For many shoppers, their experiences boil down to finding the best value for their money. That could mean anything from buying in bulk from a warehouse-type store or big-box retailers like Tesco Extra or Sainsbury to buying quality pieces - of clothing, furniture or art that will last forever.

So, when it comes to buying a violin, such a shopper might consider better-quality instruments before factoring in other critical aspects of violin playing like the size of the instrument.

Let's say your 11-year-old has expressed an interest in violin lessons. At the music store, looking over all those gleaming instruments, the sales clerk asks what size violin you're looking for. When confronted with that question, your first thought might be that your young violinist will soon outgrow the instrument you buy today, so you plan to buy a larger size.

While logical for appraising clothes and shoes - those things you could get away with buying a size or two larger, that philosophy fails when it comes to buying a violin.

Let Superprof explain why.

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Why Proper Sizing is Important

Improperly sized shoes can hurt your feet - indeed, your entire frame. Improperly sized clothes can make you uncomfortable, either because they're too tight or the silhouette they create make you the target of ridicule. Sad commentary on our times but there we are, right?

Violin players don't wear their instruments so what's the harm in buying big?

Violin players have to bear their instrument's weight in their outstretched hand
Violin players stand for long periods with their arms outstretched, bearing their instruments' weight. Photo credit: limaoscarjuliet on VisualHunt

Take a moment to study a playing violinist or two. There they stand, with their instrument tucked under their chin, their left arm stretched out so their hand supports the instrument's fingerboard.

That's a pose they'll hold, possibly for more than an hour, and it's not static - meaning their left arm does not stay still. As the entire weight of their instrument rests on their thumb, their hand slides back and forth over the fingerboard so they can play the right notes.

Why not try standing, arm outstretched as though you were playing the violin? You'll soon see how tiring it is for your arm to remain outstretched for even just a few minutes. Now, add the weight of the instrument...

Granted, violins don't weigh that much; only somewhere between 200 and 700 grams. If you're Ben Lee, the world's fastest violinist, supporting 700 grams on your outstretched arm for the duration probably wouldn't be any big deal.

Conversely, if you're the size of young violin virtuoso Teo Gertler, supporting any weight on your outstretched arm for any length of time, let alone repeatedly working that hand would cause enormous strain.

The instrument's weight is one reason why it's best to make sure your instrument is sized correctly; another is reach.

An eight-year-old's arm is nowhere near as long as those of someone 10 years older and, while violins are not exceedingly long, your violin player must be able to reach the farthest end of the fingerboard with the instrument correctly held.

Let's find out how violins are sized and what those dimensions are.

How Violins Are Sized

When confronting the array of violin sizes, it's a good idea to know how violins are sized and what those measurements represent.

A violin's size represents the length of its body. The neck and that lovely scroll at the tip of it are not included in the instrument's measurement. However, they are proportionate to the violin and must be considered when sizing the instrument to the player.

Fortunately, the breakdown of sizes is generous:

  • 1/16: suitable for violinists whose neck-to-wrist measurement is 13.25 inches
  • 1/10: best for players with a neck-wrist distance of 14.25 inches
  • a 1/8 violin player should have a neck-wrist distance of 15.25 inches
  • 1/4 represents a 17.25-inch neck-wrist distance
  • 1/2 equals a 19-inch neck-to-wrist distance
  • 3/4 stands for a 20.5-inch distance
  • 4/4: what's considered a full-size violin; it is meant for those with a 21.25-inch distance between neck and wrist

Of course, these are not the only sizes violins can be made into. If you decide to have a violin custom-made, for instance, the luthier would measure you and craft your instrument to your exact arm length and reach.

A violin is properly sized when the player can reach the end of the fingerboard without strain
Your violinist must be able to reach the end of the fingerboard with ease. Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on VisualHunt

It's easy to assume that a 1/2-violin would be... well, half the size of a full-sized one but, if you're decent in maths, you'll see that 1/2 is not half of 1 when it comes to sizing violins.

You'll notice the neck-to-wrist measure in the breakdown of violin sizes. There's a bit of debate over how violin players should be measured on the way to determining the proper violin size. It's a question anyone buying a violin for a beginner player should ask themselves.

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How to Choose the Right Size Violin

At their core, the instructions are easy: have the violin player hold their left arm outstretched and measure it, from the side of their neck to their... this is where the controversy lies.

Some aver that measuring from neck to palm yields better results while others maintain that stopping at the wrist is a better indicator of which instrument would be more comfortable to play.

Remember that the violinist will not only have to be able to reach the end of the fingerboard but also be able to apply the needed pressure to the strings while playing. A violin that's even one size too big could seriously impact the player's ability to hit all the right notes, all the time.

What if the violin player is between sizes - not quite a 3/4 but too long for a 1/2?

First, the sizes listed above are just the most widely available. Depending on where you live, you may have a choice of music stores and/or luthiers to visit; you may find a better fit if you shop around.

If you don't have many options to choose from and you don't care to have custom violin made for every stage of growth, it's best to err on the small side, even if you know your violinist will outgrow their instrument eventually.

Another option: rent a violin, especially if your violin player is just a beginner and is still tween or younger.

It's hard to tell if a child that young will stick with anything. So, rather than investing wads of money in an instrument only for them to cast it aside in a few months, it makes good sense to lease, rather than buy.

Maintenance and repairs are also good reasons to rent your violin. Taking care of a violin can be a meticulous task; one that younger players might not be enthused with. They might not be particularly careful with their instrument, either, so a rental contract with a built-in maintenance/repair clause could save you a lot of money.

There will be time later, after they've demonstrated their staying power, to invest in a quality instrument all their own.

When to Buy a Bigger Violin

Generally, fully grown violin players buy a new instrument for a variety of reasons: they want to try playing a new style of music - maybe venturing into jazz after playing classical violin for so long. Or they may invest in an electric violin and play some type of fusion music.

For a violin player who hasn't yet finished growing, this question is a bit more tricky.

You don't have to buy a new violin as soon as their arm becomes long enough to warrant it. As long as they can comfortably play the instrument they have, your growing violinist doesn't need a new one. Furthermore, nothing says you have to progress through the sizes; feel free to skip a size or two if your young player has just come out of a growth spurt.

The time to think about a bigger violin is when they're ready. You may also watch for their left elbow being too sharply bent, say, 90 degrees or more, and their fingers easily wrapping around the violin's scroll. Then, it's time to talk with them about a new instrument.

Naturally, a bigger violin demands bigger...

Shoulder rests are adjustable so you don't need to buy a new one when you buy a new violin
You shouldn't have to replace your shoulder rest if you buy a bigger violin. Source: Wikipeda Credit: NZs

What About Bows and Cases?

It seems like you should be able to play a 3/4 violin with a 1/2 bow - and you could, but not very well. A violin's bow size is matched to the instrument meaning that, if you're investing in a bigger violin, you'll also need a bigger bow.

Some music stores sell violins and bows as a complete instrument with a single price tag while others market them separately.

Price aside, that's rather nice because you can choose one with a different head - transitional, swan-billed or pike-head, or made from a different wood. It all depends on what type of music you play, of course, and what you're willing or able to pay.

Your new investment will also need a larger case.

Violin cases are crafted to cradle the instrument so it doesn't get bounced around during transport. Thus, it stands to reason that a larger violin will not fit well in a smaller case; the cushions and padding would hug in all the wrong places.

If your junior violin player uses a shoulder rest, you probably won't need to upgrade it if you have a model whose grip can be adjusted.

By the way, those grips can leave some nasty marks on your violin so it's best to clean your instrument properly and regularly.

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