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What are some common small ensembles?

It might be surprising to find out that there’s no standard range of performers for a small ensemble. Chamber music, that is music for small ensembles, has been written for anywhere from two to twelve (and sometimes more) performers. However, for our purposes, we’ll define “small” as any ensemble ranging from a duet (two performers) to an quintet (five performers). Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list and solos are excluded from this list as a single performer isn’t really an ensemble.

Duets

For the novice composer duets are a fantastic way to begin composing/arranging music.

  • Soloist + Piano (any instrument, piano*) *the piano may be substituted for any polyphonic instrument including guitar, marimba, or organ.
  • Two of the same instrument
  • Two different instruments

Trios

Trios offer the excitement of blending multiple instruments of the same family or different families to create new timbral possibilities without the difficulties that can arise from writing for many instruments such as doubling.

  • Piano trio (violin, piano, cello)
  • String trio (violin, viola, cello)
  • Brass trio (horn, trumpet, trombone)

Quartets

Arranging for a quartet can be a great challenge to anyone working on their four part harmonization. Quartets can feature a mixed instrumentation or instruments from the same family.

  • Piano Quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano)
  • String Quartet (two violin, viola, cello)
  • Wind Quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) *other common variations include saxophone quartet (soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone)
  • Vocal Quartet (any four voice parts, the barbershop quartet is a well known vocal quartet format)
  • Percussion Quartet (four percussionists on any variety of pitched/non-pitched percussion instruments)

Quintets

Often writing for a quintet is difficult for novice composers. Some technical considerations include which notes of a chord should be doubled, balancing the ensemble through dynamics and tessitura (range), and blending instruments of different families.

  • String Quartet + additional instrument This type of quintet is often named after the additional instrument. For instance, a string quartet plus a piano is referred to as a piano quintet. Usually the additional instrument is considered a soloist and the string quartet provides accompaniment much like the Soloist + Piano format.
  • Wind Quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn)
  • Brass Quintet (two trumpets, one horn, a trombone and a tuba)