Instrument Overview

picture of a viola

The viola is a member of the string instrument family. Sound on the viola is produced by moving the bow across the strings, or by plucking the strings. A viola looks just like a violin, except that it's a bit larger. The sound is a bit lower and has a different tone quality. One unique thing about the viola is that music for it is typically written in the alto clef.

Violas are available in smaller sizes to accommodate young students. Violas sizes are based on the length of the body of the instrument.

These are general guidelines for help in determining the correct instrument size. The best option is to have the teacher size the student, and always defer to the teacher's judgment in sizing. It is important for the player to be comfortable to avoid issues that may develop over time from playing an improperly sized instrument.

Violas smaller than 12" tend to be very hard to play because of the short scale length. The strings will be very loose, and hard to bow. String makers are working on better technology to accommodate small violas, but for now it may be better to start on a ¼ (or smaller) violin rather than an 11" viola. As always, consult with your teacher to determine the best way to suit the player's needs.

The chart below is a good guideline for viola sizing.  Have the player stand with left arm fully extended to the side, then measure the distance from the neck to the middle of the palm. Refer to the chart to determine the best size. The student's age may also give you some idea of the size. Remember that everyone grows at a different rate. It is important for the player to be comfortable to avoid physical issues.

When supporting the instrument under the chin in playing position, if the instrument is the proper size, the palm and fingers of the left hand should be able to comfortably cup the scroll.

Viola Size Arm Length Player's Age
11" 18"-20" 5 years and under
12" 20"-22" 6 to 9 years old
13" 22"-23" 6 to 9 years old
14" 23"-25" 9 to 11 years old
15" 25"-26" 11 to 12 years old
16" 26"-27" 13 years to adult
16.5"+ 27"+ large adult

There are also a few sizes of viola not listed. For example; some people use 15½" violas for someone who is fully grown or nearly so, but does not quite fit into a 16" viola. As the viola evolved from an instrument played on the lap to an instrument played on the shoulder it is naturally a little larger than is comfortable on the shoulder. Violists often try to play the largest pattern they can manage, but too large of an instrument will cause physical injury over time with frequent playing. Student models are more limited in sizing, but the instruments don't fall quite as neatly into 1-inch increments as one might guess. If you have trouble finding a comfortable instrument let us know, and we will do what we can to help.

Other Resources

Viola Facts

  • Instrument Family: Strings
  • Key: C (concert pitch) - sound matches the written note
  • Clef: alto clef