Comparing violin and viola sizes in inches

October 21, 2017, 6:59 PM · I'm a lifelong musician who plays a number of instruments. I've been playing viola for a few years, and recently started teaching my first student, who's played guitar with me for a year, on viola. I teach privately at home.

I play a 16" instrument and, after asking around, bought a 12" viola for my student, a young man in the 4th grade who is small. (He weighs 55 lbs.)

I see violins specified in fractional sizes and would like some way to compare, e.g., what size viola is the same body size and scale length as a 4/4 violin?

Thanks in advance.


Replies (33)

October 21, 2017, 7:07 PM · Here's a guide:
14" = 4/4 violin
13" = 3/4 violin
12" = 1/2 violin
11" = 1/4 violin
Do you need smaller sizes?
October 22, 2017, 3:00 PM · That's good, thanks - so a 14" viola is essentially the same size as a full-sized violin. Is the scale length the same, i.e., if you learn on a 14" viola, would switching to a full-sized violin be a pretty small adjustment?


October 22, 2017, 3:30 PM · Yes.
October 23, 2017, 4:26 AM · Thanks very much.


October 23, 2017, 6:10 AM · Beware of descriptions of "3/4" or "1/2" size violas: there is no universal correspondence in inches
October 25, 2017, 1:20 PM · @Adrian Heath, it does seem odd that violins are specified in fractional sizes but violas are specified in inches. I play double bass and those are also specified in fractional sizes.


October 25, 2017, 2:12 PM · Not really Steve simply because there is no agreement on what constitutes a "full-size 4/4" viola. The range of "full-size" violas played by adults can range from about 14.5" all the way up to 18" or so. It comes down to personal preference more than anything. I'm sure there's historical reasons for why there's such a range of viola sizes. Or at least thats my take on it.


October 25, 2017, 2:19 PM · I think full size violas start at 15", since that's larger than a 4/4 violin. The reason why there is no standarized 4/4 viola (but a standarized range of sizes) could be because of the acoustical imperfection and how each player would tolerate it.
October 25, 2017, 3:25 PM · For me, instrument "scale" has to be considered in "context." I see three contexts:
1. Fitting the instrument to the student's current size.
2. Fitting a sub-scale instrument to the student's future size.
3. Fitting an instrument to a student's future instrument choices (i.e., should a future violinist/violist have same size student viola as a future violist-only?)

I grew up with a violin from age 4 and must have been given different size violins as I got larger, but the only youthful instrument transfer I really remember was when i was 10 and dropped my violin on the hardwood floor of our NYC apartment and was give an ancient Tyrolean "ladies full-size" that had been my father's teen-years violin. I played that one through most of high school until we bought a 4/4 "golden-period Strad copy" from the maker. I was already pretty full-size myself, passing my mother's 5'4" height when I was 10 and around 5'10" at age 14.

We try to size instruments to the students in such a way that they may continue to use the technique they have learned as little kids all their lives.

I bring up all of these measurements because when I was teaching I had to try to make instrument size selections for my young students based on their size. I thought it was appropriate to select those sizes not only on the basis of their size at the time but also to some extent on what I anticipated to be their future size as adults. Therefore one little kid of a certain size might get a 1/2 size violin, but another kid of the same size with larger parents might have to struggle with a 1/4 size for a while longer.

So now I'm a big-handed, long-armed old-man violinist who is finally finding a violin a bit of a tight squeeze and playing a viola much more comfortable (although it sure can hurt!). What I have found interesting about playing both viola and violin is that at the same amount of left-arm extension a 14" violin (1st position) and a 16" viola (3rd position) seem to have the same amount of finger separation for the same intervals.

I am also a nearly life-long cellist and have known (It seems for always) that learning the relationship between arm extension and finger separation is key to playing a cello in tune over its entire (24") fingerboard and similar relationships also apply to the smaller string instruments (and no doubt, to bass).

So my way of choosing an instrument size for a student is not just "can you wrap your hand around the scroll?" That may be one of the criteria for choosing a violin size, but in my opinion not the only one. For viola, which will always be larger relative to an adult than a violin, I think the starting point is not wrapping around the scroll but some instrument length about 15% longer (about 2").

October 26, 2017, 9:08 AM · All very interesting. As a double bass player, we often talk about both the body size and the scale length of our instruments as a way of accurately describing them or predicting if someone can play them. I've seen similar in classical guitars, too, another instrument I play, where one can have a standard body size but a variety of scale lengths. And you'll definitely find basses with atypical scale lengths for their body size because someone is trying to strike a compromise between sound and playability.

As a guitar and a double bass teacher, my usual worry is that a parent-selected instrument (which I get a lot) is going to be too big. It does seems as those, given the small spacing in playing violin and viola, that going too small is also a concern, more so than on those larger instruments.

October 26, 2017, 12:09 PM · When it to sizing kids for violas, I would generally size them the same way a violinist is sized to prevent strain injuries, unless they demonstrate their ability to play a slightly larger instrument with ease and comfort (e.g child using 1/2 violin can use a viola the size of a 3/4 violin, but nothing larger than that).
October 27, 2017, 6:30 AM · I guess this is a question I should ask - will two violins or violas of the same nominal size have the same scale length?


Edited: October 27, 2017, 7:33 AM · Good question. Answer: Maybe!

Many, perhaps most, instruments follow specific designs of former makers with specific body length, neck length, location of ff-holes, and notches on the ff-holes that are intended to locate the bridge and thus define the "scale length." This would create a consistent scale length for specific body lengths. HOWEVER, since no two instruments can be made of the very same pieces of wood it is not uncommon for the best sonic setup to be different for two otherwise "identical" instruments. Over time owners or luthiers may "adjust" the sound post location and even the bridge location to improve the playing characteristics of an instrument to suit the player. When the latter is done, the scale length will be different.

I think this is more likely to occur with "factory fiddles" than those that are hand made by top makers.

One example has occurred with one of my two Strad-model cellos. Both are now sounding really good, but the scale length of one is about 1/2 inch longer than the other. I did not notice this until I started to switch from one to the other and was always landing flat on the longer one. The luthier who last set up a bridge on it even violated some "rules" to minimize the scale length difference but to get the best tone it ended up with this longer scale length. (I acquired this cello when it was 72 years old - in 1949, I bought the other in 1964, when essential repairs on the older one were not economically sensible.)

Then, for violas, since there really are no standards, makers are free to try to optimize body (and neck) length and vary body thickness to fit players and/or optimize tone, while trying to keep some sort of scale-length that is easier to finger. I would guess all bets are off on violas. (Viola air volume and ff-hole area have an important relationship to tone.)

October 27, 2017, 11:14 AM · I Googled for least 10 seconds and couldn't find a reason why there's no standardization for viola sizes. Lots of articles on how to "pick the right sized viola for you..." Violins and Cellos didn't have standard sizes until Amati came along (I think...?) so why did the viola get the short straw? Is there some engineering reason why a "correct" size can't be nailed down?
October 27, 2017, 11:42 AM · There are fractional violas available for children. Please--and this is not directed specifically at the OP--please do NOT restring a fullsize violin as a viola for a child. Fractional violas have more depth between front and back plates than do violins. They play differently and sound better than a fullsize violin tuned A-D-G-C.
October 27, 2017, 12:23 PM · Michael, violists have to compromise between a deep, rich tone (17-18"), and playability (15-1/2 to 16-1/2"). So there is no "full size", and therefore no fractional sizes.

I would say "small" at 15", "average" at 16", and "large" at 17".
14" woulbe a "child's" viola, with high ribs, as Mary Ellen says, and preferably wider bouts than a 14" violin. I have seen a 15" viola with poplar instead of maple to get slower vibrations from the smaller dimensions (with success).

With my stubby fingers and ageing tendons, I have two 15-3/4" violas, one narrow-bodied with a "mezzo quality", and one tubby-bodied with a plummy "contralto" sound. Neither have the "baritone" quality of the very long violas.

October 27, 2017, 2:02 PM · But can't the same be said for other stringed instruments? They make smaller violins that sacrifice tone for play-ability, but somewhere along the way, everyone agreed on 14" for a standard length on a violin.

I get that there's no official "full size" for a viola, I'm asking "how come?"

Edited: October 27, 2017, 5:19 PM · I'm not exactly sure. I do believe fractional violas can have more depth or projection/carrying power than a restrung violin of the same size. I don't know how much more complexity a fractional viola will have compared to a restrung violin of the same size. I do not believe there is anything wrong with restringing a violin as a viola for a small child. Fractional violas are available, but unfortunately, restrung violins are still common because there are places in the world where fractional violas are scarce (where I live, for instance). I think 3/4 and 4/4 violins restrung can sound okay, but anything smaller than that will likely sound pretty bad. Just think of it like fractional violins and how they're lacking compared to full size violins. I also believe that the quality of a violin strung as a viola largely depends on the individual traits of a violin, especially in the low register. The more depth, complexity and carrying power/projection, the better e.g one 3/4 violin restrung sounds terrible, while another sounds fairly nice. I have also heard of violins converted into violas by drilling a hole in the front body plate near the bridge, and I have heard good things about them.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 11:29 AM · Michael, the acoustically "ideal" viola is ca.20". Carleen Hutchins proposed such an "alto violin" or "vertical viola" with a spike! Anything less is a compromise to make the d*mned thing playable.

And violists never quite agree on the tone they want: husky or velvety, dark or light, C & A strings sounding like the brass section (my own pet hate..)

In the Baroque era, prticularly in France, there were often two viola parts, for "viola contralto" (ca.16+"), and "viola" tenore" (ca.18"); same tuning but different tone. There are 10 "contraltos" from Stradivari in circulation, but only two "tenors" (in museums). Rather more "tenors" from Gaspar da Salo and the Amatis, but many were "cut down" for playability (certainly not for tone!)

The smaller violas were popular with Mozart, Stamitz etc, as they permitted more agile playing. Cellos got smaller for the same reason. The romantics wanted a warmer, deeper tone, judging by their quartet parts.

So no "standard" is possible. I would even use my two violas for different music: the narrow one for Mozart, the wide one for Brahms.
But then I should need a double viola case!

Elia, my own high-ribbed dark-toned violin woud make a pleasant 14" viola. Then there are the very satifactory assymetric 3-cornered fractional violas from my own luthier, Bernard Sabatier, Paris.

October 28, 2017, 10:08 AM · Definitely heard of those online, but I don't think they're available in my area. It would be ideal to have more fractional violas, but child-aged violists (especially under 12) are fairly uncommon.
October 28, 2017, 10:10 AM · There are plenty of 10- and 11-year-old student violists in my city; they start in fifth grade strings. One of the local violin shops rents fractional violas. The other well-known local shop sent at least one student to me with a 4/4 violin strung as a viola, and that is when I quit recommending that shop entirely. It is not an adequate substitution.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 5:23 PM · Well, if there's fractional violas lying around, use them, but if that's not an option (fractional violas are unavailable/scarce), you're stuck with restrung violins and you'll have to make do with them. Alternatively, you could get a tech to drill a hole in a student violin's body and officially make it a viola that way, but only techs with knowledge on how to do this operation should do it. In terms of violists under age 13, they're most common in strings programs near my hometown. Violists under 10 are quite rare where I live, and I'm quite certain that many were forced to use restrung violins until they were big enough and I never heard, unless
1. they were lucky and got fractional violas
2. they were forced to play on full size violas that were too big for them or
3. they're exceptionally tall for their age and are big enough for a full-sized viola.
I believe that restrung violins should not be given lower status than full-sized violas, nor should they be promoted to an excessive degree, especially in regions where fractional violas are scarce. However, in regions where proper fractional violas are common and readily available, then of course the fractional violas should get the higher status because they have more depth. Even then, most fractional violas in my hometown are probably cheap, factory-made violas, and they're probably not a whole heck of a lot nicer than restrung violins of the same size. What I mean by that is that those factory-made fractional violas will have more depth than a restrung violin of the same size, so the chance of a dull-sounding C string is less. However, I don't think they're going to sound a whole heck of a lot more complex than restrung violins of the same size. Of course, this varies from viola to viola. If cheap, factory-made fractional violas were the only proper fractional violas out there in my area and that they sound relatively plaintive, I would rather restring a nice violin, rather than give out a crap fractional viola, if the student is playing at an intermediate to advanced level and are, of course, too small for a full size viola. If a fractional viola were substantially nicer than a restrung violin of the same size, then of course I'd go for the fractional viola. Also, there's the chance that music stores sell/rent fractional violas that are, in fact, restrung violins (without hole in the body operation, although that's a possibility) labelled as being fractional violas. Plus, the upper register of a typical fractional viola will likely sound much like that of a restrung violin. The only differences will be in depth (to a small extent) and individual differences between instruments. It's the low register that concerns most people (C string).
October 28, 2017, 12:40 PM · "drill a hole in a student violin's body and officially make it a viola that way"

I thought this was a viola joke that I didn't understand, but apparently it is actually done: "drilling a hole under the treble side of the bridge, and attaching the sound post directly to the treble foot of the bridge, thus allowing the sound waves to travel from string to bridge to soundpost to the back of the instrument, instead of from string —>Bridge—>Belly—>Back."


October 29, 2017, 1:05 PM · Don't do this at home......
October 31, 2017, 5:08 AM · I grew up playing guitar in the 1960's, and wow, were low-end instruments terrible! I recall being able to fit my hand between the strings and the fingerboard of my first guitar, which happily I didn't keep for long.

But one of the wonders of today and, really, the last few decades, is how much better low-end instruments have become. I bought the 12" viola for a student, and the 16" that I play, both from, and both are perfectly playable, acceptable sounding instruments. Mind you, I was a classical guitar performance major in college, and I own a lovely, hand-built instrument from Spain that I wouldn't trade for all the tea in the proverbial large country in Asia. I play a number of instruments, and some of them are absolutely marvelous, professional caliber creations whose tone delights me to no end, but by the same token, I don't mind bottom feeding at times these days, either.

Thus, very small violas are available, and for not a lot of money, and they suffice for little ones, at least to start, and mine is also keeping me happy for the moment. I bought an inexpensive carbon fiber bow to replace the fairly sad stick that came with my "complete viola outfit" - that's been my upgrade so far.

I encourage children to start on less popular instruments, including the viola, perhaps because I think it's fun to be in demand. :)


October 31, 2017, 6:22 AM · Aren't violins 14'? Then that means a 14" viola would be the same size
October 31, 2017, 6:52 AM · No...a 14" viola is proportioned differently from a 14" violin. The ribs can be as much as 20% higher on the viola.

October 31, 2017, 9:09 AM · Mary Ellen is right, but the length is the same.
October 31, 2017, 11:10 AM · Isn't the neck thicker as well? I've played on fractional violas (tuning them for beginning students)--they do not feel like violins even if they are 14".
November 1, 2017, 11:24 AM · The body is, obviously, thicker, and maybe wider, but why would the neck be thicker? It should be the same as a typical full size violin, although neck dimensions vary from instrument to instrument. How does a 14" viola feel different from a full-size violin?
November 1, 2017, 11:40 AM · I can't explain it in words; it just has a very different feel.

I get very upset when I see young viola students playing on restrung violins. Such instruments do not respond properly since they were never intended to play with the strings a fifth down. They don't sound right. They don't feel right. Maybe if there are truly no fractional violas available, it's better than nothing, but fractional violas exist and should be used if at all possible.

November 1, 2017, 12:05 PM · Adrian Heath, belated thanks for that answer. That's what I was looking for; makes sense playing a 20" viola isn't going to work. (Although I'm 6'6", I bet I could play one. Anyone make them? Mwahah.)
November 1, 2017, 1:34 PM · Rob Spear at singingwoodsviolin com. Really nice chap, too.

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