New study: Who’s in charge in a string quartet?

New study: Who’s in charge in a string quartet?


norman lebrecht

January 29, 2014

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have been putting their minds around one of the great mysteries of the universe. They set up the following study:

‘In two separate case studies, two internationally recognized string quartets repeatedly performed a short excerpt from the fourth movement of Haydn’s quartet Op. 74 no. 1, with intentional, but unrehearsed, expressive variations in timing.’

And what do you think they discovered? Leadership varies from one quartet to another, one moment to the next.

Full report here from a BBC science reporter.

Bristol Ensemble Quartet


  • Thank you for that, I read this headline to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”

  • A piece on this was run on this morning’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4; it was prefaced with an audio clip from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in a performance by its customary forces and not in an arrangement for string quartet. I do not know how many people emailed BBC to report that gaffe, but…

  • Jonathan Dore says:

    To have a proper control they would need to test quite a few different passages from music from a variety of periods, because leadership would naturally vary according to how the music is written (you can’t lead if you’re not playing, or mostly playing long holding notes or accompanying figures). In Haydn the difference in the leadership potential written-in to the parts would, I suspect, vary more widely than in, say, the Bartok quartets.

  • Tor Frømyhr says:

    Who would have thought? That could change the way we coach String Quartets. University researchers can be so useful sometimes.

  • Silly question; everyone knows it’s the violist who leads, even when not actually playing.

  • Don’t they have machines to do that nowadays?