The work is in five movements:
This work, like the String Quartet No. 5, and several other pieces by Bartók, exhibits an "arch" structure — the first movement is thematically related to the last, and the second to the fourth with the third movement standing alone. Also, the outer four movements feature rhythmic sforzandos that cyclically tie them together in terms of climactic areas.
The quartet shares a similar harmonic language to that of the String Quartet No. 3, and as with that work, it has been suggested that Bartók was influenced in his writing by Alban Berg's Lyric Suite (1926) which he had heard in 1927.
The quartet employs a number of extended instrumental techniques. For the whole of the second movement all four instruments play with mutes, while the entire fourth movement features pizzicato. In the third movement, Bartók sometimes indicates held notes to be played without vibrato, and in various places he asks for glissandi (sliding from one note to another) and so-called Bartók pizzicati (a pizzicato where the string rebounds against the instrument's fingerboard).
The work is dedicated to the Pro Arte Quartet but its first public performance was given by the Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet in Budapest on 20 March 1929. It was first published in the same year by Universal Edition.