Why do orchestral string instruments come in so many sizes?
Over time, the use of music has been proven to help children develop, and the sizes of instruments will need to change as the child grows. Variations in size allow for children to begin playing orchestral instruments early in life. Students often start lessons at 5 years old, though many teachers have had students as young as 3. The creation of the violin in the 16th century coincided with the Italian Renaissance, a time when art, literature, poetry, and music were major fascinations for the Italians. If you could play an instrument, you could work with an ensemble or even in the homes of nobility. It seems quite natural for families to want this for 16th century students, and get them started with the best teacher they could find as early as possible.
While the average adult will need a 4/4 (also known as full size) cello or violin, viola sizing is expressed not in fractions but in body length by inch or centimeter. Some adults will use 16.5" violas, the largest available size without venturing into custom instruments, and some will use a 15" or 15.5". It all depends on arm length. While it is possible to play a violin or viola that is too big or too small, it is not as comfortable as a size that matches your arm length.
Cello and double bass size is determined by height and age more than arm length, and most commonly come in 1/2, 3/4, or 4/4 sizing. Smaller sizes include 1/8 and 1/4 cellos, and you can also find 7/8 cellos marketed to adults a bit shorter than 5 feet, though these can be used for children who aren't quite ready for a full size. Because the cello is played sitting down, it is important to have a comfortable reach of the entire fingerboard of the cello. And because cellos are not played in a way that is mainly supported by the arm, arm length is not as crucial for sizing. Unlike cello, a 3/4 upright bass is considered "full size". 4/4 upright basses are played by taller individuals, and arm length is more important to picking the right size. For both cello and upright bass, if the student intends to stick with their instrument for life we recommend taking fingerspan and arm length into account when choosing an instrument they're not going to grow out of.
How do I measure arm length?
It is pretty difficult to measure your own arm accurately, so we do recommend having someone else measure for you. Use a tape measure or yard stick.
- Have the student stand upright, with their left arm extended to the side and their palm turned upward.
- Place the end of the measuring tape against the student's neck
- Extend down the arm to the middle of their palm
- Take the measurement to the middle of the palm
- Compare the measurement to the chart below to determine the correct size. The chart gives a length range that is appropriate for each size.
- If the measurement is close to or between sizes, choose the smaller size. It is easier to play and learn on an instrument that is smaller rather than on one that is too big.
How do I measure height?
If you already have a violin you can easily check to see if it fits you or your child. When the violin is put in the playing position, then the violin scroll should sit in the middle of the palm of the left hand and the fingers should be able to curl around the scroll. You can also simply measure the back of the violin, viola, or cello body and compare it to the table below.
To measure height, have the student stand against a wall with their heels touching the base of the wall. Ask them to stand as straight up as they can without being on their toes. Using your tape measure (or yard stick for younger kids) measure along the wall from where their heels touch the ground to the top of their head. Cello and double bass sizing is a bit more general than violin or viola, so if you're off by a centimeter or two it's unlikely to be an issue. This also works for sizing upright bass, though it's not very common for kids to start with those.How do I measure fingerspan?
- Hold your or your student's left hand out in front of you
- Ask the student to spread the fingers of the left hand as far apart as possible
- Measure the distance in inches from the tip of the pointer finger to the tip of the pinky finger, illustrated by the green line in the diagram
While the charts below may seem complicated, most instruments can be very accurately sized just by the age of the child, their arm length for violin and viola, and their height for cello and upright bass. The additional information in the charts is mostly for reference by the adult student.