Very confused with viola string lengths

July 11, 2018, 9:43 PM · Upon checking the tensions for a viola G string and a violin G string, the viola has greater tension even if it's the same diameter. I'm assuming this is because the viola fingerboard is longer and bringing the string up to the same pitch requires more tension.

I have a pretty large viola 16.75 inches/42.5cm so should I be using higher tension strings or lower tension? At first, higher tension seemed to make sense since its a bigger instrument and should required bigger strings. But then is the tension overwhelming for that particular pitch?

Replies (9)

Edited: July 11, 2018, 11:10 PM · The longer VSL (vibrating string length), the thinner strings you need (low gauge). Resulting tension will depend on string brand and other factors.
VSL = distance between bridge and nut.
Depending on design, 2 violas with same body size may or may not have the same VSL.
July 11, 2018, 11:30 PM · Thanks for that Rocky. So in the future if I decided to get a 17 inch viola, would you recommend as a rule of thumb to get light gauge strings?
July 12, 2018, 3:04 AM · It's not so much the diameter, but rather the mass per unit length (linear density), that determines the required tension. They are of course related, but different strings may contain different proportions of winding and core.

In math:

L^2 * f^2 * ld / T = constant

Here, f=frequency, L=vibrating string length, ld=linear density, T=tension. (The constant is 0.25 if you use proper SI units.)

So, if L is a factor 1.05 larger (larger viola), you need to increase T by a factor 1.10 or pick a string with ld a factor 1.10 lower. String manufacturers typically don't specify ld but they do specify T and L, from which you can figure out the 'ld' value.

July 12, 2018, 5:01 AM · James, most musicians will determine which string works and sounds best on a particular instrument, by experimenting. I don't know of any hard and fast rules.
July 12, 2018, 6:14 AM · James, what is the string length in your viola, in milimeters?
July 12, 2018, 6:27 AM · It is not the body length of the viola that matters, but the vibrating string length. Vibrating string length on a longer viola may be the same as that on a somewhat smaller instrument.

In addition, there are other factors that determine what string "density per unit length" works best on a given instrument. My primary 16-inch viola (#1) works best with (as far as I can determine after owning it for over 20 years) with light tension A and C strings and medium D and G.
A: Dominant Weich
D & G: Pirastro Permanent
C: Pirastro Passione

My other viola (#2, that I have had for 45 years) works well with most anything although I have usually used different A & C than the other strings except when I used a full set of medium Spirocore strings, which were horrible on #1 but great on #2.

July 12, 2018, 6:53 AM · Viola strings are marketed by the VSL (vibrating string length) and then the tension.

So the first thing you should do is measure the distance along the strings from the nut to the bridge. Then make sure that whatever strings you order are appropriate for that VSL. A string will usually be listed for a range of VSLs.

If you only see a designation of small, medium or large, you should go to the manufacturer's website and see if they publish the VSL range for each of those designations. There is not an industry standard that matches designation to VSL range.

Next, you can see if the string maker provides that string in a variety of tensions, usually designated light, medium or heavy. Again, the actual tension for each of those designations is not an industry standard, so do not assume the "heavy" tension of one manufacturer is the same as another.

As David Burgess mentioned, one needs to experiment with string tensions to figure out what works "best" for your playing style and viola.

July 12, 2018, 8:28 AM · Thanks so much for your comments guys! I found the suggested gauge strength for different VSL on the Pirastro website, and indeed longer VSL's require smaller gauges.

My viola has a VSL of 39 which is around 1.5cm longer than average. I understand that I need to experiment with different string tensions to figure out what works best, but strings are really expensive... and so from what I've read here in the comments, I think I can safely rule having to test out heavy gauge, and just test between medium and light.

Edited: July 12, 2018, 10:29 AM · Sometimes we see violas that had the string length made shorter by cutting a piece of the upper part of the fingerboard and with a modified upper saddle.
Your luthier perhaps can arrange a kind of test by clamping the strings to reduce the string length so that you can feel how it would sound this way,

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