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My son plays the violin. Recently, we saw that someone in the neighborhood is selling a viola, I don't remember the exact size, perhaps it was 1/4. Is it possible to string the viola using violin strings and to play it as a violin?

I know that an adult-sized viola is larger than an adult-sized violin, but are there any differences in the dimensions of a violin and a viola, so that maybe a 1/8 sized viola is equivalent to a say 1/4 sized violin?

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    This is a bad idea, don't do it – Neil Meyer Oct 19 '16 at 14:31
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    It isn't a bad idea at all. – Alphonso Balvenie Apr 6 '17 at 20:53
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Yes, it is absolutely possible to restring a smaller size Viola into a Violin. You will not damage the instrument by doing so.

Fractional size violins can roughly correspond with smaller size violas, although technically some will be slightly different in length.

  • 4|4 Violin = 14 inch Viola
  • 3|4 Violin = 13 inch Viola (Violin body often 13 ¼ inch)
  • 1|2 Violin = 12 ½ inch Viola
  • 1|4 Violin = 11 inch Viola

In most cases if the strings are good you can move the G D and A strings down and add a new E string.

The tension of viola strings run slightly higher than violin strings, so keeping them may be similar to moving to a higher tension violin set, although looking at a string tension chart there is some pretty wide variation of tensions by brand across the smaller size instruments.

Technically the body of the viola is usually deeper than a violin, but in some brands I've seen the only difference between the viola and violin models was the label inside, and what set of strings were put on. The dimensions were otherwise identical.

I haven't personally made a viola, but checking my measurement book it looks like the full size viola top plate is made slightly thicker. For mass manufactured student size instruments I seriously doubt that most models would have a different tooling than the violin plates.

Another difference you may see is the viola bridge can be set slightly higher than a violin bridge would be, up to a millimeter or so for the thicker strings.

If the viola you are converting does have a deeper body or thicker plates, there will be a tonal difference. In the mass manufactured student instrument market it is unlikely that the tonal difference will be significant.

If you have a hand made and plate-tuned smaller viola made by a trained Luthier, then I wouldn't recommend converting it, since it will have been made to respond to the viola tuning and it is better to keep that kind of instrument in the tuning it was designed for.

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    Yep. Over the years I've converted many a violin into a small viola by putting what's sold as a "1/2 viola" C string on the bottom and moving the G, D, and A strings up one notch. Should would perfectly well the other way around as well. – Scott Wallace Apr 7 '17 at 14:19
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I would not recommend it. Full size violins and violas have significantly different lengths, so you may end up in something with a similar length, but:

  • viola strings are thicker and not as tensely stretched
  • the instrument is optimized for different resonance frequencies.

So you would have to restring the instrument, risk damage due to higher tension and it is not guaranteed, that it sounds well afterwards.

Given, that viola players are typically in short supply in amateur orchestras (quite the opposite with violin players), your son could switch to viola, however. The teacher of our son regularly let her students try playing the viola - it's always possibly, that the student finds it more pleasing. The need to learn the alto clef is a disadvantage, however, even if some casual players use mental short cuts to map the score to treble key.

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    Humorous: "Mothers, don't let your children grow up to be violists.." Serious: the sooner a musician learns to read multiple clefs, the better. While alto clef is relatively rare (other than for viola), once a kid gets used to the concept of multiple clefs, the easier it gets to learn to read additional clefs, or to transpose from one key to another. – Carl Witthoft Oct 19 '16 at 11:32
  • Why is learning the alto clef a disadvantage? – Neil Meyer Oct 19 '16 at 13:39
  • Note that a small-sized viola will be designed to withstand the string tension when strung as a viola - and that will be lower than a full-size viola, because the strings are shorter. The fact that it is (approximately) the same size as a full-size violin doesn't mean it is built the same way as a full-size violin! – user19146 Oct 19 '16 at 14:03
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    @NeilMeyer - probably due to so much more music being available in treble, and to a lesser extent, bass clefs. If one only uses, say, alto clef, then one finds it more difficult to read others. I read treble and bass, but would struggle a bit with alto, as I'm not used to it. Yes, it's another trick up your sleeve, but I'd rather use my time more productively. – Tim Oct 19 '16 at 14:04
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    @NeilMeyer: I wish all musicians would be able to read music in any of the four clefs... – leftaroundabout Oct 19 '16 at 15:17
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I transitioned from violin to viola by playing a 3/4 size viola for a while. While the 3/4 viola (a Boosey and Hawkes, from memory) was nominally the same scale length as a 4/4 violin, the body was notably deeper.

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It's not an absolutely terrible idea, functionally speaking (14" viola = approx. 4/4 violin), but do keep in mind that this is mostly preferable for fractional instrument sizing.

Adult full size violas are much larger (most professionals play 16" or larger, a few play 15.5", and even fewer play 15"). Just be sure to use proper viola strings (you might need to have a viola bridge carved to accommodate the strings properly), and also be aware that the body of the violin is meant to resonate best at its intended frequencies, so the body is thinner than your average viola proportions and may not be as resonant especially in the lower frequencies.

In essence, it functionally works, but ends up being a sub-par instrument.

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Regardless of the size of the viola or violin they operate in different registrars. If you play violin for music written for viola you will find a whole lot of notes impossible to play. The lowest notes on a Viola is the c an octave below middle c where the violin only goes as low as the g below middle c.

Also even if you have music that fits the compass you may know also find that the fingering is all wrong and this may make music again either impossible or a whole lot harder than need be. This may be the case regardless of the size of the particular instrument

  • This is true, but I do think that the OP would attempt to put violin strings on the viola. – General Nuisance Oct 19 '16 at 13:41
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    If you want to raise the pitch of the instrument by a fifth, you absolutely need to use thinner strings - otherwise the string tension would be more than double what the instrument was designed for. – user19146 Oct 19 '16 at 14:05

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