So, I am writing a Scherzo in the key of Eb major for a string quartet. And I was just thinking about what to do for the B section of my Scherzo, both in key and time signature. I was thinking that for the time signature, I should maybe do a change from 2/4 to 6/8. Now I could just do that, keeping the quarter note speed at 160 quarter notes per minute and thus changing the tempo of the 6/8 section to 107 BPM. But, that is going to slow down the 6/8, possibly to the point where it feels like 6 beats rather than 2. I want to keep the tempo the same in the 6/8 section as in the 2/4 section, 160 BPM, so as to keep the feel of Allegro vivace going.

To do this, the speed of the quarter notes has to change to a faster speed. There are 3 ways I could convey this to the string quartet players. I'm not sure though which way to do it. Here are the 3 different ways I could convey this tempo conservation:

Option 1: Have the Time Signature imply the change in quarter note speed

This would be the simplest route. I wouldn't have to write down anything but the time signature change. But, what are the chances that the string quartet ensemble is going to conserve the 160 BPM tempo in a time signature change from 2/4 to 6/8? Pretty minimal right? Most likely thing to happen here would be that the 6/8 would be slowed down(just like how, when I see a time signature change from 4/4 to 2/2, the 2/2 generally speaking feels faster than the 4/4, even if only the time signature change is indicated).

Option 2: Metric Modulation relative to the quarter note

Metric Modulation is just what it sounds like. The tempo is conserved but the note value getting the beat changes, thus giving the feel that the music is going faster or slower. In this case, having it relative to the quarter note, I should probably have a switch back to 2/4 towards the end of the B section, towards the Scherzo Da Capo. So I would put in this marking at the time signature switch to 6/8 and back to 2/4(6/8 on the left, 2/4 on the right):

enter image description here

Option 3: Metric Modulation relative to the eighth note

Same idea as with Option 2, but with the eighth note being the note value that everything is relative to. I do use a lot of eighth notes and dotted rhythms in the 2/4 section, so it might make sense to use the eighth note as the basis for the Metric Modulation which would mean this:

enter image description here

and vice versa for the switch back to 2/4. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do the eighth note metric modulation as indicated in my Musescore software. The only real way to get that would be to make everything but the 2 eighth notes and triplets invisible, put in an equal sign via text, do an image capture, and then add that image to the Musescore palatte. And then I would have to do the same thing for the reverse. It is a lot more work.

Out of these 3 options, which one would be the best for getting across what I want(tempo being conserved while time signature changes) to a string quartet? Just letting the time signature imply the change, Metric Modulation relative to the quarter note, or Metric Modulation relative to the eighth note?

  • 2
    Did you consider notating the "Ebm" section in D#m instead? That might be easier on string players. Regardless, since the issue with the key signature is irrelevant to your question, I recommend editing it out of the OP. Jan 4, 2020 at 17:59
  • Did you consider merely notating the 2/4 section as 6/8 and dotted crotchets? The quavers you might have in 2/4 bars then become 6/8 duplets. Jan 4, 2020 at 19:31
  • @AndrewLeach No, I haven't considered that. I don't often see duplets in 6/8(though maybe that's because I don't see nearly as much in 6/8 as I do in 2/4 and most of what I do see in 6/8 sort of amounts to a waltz rhythm in 2/4), I normally see 3 note groupings that, if in 2/4 would be triplets.
    – Caters
    Jan 4, 2020 at 19:41
  • I find #2 so standard in notation that I was surprised that MuseScore didn't have it as an automatic glyph. That said, in classical, I've also seen simply using triplets in the duple meter. See, for example, the 1st Movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It's rarely if ever notated in 12/8.
    – trlkly
    Jan 5, 2020 at 6:19
  • Musescore does have #2 as a "Metric modulation" glyph, and it can usually act on that sort of thing with its own playback. Musescore 3.3.4 appears not to do that: quavers simply carry on at the same speed. Jan 5, 2020 at 8:48

4 Answers 4


I'd use your second option: metric modulation relative to the quarter note.

With no notation at all, the unwritten convention I've witnessed is actually to assume a quarter note (or an eighth note, etc.) has the same tempo value throughout, so 2/4 to 6/8 does indeed have the duple meter feel slow down. On the other hand, at least there aren't many complaints about how to handle a series of changes from 4/4 to 3/4 to 5/4 to 7/8! Therefore, I do not recommend letting the time signature imply the change--it often doesn't.

The only time I've seen multiple notes on the same side of the equals sign is in swing notation, so I don't recommend your use of metric modulation relative to the eighth note.


I agree with @Dekkadeci that this option is a good option: enter image description here

That kind of change is common and easy to understand.

@Caters Now regarding the key signatures. E♭ minor is fine on piano because it can fit the hands very well. But as you indicated it is not so nice on the strings. Why not make the whole thing a half step lower by changing the keys to D major and D minor. That will be very good on the strings. Another option is a half step higher, E major and E minor, but the D major/minor option is especially good I would say.

  • And yet another option is to not use the parallel minor at all but rather the relative minor. Most Scherzi and other pieces in Scherzo form that I hear such as the Beethoven's Ninth Scherzo, Bagatelle in C minor, etc. use the parallel minor and major for their minor-major shifts. But some, such as the Scherzo from Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 3 use the relative minor instead. Using the relative minor of C minor for the 6/8 section would keep the minor-major shift, keep the tonic of Eb major, and make it easy on the string instruments.
    – Caters
    Jan 4, 2020 at 19:35
  • @Caters Yes you can certainly do that. Jan 5, 2020 at 10:47

Option 2 for the tempo indication. It's the beat that matters. You're saying 'quqrter beat becomes dotted-quarter beat'. Probably what the players would assume, but good to spell it out.

No, I wouldn't inflict 6 flats on a string quartet! In this age of free-ranging and even atonal music they are quite accustomed to playing any notes in any order at all. But if, as I suspect, you're writing in a tonal style, there seems little reason for E♭ minor.

If your ear hears a 'parallel minor' move, MUST you start in Eb major? Why not D major or E major? But there are plenty of other places to go. You can go to the parallel minor for the Trio if you like. It's not required. (Is it even THAT common?) If there is a 'rule' for a Scherzo and Trio it's that, as a descendent of the classical Minuet and Trio, it's in a fast 3 time. You're breaking that rule! (And that's just fine.)

(If you DID want the two-8ths = three-8ths metric modulation, MuseScore will do it with a bit of editing and the Special Characters menu. The triplet number is trickier - not saying MuseScore can't manage it, but I haven't worked out how yet! You wouldn't need it anyway. 8th groups in 6/8 aren't triplets. Otherwise music in 6/8 would be knee-deep in triplet numbers.)

enter image description here

  • Most of the Scherzi I have heard went to the parallel minor/major for the trio. Not just Beethoven Scherzi either. Scherzi going to the parallel key for the Trio: Beethoven's Ninth Movement 2, Bagatelle in C minor WoO 52, Beethoven's Fifth Movement 3, Chopin Scherzo no. 1 in B minor, etc. Scherzi going to the relative key for the Trio: Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 3 Movement 3, probably a few others. So yeah, the parallel key is pretty common for the Trio, more so than the relative key. But that doesn't mean mine can't be in Cm for the Trio instead of Ebm since Cm is easier on strings.
    – Caters
    Jan 5, 2020 at 0:42

As a former string quartet professional, I'd also go with option two. Yes, it's the beat that matters, and this most clearly and simply conveys that. Regarding key, it depends on the sonority you want from the strings. Keys with lots of accidentals tend to somewhat mute the sound of the string instruments. This has to do with the sympathetic vibrations of the open strings and their overtones. This is why Mozart wrote the viola part for his Symphonia Concertante in scordatura D Major, to get a brighter sound from the viola than the Eb key would allow. Also, the higher tuning puts more tension on the strings, which also brightens the sound.

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