Communications about Musical Structure in Professional String Quartet Rehearsal

Su Yin Mak (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) has graciously allowed us to post the video of the paper she delivered this past Fall at SMT in Vancouver.  The paper was presented in a session chaired by PAIG member Alan Dodson called, appropriately enough, “Performance and Analysis,” alongside PAIG co-chair Andrew Friedman’s paper “Reimagining (Motivic) Analysis in Light of Performance.”

You can find the video here, and the abstract reproduced below.  Su Yin writes:  “I am currently planning a follow-up project with collaborators based in Japan and the United States that focuses on the uses of metaphorical description in rehearsal communication by professional string quartets, and would greatly appreciate comments and suggestions from PAIG members.”



Abstract:  Structural models for Western art music are primarily score-based and rarely incorporate the views of performers. I have attempted to redress the omission through a multi-phase study of rehearsal discourse by professional string quartets based in Hong Kong, China, Japan and the United States. This paper presents the findings from the Hong Kong phase of the project. Over a six-month period, I attended and recorded the Romer String Quartet’s rehearsals and public performances as a participant-observer. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of the rehearsal footage, along with interviews with the players, offer insights on how a professional string quartet perceive, conceptualize and communicate about musical structure. My research reveals that although parameters such as formal articulations, harmonic changes and motivic continuity were rarely singled out for discussion in rehearsals, the players did pay close attention to structure within the context of feeling and character or in relation to considerations of sound and ensemble co-ordination. While the quartet’s communication relied extensively on metaphorical descriptions rather than music-theoretical terminology, when asked to explain the meaning of their metaphors the players referred to very specific aspects of compositional syntax. Thus, in its combination of overt expressive considerations and latent structural understanding, the rehearsal discourse suggests that the relationship between the two is more complex and less exclusive than some have assumed. These observations prompt critical reflection on ways of mediating between theoretical and practical perspectives of musical structure, and demonstrate how methodological interactions between theory and ethnomusicology might contribute to such mediation.


2 thoughts on “Communications about Musical Structure in Professional String Quartet Rehearsal

  1. What an exciting project! Many music theorists wouldn’t have training in ethnographic methods for this sort of research, so I’d be interested to learn how Su Yin got into this work and what her advice would be for others of us interested in exploring it.


  2. Thank you, Edward, for your positive feedback!

    I first got into this work when I was an Artist Associate for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta in 2014/15. I was interested in how performers tackled considerations of structure, and initially thought I could do so by observing orchestral rehearsals, interviewing players, etc. But there were too many variables, and complicated copyright issues; so I ended up focusing on the quartet, whom I got to know through the orchestra. I am trememdously lucky that they agreed to collaborate. (This is perhaps the most difficult: finding professional players who willing to grant not only access to their rehearsals, but also permission to record and publish about them.)

    I was also not trained in ethnographic methods, so as a first step I used the CMPCP website to learn more about work that other scholars are doing and got ideas about how to develop a methodology. The work by Davidson and Good and Amanda Bayley are important precedents for my project.

    I find the CMPCP website a very useful resource and recommend it to everyone interested in the state of research in British Performance Studies.


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