I am aware that I cannot expect absolute, definitive answers but there appears to be some common patterns. Are the following reasonably reliable and what can be added?

Clarification: I am primarily interested in classical music here. I am aware that these terms may have very different uses in other genres e.g. jazz.

When I say X is Y, I will mean that it is a reasonable expectation and not a certainty.


A piano sonata is work for a piano alone.

An X sonata (X is not piano) is a duet for X and piano.

Clarification: I am aware that sonata may indicate more than just the instrumentation but it is only the instrumentation that I am asking about here. In other words, what is the most likely instrumentation of an X sonata?

Update: I was thinking of a fairly restricted period. In early music, there is rather more variation in the usage of sonata. Of course, literally it is just something played as opposed to a cantata (something sung). Also of possible relevance is whether X is monophonic or polyphonic. If X is polyphonic then it is likely than an X sonata is for solo X.

X quartet

A string quartet is a work for two violins, viola, and cello.

An X quartet where X is a specific instrument drops one of the strings and adds an X. I know some exceptions e.g. a clarinet quartet which is actually for four clarinets (one bass).

Update: for some X, a single X plus strings is less likely. You may need to consider whether X is commonly combined with strings.

X quintet

String quintet adds a fifth string instrument to a string quartet. Most often another viola or cello but occasionally a double bass or a third violin.

X quintet where X is a specific instrument is a work for that instrument and a string quartet.

Update: a similar comment to that in X quartet applies.

Wind quintet - I don't see much pattern here. Wholly or mostly wind instruments probably not all brass or it might be called a brass quintet.

Trout quintet is a work for a trout and a string quartet (or maybe not, exceptions occur).


A string trio is a work for three strings probably violin, viola, and cello.

A piano trio is a work for piano, violin, and cello.

An X trio is less clear maybe X, piano, and cello.

An interesting case is Beethoven opus 11 which can be a piano trio (piano, violin, and cello) or a clarinet trio (piano, clarinet, and cello).


I would hesitate to guess what an X duo was. Maybe similar to sonata.

Sextet and beyond

I don't think that these forms are common enough to say a lot about them. A string n-tet is probably a work for n string instruments. Obviously an X n-tet would include an X but I would less confident what other instruments but maybe all strings. Wind n-tet would even more unpredictable than wind quintet.

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    Sonata does not imply piano. X-tets can contain any instruments. There are common conventions but no definite restrictions, especially not in jazz or modern classical music. – Pyromonk Jan 16 '19 at 10:50
  • I am aware of the form meaning of sonata but I am only interested in the instrumentation here. I did not mean that an unqualified sonata was necessarily for a piano just that a "piano sonata" was probably for solo piano and that an "X sonata" was probably for X and piano. If you know some exceptions then I would be interested. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 10:59
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    I added some clarifications. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 11:04
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    There is too much here for me to correct with my thumbs in my phone. Instrumentation doesn’t necessitate form; names of pieces are not decided by instruments but by form (during classic period). You exclude / ignore so many things. Trout quartet is definitely not for “trout”. Really? – jjmusicnotes Jan 16 '19 at 11:21
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    Well yes. The form is important but nonetheless it is common to indicate the instrumentation to some extent in the title. This is the aspect that interests me in this question. I am familiar with one trout quintet (Schubert) but no trout quartet. Is that for a trout and three strings, four trout, or one trout and three other fish. I did indicate at the top that I did not expect certainty. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 11:25

A wind quintet is pretty much standardized unit (similar to string quartet), consisting of flute, clarinet, oboe, basson and French horn. A brass quintet is something different however.

An X trio/quartet/... may just as (if not more) often mean an ensemble of n times X (possibly in different sizes/variants, e.g. recorder quartet). This also applies e.g. Kegelduette (skittle duos) by Mozart for two basset horns.

An X sonata is most likely a sonata for X solo (e.g. Weiß, Lute sonatas) if a polyphonic instrument is mentioned. For monophonic instruments the combination of X with piano is an exception: especially for the baroque period, basso continuo (b.c.) is the most likely accompaniment, which may be executed by a lute, a violoncello, a viola da gamba, a harpsichord/chamber organ or a combination of those. (Somethimes cembalo obligato is used to emphasize that the harpsichord does not only work as continuo but has an equivalent part). In ambiguous cases (Bach violin sonatas) "for violin solo" is added to distinguish them from the sonatas for violin and harpsichord.

  • Thanks. I was aware of some wind quintets of that composition but not enough to judge whether it was predominant. The recorder point is good, I would have expected a record quartet to be one recorder and a string trio. However, my first guess of a clarinet quartet would be one clarinet and a string trio but I am aware of clarinet quartets for four clarinets. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 11:21
  • Thanks again. Indeed, I appear to have been considering a fairly restricted period when considering sonatas. If X is monophonic instrument, e.g. flute, is it still likely that an X sonata is for solo X? I would probably guess that a lute sonata was for solo lute and I would not expect a harpsichord sonata to include a piano. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 11:26
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    Then there are "suites," which can be almost anything. Especially the collection of "Suite[s] for cello All By Its Lonesome" – Carl Witthoft Jan 16 '19 at 13:06
  • @CarlWitthoft Yes, with a suite, I make no assumptions about the instrumentation. – badjohn Jan 16 '19 at 16:23

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