April 09, 2015
Sizing Your String Instrument
For no other class of instrument is correct sizing more important than it is for orchestral strings. When a young player picks up a violin, viola, cello or bass for the first time, it’s critical for the instrument’s size to match the player so that learning proper positioning and playing technique will be possible. And since a budding musician can start at any age and probably has several growth spurts in store, it’s important to update from time to time as well.
Whether your child is just beginning his or her musical journey, or in need of an updated instrument to keep up with a growing body, the methods and measurements outlined in this guide (coupled with the advice and recommendations of the instructor or orchestra teacher) will help you find the perfect fit. That will make the instrument easier to play, leading to better progress and avoiding the discomfort and frustration that come from attempting to play an outsize instrument.
Violin & Viola Sizing
For most aspiring violinists and violists, this simple sizing method is the most efficient and accurate approach to take. If you don’t have access to instruments through your child’s band program, consider visiting a local music store and asking for help sizing-in (or use the measurement tables below). When you do have access to sample instruments, have your child follow these steps:
- Hold the instrument against the left shoulder, under the chin.
- Straighten the left arm in line with the instrument, then bring the hand up to the scroll, palm facing upward.
- Wrap the hand around the scroll and check its position and reach. If the fingers can curl around the scroll and into the peg box, the instrument is the right size. If the fingers cannot wrap all the way around the scroll and your child has trouble holding his or her arm up to it, then the instrument is too big. If the scroll can be cupped in the palm alone, then it’s too small.
- For instruments that pass the “hand check”, verify the fit by placing your child’s hand on the neck in playing position. On a correctly-sized instrument, this will leave the arm in a clear “V” shape, not too steep and not too shallow. If the arm is more of a shallow “U”, the instrument is too large. If it’s a very narrow “V” pressed close to the body, then the instrument is too small.
If instruments are not readily available for sizing, you can take measurements to determine the correct size instrument instead. Use a yardstick or measuring tape and follow this procedure:
- Have your child extend his or her left arm horizontally to the front, and measure from the left side of the neck to the center of the palm (in inches).
- Find the instrument-specific measurement on the following list and choose the indicated instrument size. As a rule of thumb, if the measurement falls between two different sizes, you can safely choose the smaller of the two.
- 23 5/8″ – 24″: 4/4 (full size) violin
- 22 1/4″ – 22 1/2″: 3/4 size violin
- 20 3/8″ – 21″: 1/2 size violin
- 18 1/2″ – 19″: 1/4 size violin
- 16 7/8″ – 18″: 1/8 size violin
- 15 3/8″ – 16 1/2″: 1/10 size violin
- 14 1/8″ – 15″: 1/16 size violin
- 27 1/8″: 5-inch viola
- 26 3/8″: 16-inch viola
- 25 5/8″: 5-inch viola
- 24 7/8″: 15-inch viola
- 23 1/4″ – 24″: 14-inch viola
- 21 7/8″ – 22 1/2″: 13-inch viola
- 20 1/8″ – 21″: 12-inch viola
- 18 1/4″ – 19″: 11-inch viola
Because the cello is played in a seated position, you’ll need a chair for best results. If possible, use the same type of chair that your child will be using while performing. Otherwise, try to choose one that’s the same height. The most effective way to size for a cello is to use actual instruments; your child’s band director should be able to help out with this, or if necessary, you can visit a music store with instruments on hand. Then, walk your child through these steps to find the correct size:
- Sit straight up in the chair, with knees at a 90-degree angle.
- Place the cello between the knees, leaning it back against the chest.
- Check the cello’s alignment with your child’s chest and legs. If it is correctly sized, the fingerboard will be resting on the sternum and the upper part of the cello body will rest on the thighs.
- Look for the top peg on the right-hand side (belonging to the “C” string); it should be close to the left ear.
- Check the corner of the lower bout; it should be resting against the left knee.
- Verify that the fingerboard is within reach without straining. If your child has to stretch to reach the fingerboard, or if the cello is resting too high in each of the previous three steps, then it is likely too large. If it’s resting too low, or if the “C” string peg is even with or below the chin, the cello is probably too small.
It may come as a surprise to learn that correct sizing is even more important for the bass than for other orchestral strings. Because it is so large, the bass is designed for the body and arms to fit around it in a specific way, and it’s very difficult to play if they can’t naturally fall into this intended posture due to a too-large or too-small instrument. One thing that the bass does have in common with other orchestral strings is that the easiest way to size one is to have instruments on hand, and to guide your child through a set of easy steps:
- Stand up and hold the bass upright. Position the instrument against the left side, holding the neck in the left hand with fingers in the first position.
- On a properly-sized bass, those fingers will line up with the eyes.
- Double-check by holding the bow in the right hand, with shoulders straight and arm relaxed in a ready-to-play position, parallel to the floor. If the instrument is the correct size, the bow should cross the strings between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard.
- You will know the bass is too large while following the steps above if the left hand is above eye-level, or if the bow falls at or below the bridge. Alternately, if the left hand is above eye-level in first position or if the bow is at or above the end of the fingerboard, you’ll know that the instrument is too small.
In case you don’t have access to instruments for sizing purposes, you can take a measurement to determine the best size instead. Start by having your child stand up in a straight but relaxed posture, arms positioned at the sides with hands open, fingers pointing downward, and palms in against the body. Then, measure the distance from the “V” between the thumb and forefinger up to the outside corner of your child’s left eye. Reference the following list, choosing the indicated size for close-to-exact measurements, or the smaller size for measurements that fall squarely between.
- 41″+: 4/4 (full size) bass
- 39″: 3/4 size bass
- 35 7/8″: 1/2 size bass
- 33 1/4″: 1/4 size bass
Sizing into the Future
It’s important to remember that as kids grow, so too must their instruments. So don’t just think of the sizing information in this guide as a one-time thing – instead, refer back to it every so often to check on the size of your child’s instrument and see whether it’s getting close to time for a bigger one. When choosing a rental or purchase plan for the violin, viola, cello or bass, make sure to look into the exchange policy. For instance, rentals from Music & Arts are eligible for no-charge exchanges to larger sizes. That means it’s easy to always have the best fit even for a rapidly-growing young musician, and your child can enjoy a better learning experience as a result! It’s all part of the recipe for musical success: a recipe that starts with having a properly-sized instrument to work with.