Your Questions


New Question from AK:

Almost all chamber music appears to have various movements, in the usual form of fast - slow -fast. Why are there movements? And why do they alternate in this form?


The name “movement” comes from dance. In late Medieval and early Renaissance music a custom developed of playing dances in pairs – a slow dance followed by a fast dance. Then Baroque composers in Germany started stringing dances together in suites of 6 to 8 movements. What distinguished the suites from just a series of dances was that the movements of a suite shared some kind of tonal relationship. They belonged together. This remains a guiding concept of any multi-movement work.


Composers gradually started writing non-dance movements, emotion - based movements, which gave us titles like “Allegro” (happy) or “Grave” (solemn). They also started writing longer movements, which led to fewer movements.


Why alternate slow fast? Variety is necessary. No composer wants to bore his audience. Many of the decisions a composer makes are in the interest of keeping listeners hooked. If you give the audience too much of the same thing for too long, you lose them, and they start snoring!


There really aren’t rules about how to write something. There are patterns, and conventions, and most important to a composer, things that seem to work. (Ending a long work with a movement that is light and festive, or energizing and triumphant, for example.)


Why do musicians count? (SG)

To stay together. Unless the pulse is very steady, we count while we are playing. When we are not playing we count every measure. Every measure starts with count "one". Count one is always strong, and is also known as a downbeat, even if there is no conductor.


What’s the difference between a score and parts? (RT)

Can you play off a score?

A part is the music that is played by a single instrument – (violin, or bassoon, for example.) Most parts do not include the music for other instruments, unless the music is so complicated or unpredictable that the player needs cues.

A score shows every note that is played by every instrument in any ensemble. The parts are lined up in order from top to bottom, and the notes that are played together are also lined up from top to bottom. At any place in the score, the reader can tell what each instrument is playing, and will know how all the instruments sound together.

The reason we most often play off parts, is that the score format fills up a page much faster. So where a page of violin part might have 30 to 40 or more measures on it, a score might have 8 to 12 measures.

The two problems with players playing off a score are: 1) there are way too many page turns, and you have to stop playing to turn a page; and 2) everyone would be turning pages at the same time, which means the music would be full of gaps every 24 measures or so.


How do you stay together without a conductor? (GE)

We count beats and measures and watch each other. We also study the score and make sure we know every other player’s music. Then we play, and listen with our whole beings, and try to respond as quickly as possible when something unexpected happens, especially when it’s something magical and wonderful.


Is the violin/viola bow hold different from cello bow hold? (SB)

Yes! Most violinists use a bow hold that places the pinky on top of the stick of the bow, and that tips the right hand toward the tip of the bow. The cello bow hold curls the pinky over the stick, and the hand is positioned almost parallel to the stick of the bow.


Who created the dances to dance movements? (AM)

No single person that we know of. Some of the dances were formal court dances, and some were popular folk dances that made their way into court. Most European kings and nobles had court choreagraphers. Several of them wrote down the steps for these dances in the 1700s. There’s a good list of sources at


Was it acceptable that Mozart copied Haydn? (LGM)

Yes. Haydn was surely aware that Mozart had been paying close attention to his work. As they say, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". Mozart had the good sense to dedicate his Eb string quartet and five others, to Haydn, which probably helped keep their relationship amicable. Haydn was already famous, successful, and an established composer - something akin to being a rock star, today. Haydn understood that young Mozart had a gift that should be encouraged, not stifled. Haydn's letter to Mozart's father makes that clear: " I tell you, before God, as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name; he has taste, and moreover the greatest science in composition."


It seems that, although he started out following Haydn, Mozart surpassed him - is that correct? Mozart's music , in my mind, seemed more complex and, in my mind, is more famous. (LGM)



What's the difference between a violin and a viola? (FAQ)

The viola is bigger than the violin. Its pitch is lower than the violin, and the sound is somewhat darker. The viola provides a "voice" that fills the gap between cello and violin.


What determines who is first violin and who is second? Does first violin lead, and/or have more music? (LGM)

Yes, traditionally the first violin is leader, although all instruments lead at different times. Often, even after Haydn's innovation, the first violin has the melody a lot of the time, and has more "flashy" passages, with lots of fast notes and ornaments. Beethoven wrote many flashy first violin passages for Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the first violinist of the quartet that premiered many Beethoven's quartets.

Each group decides who will play first and who will play second. In many groups the violinists switch off sometimes during the course of a concert, although not within a single work. In our quartet, Colin and Piotr switch parts, so sometimes Colin plays 1st violin and sometimes Piotr does.


What does Opus mean? (Also written Op. or op.)

"Opus" technically means "work". The term is used for compositions that a composer has published. For most composers Opus 1 is the first piece that they consider worthy of publication. Usually, the Opus numbers will tell us the order or publication. There are several other important numbering systems, often named for a cataloguer of a composer's work, such as K### for Ludwig Kochel, who catalogued Mozart's work, D### or Otto Deutch, who catalogued Schubert's work, or H### for Anton von Hoboken, who catalogued Haydn's work. Incidentally, the only compositions of Haydn for which we still use Opus numbers, instead of Hoboken numbers, are the string quartets.


Do you have different music (sheets) for the different instruments? Could you switch sheet music? (RUS)

In chamber music each player has his own part. Each part is written in a specific musical clef designed for a specific instrument within its tonal range, so the only instruments in a string quartet which could switch parts are two of the same instrument - in this case, the two violins.