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