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I have major problems with writing for the string quartet. I have studied 4-part-writing for some time now, but I still have very little clue about how to expand from the basic chorale texture, where almost every beat has a new chord.

Usually I start the quartet with a melody, whether it's in the high register or not, and the I write the bass and finally fill in the harmony parts. But I find it hard to write interesting harmony parts that complement the melody and the bass line. Whenever I apply embellishments to my basic structure, the music starts to sound random and disjointed, because I don't know what kind of parts could complement the main parts. I just try out some different embellishments and rhythms and sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds horrible.

The question really is, that what is your process when writing for a string quartet, or for an ensemble of similar kind? And how do you expand from the boring chorale-type harmonizations? I'm asking this because I think that I have some flaws in my approach to writing.

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Writing a string quartet is a goal of mine too. I can't advise from a background of finished quartets, but I can share what I've tried to get there.

But first, I think don't keep trying to adapt chorales. Certainly you can play chorales with a string quartet, and it sounds nice, but the texture is different than the typical string quartet. For example, in quartets you will have a lot of broken chord, broken third, repeated note accompaniment patterns that never appear in a chorale.

Another big difference is form. A chorale is usually a few phrases that modulate quickly to related keys. There usually isn't a lot of repeated and varied phrase structure which is what you will find in a quartet. In a quartet you will commonly have sonata, minuet da capo, and rondo forms. Periodic phrases and recapitulation will be important structural devices.

This is what I have tried:

  • write minuets first (16 bars), the work up to the trio with da capo repeat. Structurally this is the smallest part of the quartet. If it can't be handled, the other forms will probably be too much. Try writing "sketches" rather than working out completely the final, four parts to shift the focus onto the formal structure which is the real concern of composition.
  • write short phrases of complete four part settings with attention to the distribution of melodic elements among the four instruments. I used Mozart for my exercise. What I saw frequently is the main melodic interest is often in one or two voices with the others playing very simple accompaniments. Melodic stuff can often be doubled in two parts in thirds or octaves.
  • Copy quartet scores into a notation program. This may seems like a waste of time, because your aren't making any compositional choices. But, when you copy note for note from the score - which is very tedious! - you force yourself to be much more aware of the contents of the composition. I did this with the opening of Ravel's string quartet and saw things I hadn't really paid attention to before when only reading/listening to the score. I then tried writing a quartet opening of my own modeled on the features I saw in Ravel's.
  • Do analysis of quartets and write harmonic reductions. You should find that the harmonic phrasing and harmonic rhythm is simpler in a classical quartet than in a chorale. Very broadly speaking four bars of a chorale will have lots of harmonic movement whereas four bars of a string quartet will sometimes be not more than tonic/dominant harmony. Texture-wise a chorale is more contrapuntal, a quartet more homophonic.

I'm thinking mostly of Haydn and Mozart for the quartet models and comparison to chorales. A Romantic era composer like Brahms might provide better models for expanding a chorale texture to a quartet.


I had one other thought. If you, like myself, are not a string player, try to familiarize yourself with the string instruments. Get a cheap violin if you can, or a mandolin which has the same string tuning an neck scale. Knowing about how the bow feels, fingerings, etc. puts you in better touch with how to write for strings. Connect with anyone who plays strings for advice or just for super close listening. I had a friend in college who played cello. I would pester him to play the Bach cello suites. I could site right next to him, read the score along with his playing. I tried to write little things in the same vein and he would play them... such as they were.

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  • Imho when learning a form studying the existing works in that form is invaluable. Imagine trying to write a song without ever having heard a song before! I suggest enhancing and/or adding the concept of reading and listening to other quartets as a way to understand what can be done. Sometimes stealing ideas is very helpful, other times finding ideas that no one seems to have had before is the big breakthrough. – Todd Wilcox Jan 15 at 18:02
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The string quartet is an inherently contrapuntal medium, and having four relatively similar sounding instruments making it harder to pick out the counterpoint actually makes it more necessary to have counterpoint, not less.

If you are thinking of having a melody, a bass, and harmony parts, then you're thinking of writing for a quartet all wrong. Although it won't quite turn out that way, you should think of writing for a quartet as writing four separate melody parts that happen to be related and all go together.

I have written an exaggeration - humans don't do very well at following four melody lines at once. At any given time, you're going to have more important lines and less important lines. There will be passages where one instrument carries the melody for a few measures. However, an effective quartet generally has the focus moving from one instrument to another quite regularly.

I would say that you should be ready to write a fugue when you write your first quartet. If you haven't written a fugue - try that as an exercise (and if you want to write your fugue for quartet, that's fine).

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  • At least when I look at Mozart/Beethoven/Schubert/Dvorak string quartets, I still see string quartet music as melody, harmony parts, and maybe a bassline. The melody is easily passed between instruments, but harmony parts that reinforce homophony instead of polyphony are still continually present. – Dekkadeci Jan 16 at 15:29
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It might be a good idea to try arranging before composing. Getting to know how a melody could be split across the ensemble and how the parts interact is exciting.

You could start with something simple like Pachelbel's canon. This is a good song to start with a bassline and slowly add more complexity.

A more complicated cannon is Bach's Little Fugue in G-minor which starts from the top-down and has a ton of harmonization. While written for organ, this is a foundational song in the Canadian Brass' brass-quintet repertoire and has been with them since they formed so it's obviously good for a small ensemble.

Anything big like organ music will generally have lots of parts to choose from. Symphonies work really well too. These will be ripe with melodies which jump between sections, counter melodies, and supporting baselines and chords. You really get to make lots of creative choices about what to include and what to skip. Some movements of Pictures at an Exhibition come to mind as something that would be fun to adapt for string quartet (it was such an exciting piano score that Ravel arranged it for a full Orchestra).

In my process, I start with original sheet music which I painstakingly enter into my music typesetting software with a keyboard. While extremely tedious, this lets my mind wander so that I consider each phrase that I'm typing, thinking of how it could sound with each instrument and how it could fit into a small ensemble. Eventually I get to the fun task of splitting up the phrases, adding some gaps, filling in others. Discovering how how/why certain counter-melodies harmonize is also a eureka moment. Also when there are fewer than four simultaneous parts, it's also fine to have one player sit-out for a moment, or to double-up on parts. Maybe the viola can play with the cello to emphasis the low-end.

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