By: Maya Lorenzen
The violin; A 4-stringed instrument that, when played skillfully, can do anything from making you cry to making you feel like dancing. It fits like a glove into large symphony orchestras as well as anything from indy to metal bands and is played by so many people around the world. Its versatility is just one of the reasons why it is such a popular instrument and why so many people want to play it.
But if you are an absolute beginner, choosing which of all the different types of violin you should start with can be really tricky. Violins come in many sizes, shapes, and forms, so how do you choose what type of violin is best for you? Luckily, I am here to give you more clarity about your options and help you decide!
Let’s start with a little bit of background:
The violin that we play nowadays is a modernized version of older instruments such as the rabab and rebec which were widely used in Spain and France during the fifteenth century. The violin as we know it today was first presented to the world in the 16th century and has gone through a lot of further developments and improvements since. Through the development of the modern violin, there have been a lot of different types of violins and also different types of violin bows.
The history of the violin is fascinating and I highly recommend to read a bit more about it here!
Different types of violins
The caustic violin, as mentioned above, is a modernized version of the rabab and the rebec that was used in Spain and France in the fifteenth century.
The acoustic violin has a wooden body and a sound box through which the sound is produced. It is usually hand-made by a violin maker, but can also be made in a factory. The acoustic violin has 4 strings that are made from gut, perlon, or steel. It also has a bow to draw the sound across its strings.
The bow is a tensioned stick with hair that is usually horse tail hair. Its ends are called the tip and the frog. The frog, which holds the near end of the horsehair, is usually made of ebony, but also sometimes contains ivory and tortoiseshell.
The acoustic violin isn’t played with any external equipment- part of the player‘s job is to create the sound that they wish for, using the instrument and the room they are in in the best way possible.
The electric violin, which was first created much later than the acoustic one, started gaining popularity in the 20th century.
Even though it's called a violin, it is quite different from the one we talked about previously.
While the acoustic violin is made out of wood, the electric violin is crafted using more modern materials and techniques. It doesn’t have a sound box as the acoustic violin does because its sound is directly transferred to the amplifier through a pickup. This gives electric violin manufacturers the freedom to build the violin in different interesting shapes and sizes, which makes it very distinguishable from the acoustic violin.
The electric violin sounds very different from the acoustic one.
The quality of its sound depends not only on the manufacturer which is the equivalent of the luthier/ violin maker but on the quality of the amplifier, the pick up, etc. That's why if you decide to get an electric violin, you should make sure that you get a good pick up and a good amp - all these parts come into play if you want to sound your best!
Similarly to an electric guitar, electric violins also have pedals that allow you to change its sound.
In short: it is played similarly to the acoustic violin even though it looks quite different. However, it sounds quite different and is more popular in different music genres than classical such as pop, rock, metal, indy, etc.
The violin is part of a larger family called the violin family which has 3 members in it: violin, viola, cello. Another instrument that you may think about in this context is the double bass, which belongs to the string family - not directly to the violin family. However, I think it is worth mentioning which is why there is a little section dedicated to it down below.
These 4 instruments make up the string section of every orchestra. These instruments are (almost always) hand-made by very skillful luthiers. They have a wooden body, strings that are made out of gut, perlon, or steel, a sound box through which the sound is produced, and a bow to draw the sound across its strings.
There are also different types of bows- they vary in size and slightly shape in order to fit each of these instruments. The strings of the violin family can also be played by plucking the strings which are called “pizzicato”.
The violin is the smallest instrument of them all, and it is also the highest in pitch. The violin is often the instrument that plays the melody, as well as the faster, more virtuosic parts. Because of its size and the relatively small distances between the notes, it is easier to play more quickly and more lightly on the violin rather than on the bigger instruments of this group.
I see the viola as being the violin’s older sister who has a beautiful, rich, lower voice. It is held similarly to the violin - on the shoulder, but its strings are slightly different: it has a low C string and lacks the high E string that the violin has, thus creating an overall lower range.
In many pieces that include the violin family, the viola plays the part that glues everything together: both in range because it sits exactly between the violin and the cello, and with its part - the viola’s part is often rhythmically and harmonically crucial to the work as a whole, thus making it an incredibly significant part of the family.
The cello is a much larger instrument than both the violin and the viola, it also has 4 strings and they are similar in pitch to those of the viola with a “little” difference: they are tuned an octave lower than the ones on the viola, giving it a far lower range of notes.
Unlike the violin or the viola but similar to the double bass, the cello is played sitting down and has an endpin that rests on the floor to support the instrument's weight. Cellists enjoy a large range of repertoire from virtuosic solo works, through beautiful and challenging parts in chamber music and orchestral works.
The double bass actually doesn’t directly belong to the violin family because its origins aren’t the violin but an instrument that’s called the Viol. however, it belongs to the string family which is why I think it is worth mentioning here. The double bass is the largest instrument of the string family and it is played similarly to the cello: sitting down - often on a high chair because of its size, using an endpin that rests on the floor to support its weight.
In contrast to all the other instruments of the strings family, not all double basses have 4 strings; in fact, most of the double basses that are played in orchestras have 5 strings! These double basses are as widely used as the ones with 4 strings. The strings are also tuned differently than all the other instruments’ strings: while the strings of the violin, viola, and cello are tuned in fifths, the double bass strings are tuned in fourths.
The double bass is an inseparable part of any jazz band, as well as any symphony and chamber orchestra. It also stars in many beautiful chamber music settings such as “The Trout” by Franz Schubert and “The Carnival Of Animals” by Saint- Saëns.
Different types of violins by size
As you take your first steps in playing the violin, you might find the full-size violin to be a bit too big. Luckily though, there are different sizes of violins, so you can find something that will fit you at any phase of your journey!
The full-sized violin is marked as a 4/4, but the smallest violin is size 1/16 - a 16th in size of the full-size violin! It’s small and compact - perfect for young beginners who want to start playing at the age of 3-4. The next violin in size 1/ 8 which is great for the ages of 4-6, then comes the 1/4, the 1/2, the 3/4, and eventually the full-size violin.
If you want to find out what size you need right now, I would highly recommend finding a reliable violin shop and getting personalized advice on that. If you don’t have access to one or just want to get a head start, here are a few tips that will help you figure out what size to get:
Most adults and children above the age of 12 will require a full-size violin. What size you end up needing depends on the lengths of your arm. You should be able to hold the violin easily and reach all the notes comfortably with your left hand.
While holding the violin, stretch your left arm and wrap it around the curve of the scroll. If this feels comfortable - congratulations! You’ve found the right size.
If you find, however, that you can’t reach it or can't hold it comfortably in this position- the violin might be too large. If there is a very large space between your hand and the scroll - the violin might be too small.
Another way to check what size you would need is by measuring yourself from the next to the wrist and using this chart to determine what size would fit you best:
LENGTH (Neck to Wrist)
33.5 cm or less, 13¼ inches
36 cm, 14 ¼ inches
38.5 cm, 15 ¼ inches
44 cm,17 ¼ inches
48.5 cm,19 inches
52 cm, 20 ½ inches
54 cm, 21 ¼ inches
While there are several types of violins, it is highly recommended to start with an acoustic one. After building a solid foundation - one that allows you to play with comfort and ease, changing to an electric violin if you choose to, will be incredibly easy.
Choose your favorite instrument of the violin family, figure out what size you need by using the information above and getting help from a certified luthier, and have fun embarking on this incredible journey!
A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) since 2016, Israeli/German violinist Maya Lorenzen has performed around the world as a soloist and ensemble player. She is a prize-winner of the 2016 Karl-Adler Competition (Germany) and the 2013 Mehta Chamber Music Competition (Israel). Since 2004, she has received annual awards and scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.
To sign up for violin lessons with Maya, check out her Tonara Connect profile here.