Violin/Width of the Viola.


QUESTION: Hi Mr. Fisher. Thanks for answering my questions earlier. I still have one more question.

I was browsing through a selection of violas when I noticed that some violas have greater width (distance between left and right side of the viola) than others. Could you please tell me the difference width makes on the sound of a viola?

Thank you!

ANSWER: Hello again Ridwan,

You are correct that violas are much less standardized in size than violins.  The overall proportions tend to remain the same (with a few exceptions), but the whole instrument is made larger or smaller depending on the views of the maker and the needs of the player.  So, a viola that is wider across the lower bouts, as you mention, will also tend to be taller from scroll to endpin.  (There have been attempts to combine a larger lower bout width with a shorter length, in order to achieve the stronger tone without the unplayable length, but the results are mixed, and I won't get into all that here.)  

Violas are usually talked about in terms of their body length, which runs anywhere from 14" to over 17.5" (not counting smaller student sizes).  The smallest violas tend to lack power and resonance, particularly on the C string.  The largest instruments often (but not always) sound the fullest and best overall, but they can be difficult (or even unhealthy) to play if you don't happen to have a long arm and long fingers.  The difference in tone between a 16" and a 17" viola tends to be less than the difference between a 15" and a 16".  Though, remember that EVERY instrument is different, and the quality of the viola depends greatly on the skill of the maker and the wood used.  Still, 15.5" to 16.5" seems to be the balance point, on average, between a good sound and a playable size.

Hope that helps.

Jim Fisher

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for answering my question. I have a follow-up question.

I am trying to choose between two violas. One is a little skinny while the other one has a larger lower bout--they're both 16" violas. Do you think the one with the larger lower bout will have better power and resonance on the c-string, and sound fuller/better? Also, which viola will be not too loud to my ears but project better?

I am thinking singing while playing viola (haha). I don't want the sound of the viola to drown out my voice but I want the viola to project nicely. Which viola would you recommend me to get? The smaller lower bout or larger?

Thank you again. I appreciate your help.

ANSWER: Hi Ridwan,
The ideal lower bout width (according to my quick and rough calculation) for a 16" viola would be about 239 mm, I believe.  So, with two purely theoretical instruments, and all things being equal, a purist (like myself) might say that the one that has the proportions that are closest to the "ideal", arrived at by generations of experimentation, and aligning with the traditional layout (which itself is based on the same ratios as the musical scale, by the way) would be the better.  

However, that's really not going to help you, for two reasons:

Firstly . . . If done well, a slightly larger lower bout can help bring out a larger, fuller, rounder tone, while allowing the overall length to remain in the playable range.  This messes a bit with the ideal resonance frequency of the chamber, as well as that of the plates, and you can end up with some strange wolf notes if you're not careful.  But, we're getting pretty technical here.  Briefly, if done well, a larger than ideal lower bout width can be advantageous.  

Secondly, and more importantly, these considerations are all very theoretical.  The two instruments are not theoretical, and all things are not equal.  In practice, the instrument that is better built, with more skill and better wood, is going to sound better.  That might be the one with the larger lower bouts or it might be the smaller one.  Furthermore, you should consider the fact that everyone's ears and tastes are different.  So, the one that would sound best to me might not be the one that you prefer.  The only way you're going to find out is to play them and see what suits you.

Best of luck!

Jim Fisher

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Mr. Fisher. I changed the E string and took my violin to a shop. They said the violin is fine. It is not set up wrong. Which is great news. But I still get slight headaches so I think I'll get a viola.

Could you please tell me what the difference in sound between a 16.5" viola and 16" viola are?

Thank you.

Hi Ridwan,

Thanks for your question.  That's good to hear about your violin.  As I said before, the difference from one viola to another has a lot more to do with other factors - like the quality of the wood and the skill of the maker.  But, theoretically, with all things being equal, a longer viola will have a fuller sound, particularly on the C string.  But, you want to be careful not to get a viola that is too long for you to comfortably play.

Hope that helps.

Best Regards,
Jim Fisher


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James S. Fisher


Please Note: For an accurate appraisal of your instrument's value or history, I must advise you to take it to a local luthier or string shop for an evaluation. It's really not possible to do this with any accuracy via email.

However, I am happy to answer other questions about violins, bows, violin playing, and violin/bow repair. I can also talk with you about what bows, rosin, strings, cases, shoulder rests, etc. might work best for you and your particular instrument. (There are some great new products on the market.) I've taught violin and fiddle playing for the past 18 years and will answer questions about playing and technique.


I've been studying the violin for over thirty years. I started teaching in 1996. In addition to my training at Lebanon Valley College and at the Violin Institute, I handle violins, bows, and customer questions of all sorts on a daily basis in my shop - J.S. Fisher Violins,


I hold a Bachelor of Music degree from Lebanon Valley College, as well as certificates in violin repair, violin maintenance, and bow rehairing from the Violin Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

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