Composing and Arranging for String Quartets

Edited: November 21, 2017, 4:42 AM · I have scoured the planet for a text on composing (and, or, arranging) for the string quartet. Nothing, could I find.

Not even a text long out of print.

(And, in passing, nothing, even, for the string orchestra.)

One outcome of my success with the Weaver MacFarlane Choon Book has been requests for string quartet arrangements, particularly for schools. I can "learn on the job", (and, in response, have written six quartets in the past few weeks,) but I thought for certain someone would have published a text on this.

Sure, every orchestration book has a few pages on each string instrument, but it is all very "introductory".

And the application of harmony, part-writing and counterpoint, and form, to this genre is clear to me.

But, with its unique textures and technical demands, I am quite surprised composing for the string quartet has not been discussed in some depth.

Do you know of a book I could chase down?

Replies (19)

Edited: November 21, 2017, 7:31 AM · Just players guides. Try Editions Silvertrust for reviews and sound clips along with his Chamber Music journal articles. There are some good analyses of the standards : Beethoven and Haydn primarily republished by dover and norton if memory serves. Cobbett produced a comprehensive players guide.
As a BA in comp, my studies were primarily a subset of counterpoint and orchestration, not a goal in itself.
One of the reasons why I play all four instruments is to further my understanding of the form by playing for the very reason you expressed in your question.
Many composers viewed the quartet as a purer form of symphonic part writing and used the form to develop their part writing akills- and make a few marks, pounds, francs, lire, etc.
November 21, 2017, 10:09 AM · I cannot think of any specific rules for writing for the string quartet. I think what's most important is writing playable and interesting material.
Edited: November 21, 2017, 11:34 AM · Playability is important. Recently I was playing a piano quartet that was very obviously written by a pianist with limited sense of what works on string instruments. For example double or triple stops that required awkward fingerings and large jumps up and down the fingerboard, but with a little redistribution of notes between the string players became much easier to play. And therefore also better sounding.
Get a viola and learn the basics. ;-)
November 21, 2017, 7:56 PM · What about private lessons? Find a university professor who teaches composition who might be able to spend some time helping you analyze your first opus of quartets and understand where they are strong and weak. For a fee, obviously. It strikes me as glaringly inconsistent that we accept that the violin cannot be learned without ten years of weekly tutelage but somehow composition can be mostly self-taught after receiving the basic university courses in counterpoint and harmony.

If I were to write a quartet, I would start with a Haydn quartet and replace his themes with my own but retain as much of the remaining structure as possible. I think it would be instructive to see whether that is actually possible.

Edited: November 21, 2017, 8:40 PM · I remember as part of the program-talk from a quartet concert a few years ago that Faure was hesitant to write string quartets due to not wanting to walk in the shadow of Beethoven, or something along those lines. He eventually wrote one and it was quite amazing. Studying past master works is a great place to start. Didn't Stravinsky say something along the lines of 'Good composers borrow, great composers steal'?

When we looked at composing for string quartets the most useful tool we had was the chance to get live feedback from a professional quartet. If you can get feedback from the people who will actually play the parts then that is the best feedback you can get. Even better if you can get all 4 parts played at once by people who are competent.

My experience was with 'go do it' and then get feedback. Some of the most important pieces of feedback I received were the following:

1. The parts have to make sense on their own. If you play one of the parts and it doesn't make any sense by itself, ask why and if that is really what you want. Parts that don't make sense are hard on the performers.

2. Find the balance between too much and too little information. Too much information and the performers will ignore it. Too little and they will not do what you want.

3. No naked notes. Tell the performers how to play each note: Give a dynamic and articulation so no note is naked. This doesn't mean a new dynamic or articulation on every note, but tell the performers what they are doing in each passage.

4. Use pre-existing forms to start. Find a quartet you like, look at each movement, and copy the form. One of the best things that helped me as a composer was learning how the Sonata-allegro form worked.

5. Have someone else listen to it, or step away for awhile and come back to it after you have done some significant work. Sections that aren't quite right might not appear to be not quite right after you've heard them 20 times in isolation. I find I sometimes write in dissonances that I don't really notice because I've heard it so many times I don't pay it any attention and never get around to fixing it.

6. You're in charge of your composition. You can ultimately do whatever you want - throw the rules out the window. However, you need to be able to explain why. If you can't explain why, then how can someone else understand the music if you don't yourself?

If I remember when I get home I can check the syllabus from a relevant course to see if the professor listed anything that would be helpful - there was a reading list of optional texts as long as my arm.

November 21, 2017, 9:09 PM · Now, thank you. Much very good advice in the above respnses.

I play violin and cello, and am determined to do quite well on the cello, so I am reluctant to take up the viola (and the bass, too, blimey -- hats off to you, Edward!). There are just so many hours in a day. But, "go learn some viola" is good advice. If only I wasn't such a wimp.

Ruthless score study is always a key step for learning new applications, and I have my scores on order, along with CDs. Also, I have just spent hours studying the scores of the music prepared for our State school string orchestra, and that was helpful. (I was surprised at how simple many of the parts were, and I wonder about that.) Study everything you can. Good advice.

And, a local university violin teacher, with long experience in quartet playing, has just spent two hours with me, checking my six quartets, mostly for bowing. And that was a gift of gold from her.

Everyone who "Googles" "arranging for strings" will find two pdf files by Vince Corozine, and some of that is helpful (and much of it is very basic, speaking as an experienced arranger).

And I am devouring the Cambridge Companion to String Quartets, which has a "players guide" section. It is interesting, to me, but still not quite what I thought would be published, over the past 250 years, when Quartets were vastly important in chamber music.

November 21, 2017, 9:55 PM · Write what's on your mind, and see what happens. Anyone with some musical background could try composing music.
November 22, 2017, 9:12 AM · I did not realize that you play the violin and the cello. In that case you already know what is doable and not. You might still want to learn the viola, though. It is a great instrument ;-)
November 22, 2017, 10:10 AM · Of course the viola is a great instrument. Learn it if you want.
Edited: November 22, 2017, 10:34 AM · The clef is the only difficult adjustment. If you start with a small viola, violin will largely translate with some minor adjustment in bowing. The other option is learn alto on cello. You can play at the correct octave and it might be a little less mind blowing going from tenor or you can transpose down to bass clef which is a step off of bass.
November 22, 2017, 10:28 AM · The essential information is in any orchestration text-book. After that, scores of Beethoven, Mozart, Bartok, are the best model.
Be careful how you use the Viola. Novice arrangers use the C-string too much, or write too high on the A-string, as if it were just another violin. The Viola C and A strings I would consider as special effects, sounding very different from the Cello or Violin playing the same pitches. True music creativity is not taught, but the mechanics, music theory, is essential,learned by all successful composers.
November 22, 2017, 10:50 AM · What you will discover about the viola is that most things that you can do on the violin are a little bit harder on the viola just because most violas aren't as responsive as the violin and the finger stretches are larger. But then there are a *few* things that are *much* harder on the viola and these include double stops generally but especially octaves and tenths, but if you are writing string quartet music there won't be that many of those. And passages that involve a lot of high 4th finger in fist position on the viola are not especially friendly. Mainly you just have to remember the viola's A string is NOT like the violin's E string. Going way up there on the viola's A string usually sounds like crap.
Edited: November 22, 2017, 11:20 AM · On crappy violas with poorly matched strings played by poorly trained musicians.
As to fourth finger and double stops, small violas will be good enough for you to initially learn on and will facilitate your learning.
Unless you’re writing for middle school requirements, just write musically and follow the range tendencies of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven
December 4, 2017, 4:31 AM · Edward suggested "players guides". A week ago I received my copy of "String Quartet Playing: A New Treatise on Chamber Music, its techinique and interpretation". The book was first published in 1925, when string quartets were common at both amateur and professional levels.

The author, Mary Dows Herter Norton, provides many examples, and a engaging discussion, so it might be a dated book, and just one person's views, but reading the book and studying the examples is of great benefit to me, and I keep recalling Edward's advice.

And, plenty of evidence to support Michael's point about "no naked notes", is found in the examples.

I'm still waiting for my Haydn scores, but Tchaikovsky and Borodin have arrived, along with a matching CD.

Last, can I say I have upgraded from my Sibelius sounds, and replaced them with NotePerformer. I mention this because playing my current quartet arrangements and compositions with this much higher quality sound set has revealed shortcomings in my articulations,and dynamics,in particular. Today I reworked the bowing in one arrangement, with the new sound set, and it made a world of difference.

Edited: December 4, 2017, 9:02 AM · Graeme,
Lots of people post videos and ask for comments. Why don't you just send some sample work? I've taught theory and orchestration. Send a copy to me and I'll take a look.

Arranging for a quartet--or any group--really isn't rocket science. Well, ok, it's kind of like subjective rocket science. But anyway, you just have to keep a few basic principles in mind.

1. basic voice leading. Avoid parallel 5ths. And usually, parallel 8ves.
2. Try not to double either leading tones other tones with strong resolution tendencies, like a 7th.
3. Keep lower instruments spread farther apart than upper instruments. Violins can play in parallel thirds, but viola and cello should be wider, like 10ths.
4. Give everyone something interesting. Not just the first violin.
5. Show your work to musicians. The great composers did.

By the way, a couple of years ago, I set Beethoven's "Rage over a Lost Penny" for quintet/quartet. It's a lot of fun to play, and I don't think anyone else has done this. If anyone wants to play it, let me know and I may try to resurrect it if I can find it.

Edited: December 4, 2017, 9:11 AM · Last Resort Music Publishing Company has arranged a wide range of compositions for various instrument combinations up to string quartet. You might check out their list and select books from the series that contains compositions similar to the ones you want to rearrange - not a DIY book, but a possible guide.

By comparing what they have done with original scores (possibly from you might get some more ideas.

December 5, 2017, 2:58 AM · The following is advise from Carl Nielsen to a younger swedish composer (Bror Beckman):

“If you will accept a piece of advice from me, I would say: do
plenty of exercises in counterpoint and modulation – that will
purify, mature and strengthen your talent. And if you tackle the
larger forms, then you will find things easier in the smaller ones.
For example, as an exercise write a quartet just like the allegro
first movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 1. The same number
of bars, the same modulations and the same working-out all the
way through. You’ll see, it’s worthwhile. Or a Bach fugue!”.

It seems that Carl Nielsen had done this exercise when he was younger. Among his unpublished works there is a single movement in F major that fits the desciption.

December 5, 2017, 3:50 AM · "just like the ..."

Excellent advice. After reading all the books you like, analyse three very strong pieces, pieces that are so good you wish you had written them yourself; and then write your own pieces, guided by your analyses.

When I was learning to arrange for big bands, I digested the Dick Grove book (Arranging Concepts), and William Russo books; studied the scores published by Berklee, then wrote my own big band charts (Alan Broadbent was my favourite arranger in that collection of Berkley charts, and how I copied him!!!). The work I did paid off nicely, even though big bands faded quickly, being too expensive to maintain.

Fortunately I brought the same section writing skills and reharmonization knowledge to writing for concert bands, etc, etc.

A new book on counterpoint has just been published by Berklee (, and I have it on order.

The traditional approach to strict and free counterpoint was forged before people were so well schooled in harmony and part writing,and in a context where dissonance is more readily accepted, so I long to see an approach that builds upon strong harmony skills, rather than "evolve harmonic awareness" as you work through the five species.

Unstitching models will address the peculiarities of the string quartet. But, I remain surprised no-one has published a "composers' guide". Ah well. We'll all cope, won't we.

Edited: December 15, 2017, 11:00 PM · Take some of Bach's 371 chorales (or any SATB church hymns) and transcribe them for quartet. You may want (or need) to change the key in order to get better (more playable) fingerings (and/or string crossings). Take popular old-time songs from the "Blue Book of Favorite Songs" and score them for quartet. In those cases, changing a piano part to a quartet may mean reducing the piano part to just four lines, or thickening a thin accompaniment to accommodate what a quartet can do. In general (in the beginning, until you have a specific reason NOT to so), keep to the same rules as to four-part SATB choral writing (everything you leaned in music theory class about voice-leading, avoiding parallel fifth and octaves, avoiding direct fifth and octaves, leaps are generally followed by steps in the opposite direction, consecutive leaps outlining a chord, avoiding leaps of sevenths and of augmented and diminished intervals, etc.): each violin and viola can be up to an octave one from another; with the cello being as much as two octaves lower than the viola. Try to write idiomatically for the instruments, making use of appropriate open strings (or 4th fingers), harmonics, double-stops, etc. as needed. Start with small projects and get bigger as you get comfortable with the process.

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