header photo

Finding Appropriate Chamber Music Repertoire for Any Ensemble

by Jeremy Swider, Chamber Music Coordinator, MacPhail Center for Music

Do you coach chamber music ensembles? Are you in a student chamber ensemble? Do you have trouble finding music of an appropriate level of difficulty for your group or the groups you coach?

Jeremy Swider, Chamber Music Coordinator at MacPhail Center for Music, has put together the following set of resources to help teachers and students find chamber music of appropriate difficulty for any group. While some of these resources are Minnesota-centric, there are many here that will be of interest to our broader readership.


Places to Get Sheet Music

The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)
Browse by instrumentation/genre – select instrumentation, click “show” on the chamber/instrumental tab. Select the number of players in your ensemble. I recommend skipping the “x # of players with continuo” options, unless you really like Baroque music and are willing to possibly spend some time doing figured bass part-writing to create a keyboard part, if needed. Items on this site are mostly public domain in the USA and are free to download. Please read exceptions (usually in red letters) carefully and avoid downloading pieces that are not public domain. The site is hosted in Canada, and can post pieces that are public domain in Canada, which has different copyright statues than the USA.

The Clarinet Institute of Los Angeles PDF Archive
Another great public domain resource. Some of their public domain files are available free online, and others require the purchase of a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM containing a number of public domain works selected by instrumentation or theme. Although it is a clarinet institute, they also have works that feature other instruments, including strings, winds, brass, and keyboards.

CD Sheet Music
A for-profit public domain resource that sells collections of public domain works on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. I have purchased several of these and I love them. They have a number of chamber music appropriate collections, mostly in standard instrumentations, but a few with less common instrumentations. Can be purchased online directly at their website or at many local music stores.

JW Pepper
JW Pepper is a national sheet music retailer that does business online and through a chain of stores across the Unites States. JW Pepper has one of the better sheet music search engines, but it is still pretty cumbersome and often turns up results that are not on-topic. I recommend key-word searching based on the instrumentation you’re looking for.

Groth Music
Groth Music is a Minnesota-based music retailer based in Bloomington (8056 Nicollet Ave S, Bloomington, MN  55420). I recommend stopping by in person to browse/search. They have a ton of music in stock. They can find items and order them for you as well. Their online search tool for music is not as easy to use as JW Pepper. 

Chamber Music Repertoire for Amateur Players – A Guide to Choosing Works Matching Players’ Abilities by Harold Haynes (ISBN 0 9524572 0 2)
This is a helpful reference book if you are looking for chamber works for strings or strings with piano. It is in limited production and may be hard to find. An amateur cellist, Harold Haynes assesses pieces based on his perception of the difficulty of the piano, cello, and first violin parts on a scale of 1-20/Pro. He also gives is opinion of the musical quality of each movement of each work on a scale of 70-100. He is admittedly not fond of works written after about 1920 and omits most such works from this book.

University of Minnesota Music Library
Another Minnesota-based resource, the University of Minnesota Music Library can be searched using the MNCAT search engine. The music library can be specified in the search, and you can search for either print items (sheet music, etc.) or recordings. Items may only be checked out by University of Minnesota students, but you should be able to visit the library to listen to recordings or browse sheet music collections.

Other Minnesota Libraries
Hennepin County Library and Saint Paul Public Library both have sheet music collections.

Sheet Music Plus
Sheet Music Plus is a large online sheet music retailer with a large selection.

Based in Ann Arbor, MI, Shar operates a popular website for string players that stocks a large selection of sheet music.

This popular online retailer also carries a surprisingly large amount of sheet music.

Google Search
Sometimes a simple Google search can help you find sheet or recorded music from sources you hadn’t thought of.

Reference Sources
Wikipedia or other references, such as the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians or other music reference books, textbooks, or journals, may mention works that you weren’t previously familiar with.


Places to Find Recordings

Try searching instrument combinations, e.g., piano flute trumpet, and see what comes up. (Sometimes you'll get works that don't match your criteria very closely!) If you find a good option, also check the recommended links on the right side of the window. Sometimes you can discover other great options for that instrumentation there. If you know your piece already, try searching the composer and title. If nothing shows up, try just entering the composer. If a recording of your specific work can’t be found but other works by that composer are recorded, these can at least help you to get a sense of the composer’s style.

Spotify is a popular music streaming service that offers both a subscription option and a free version with ads. Spotify allows you to search for specific titles, or by instrumentation. It can also create a playlist for you, which can be a good way to find works you may not otherwise know about.

Hennepin County LibrarySaint Paul Public Library, the University of Minnesota Music Libraryetc.

This popular online retailer is a great place to buy commercial recordings of works. Most recordings allow you to listen to a 30-second sample of each track to get a sense of the work. US based Amazon Prime members also have free access to Prime Music, Amazon's online collection of over one million songs and albums.

Apple iTunes Store
Apple's online music store that sells a large collection of music in MP3 format.

Classical Archives
Billing itself as "the largest classical music site in the world," Classical Archives is a classical music streaming service that also allows users to purchase and download recordings. Offering a higher quality audio stream than most other music streaming services, the Classical Archives service can be used from any computer, as well as via apps for Android and iOS. Non-paying users can listen to 60-second clips, as well as a limited number of free tracks while paying subscribers get unlimited access.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Website
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has a number of recorded performances by the group and its members available for streaming on their website, including some chamber music works.

Classical Radio
Sometimes you may be introduced to a new work by listening to Classical Minnesota Public Radio, the internet radio service Pandora, or another classical radio station.


Useful Sheet Music Collections

Chamber Music Sampler
For piano trios (violin, cello, piano)—or possibly substituting flute or oboe for the violin part, or bassoon for the cello part on some works—see the Chamber Music Sampler, a series of 3 volumes edited by Joanne Haroutounian and graded somewhat by difficulty.

Last Resort Music
Last Resort Music is the publisher of several series of arrangements that allow for a degree of interchangeable instrumentation (e.g., parts can be played by violin or oboe, bassoon or cello, etc.). Collections designated as "intermediate" begin with easier repertoire and progress to music of the same difficulty level as the regular Last Resort Music collections. Most arrangements are pretty playable. These collections are designed to be playable by gigging professional musicians with a minimal amount of individual practice. They are usually well suited to amateur groups willing to put in some individual practice time on their parts. The keyboard parts typically double the music of the lower two or three instruments. The keyboard arrangements tend to be more awkward and less musical than the parts for other instruments. The parts are relatively expensive.

Alfred Music Collections
There are several collections available from Alfred Music that can be played on almost any combination of instruments. These include Movie Duets for All, Movie Trios for All, and Movie Quartets for All. However, the repertoire in these collections is typically at the beginner–intermediate level, and may not be enough of a challenge for more advanced players.


Instrument Substitutions

Some instruments can pretty easily be substituted for each other without having to worry about transpositions, etc.  Sometimes ensemble blend and/or balance can become an issue if a substituted instrument is significantly louder or softer than the original, or has a significantly different tonal timbre. When transferring from a string instrument to a wind instrument, watch out for significant double-stop passages in string parts (i.e., two or more notes being played simultaneously). If the double stops seem musically essential, a wind instrument substitution may not be a good option. When converting wind parts to string parts, keep in mind the string player will have to edit the fingerings and bowings. Below is a partial list of possible instrument substitutions:

  • Cello and Bassoon
  • Flute and Violin
  • Oboe and Violin
  • Recorder with either Flute, Oboe, or Violin
  • Oboe and Flute (may have to adjust octave register in some parts)
  • B-flat Clarinet and B-flat Trumpet (may have to adjust register)
  • B-Flat Clarinet or B-Flat Trumpet with B-flat Tenor Saxophone
  • B-flat Trumpet with B-Flat Cornet
  • Horn in F and English Horn
  • Trombone and Bassoon
  • Trombone and Cello
  • Baritone and Bassoon
  • Harp with Piano (if the piece doesn’t change keys too frequently)
  • Baritone and Cello
  • Baritone and Trombone
  • Trombone and Tuba
  • Cello and Tuba
  • Bassoon and Tuba
  • Baritone and Tuba
  • Cello and String Bass (some register issues – Bass can sound notes lower than Cello)
  • Bassoon and String Bass
  • String Bass and Tuba or Baritone or Trombone
  • Alto Sax with E-flat Clarinet (less common)
  • Viola with Viola da Gamba
  • Piano is usually interchangeable with Organ, Fortepiano, Harpsichord


Creating Custom Arrangements

More time-consuming arrangements can facilitate substitutions between instruments that play in different transpositions and clefs. String instruments, keyboard instruments, flute, oboe, bassoon, trombone, and tuba are considered "C" instruments, i.e., when they play a written C, it sounds like a concert C. Parts for these instruments are notated in concert pitch. Some instruments, like most clarinets, the trumpet, and the tenor saxophone, are B-flat transposing instruments, i.e., when they play a written C, it sounds like a concert B-flat. This means that C instrument parts must be transposed up one whole step if they are to be played on these instruments.

Free notation programs such as MuseScore or Noteflight, or commercial software like Finale or Sibelius, can help with these transpositions, allowing you to enter the whole part in in the original key and then transposing it with a couple of clicks to the correct key for the new instrument.

The following substitutions are common using these techniques:

  • Viola (Alto clef C-inst) with Clarinet (Treble clef B-flat instr)
  • Bass Clarinet (bass clef B-flat instrument) with Bassoon or Cello or Tuba or Trombone
  • Viola or Cello with Horn in F or English Horn

If the work you wish to adapt/transpose is under copyright or creative commons licensing, it is important that you obtain the permission of the copyright holder if you wish to create a new arrangement of the work. If the work is in the public domain, this is not necessary.


Elements to Consider when Assessing Difficulty

  • Pitch range.
  • Tempo and speed of rhythms.
  • Rhythmic complexity of individual parts.
  • Key signature and number of accidentals.
  • Tonality – parts that have a less clear tonal center or that change keys frequently can be more challenging for many players.
  • Ensemble rhythmic complexity/sense of ensemble pulse.
  • For strings – frequency of double stops.
  • For keyboards – number of notes required at one time and number of different musical lines/competing rhythms to be executed at one time.
  • Frequency of awkward skips versus scale-wise stepping.
  • Would the player have to transpose in their head? (This is sometimes required of horn players, etc.)

Go Back