At most, in a string quartet, I've seen 4 flats or sharps. Now I have been told that this is because C major, G major, D major and A major are the easiest keys on a string instrument because they have the most open strings and the next easiest would be F major, Bb major, and Eb major.

And of course the parallel minors of C, G, D, and A are relatively easy on a string instrument as well.

I have also been told that unlike on a piano which uses equal temperament, string instruments use just intonation which means that a violinist has no desire to play C# major for example but for a pianist it is just as desirable as any other key is. I don't know why the tuning system would make certain keys not desirable. But the open strings makes sense, less fingerings so it is easier to play in C major which has all the open strings than F minor which has just C and G as open strings. F# major is actually the only key with no open strings at all. But then why is C minor relatively easy? It has only 2 open strings also. I guess it has to do with the parallel key of C major being easy.

So, if I were to compose a string quartet which I plan to do at some point, no matter how much I like the key of C# major, I should probably avoid it at all costs and use C# major for a woodwind quartet or a piano piece instead, right and as a rule of thumb never go above 4 accidentals for a string quartet and instead try to reach the expressiveness of keys with more accidentals in other ways(such as a cello solo or lots of other ways).

But is it just the open strings as I speculate it is as to why I don't see string quartets composed in keys with more than 4 sharps or flats?

  • 1
    A quick flick through the many strings quartets on my iPod finds no exceptions but, not counting enharmonic variations, up to 4 flats or sharps includes 9 of the the 12 possible keys. I would expect that a large proportion of all music is in these keys. How much music can you name in F# or Gb? Even 75% of the Well Tempered Clavier is in these keys.
    – badjohn
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 22:52
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    You seem to consider open strings as an unconditional benefit. Actually they are not, since then the minor adjustments to get a major/minor third a bit bigger/smaller are not possible easily. Note also, that more accidentals means increased difficulty. Since there was not the strong bias to professional musicians we have today, amateurs may simply not have bought the scores.
    – guidot
    Commented Aug 31, 2018 at 23:31
  • I would turn the question around: what would be the point of having more than four accidentals? What advantage does C# major have over C major? It's just harder to play. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 9:01
  • @ScottWallace sometimes writing in strange or unfamiliar keys can lead us to come up with different ideas, avoid falling into familiar patterns, but broadly I agree with you (and will shamefully admit that I hate playing music in difficult keys because I find it hard to think in them
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 0:29

1 Answer 1


It's not just about open strings. It's something to do with overall familiarity.

Consider "first position" on a violin, the first one we ever learn. The four fingers are positioned to play a major second, major third, perfect fourth, and perfect fifth above the open string. Using the open strings tuned in fifths, one can play a major scale on two strings with just three fingers.

It's not hard to move a finger to play C instead of C# on the A string, or Bb instead of B. But if the first finger has to play A# while the fourth finger is playing G# on the string below, that's not only a considerable stretch for smaller hands, but it lacks any familiar reference points. C Major notes, even the ones not played on open strings, serve as anchors to keep everything in tune.

I can't speak for cellists or violists, or for more experienced violinists. But I'm fairly sure no one will want to be your friend if you compose for a string quartet in C# Major.

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    To be honest, contrary to what OP mentioned in his question, I doubt it would make you any friends in a woodwind quartet either. Probably less of an issue that with strings, but still...
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 0:31

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