How string quartets stay together

STAYING IN SYNC  Some ensembles are more autocratic — following one leader — while other musical groups are more democratic, making corrections equally, to stay together while playing a piece. 


String quartet players continuously adjust the timing of their notes to stay in sync. But exactly how players do it has been unclear. New data tracking millisecond-scale corrections suggests that some ensembles are more autocratic — following one leader —while other musical groups are more democratic, making corrections equally. Researchers had two well-established quartets play Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet op. 74 no. 1.

Recordings from a short section of a movement showed that in one quartet, three players always followed the first violin, while the other ensemble shared the roles of leader and follower more equally, researchers report January 29 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. In both quartets, the cellist made the largest rhythmic leaps to stay with the group, seeming to counter the idea that the cello provides the basic rhythm for small ensembles.

More research is needed to see whether that pattern holds up, but the analysis is a step forward in understanding the dynamics among conductorless musical ensembles.

In a more autocratic quartet (top), violin 1 tended to influence the timing of other players more than she was influenced herself. Arrows show the influence that one player (arrow tail) has over another (arrow head). A.M. Wing et al, Adapted by M. Atarod

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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