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Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 12: Composing a Melody - General Tips

 

Composing Melodies

In question 6 of the Grade 5 theory paper, you have to write a short melody. You have to choose to write it for either an instrument or a voice.

This lesson looks at the general techniques needed for composing a short melody. 

(Lesson 13 focuses specifically on things you need to know about writing for instruments, and Lesson 14 is about setting music to words).

More help can also be found on the mymusictheory blog:

 

Instrument or Voice?  

Choosing whether to compose for an instrument or a voice will depend on several things:

  • If English isn’t your first language, you may have some extra difficulties writing effectively to a text.
  • If you don’t know much about either of the instruments offered, you would do better to choose the voice question.
  • If you’re a pianist and don’t play an orchestral instrument, you might find the voice question easier.

In any case, you should practise both types of question before you take the exam. You will soon find out if one type of question is more difficult for you. Here's a little more information about each question type:

 

 Writing for an Instrument

You’ll be given the first two bars of a melody, with the key and time signature. (It could be in treble clef or bass clef).

The instructions will ask you to choose from two instruments and to continue writing the melody for the instrument you’ve chosen. The choice of instruments will be from different families, for example the violin and oboe, or the bassoon and cello. (There is no wrong answer - choose the instrument you are most comfortable with.)

Here's an example question: 

Compose a complete melody for unaccompanied violin or flute, using the given opening. Indicate the tempo and other performance directions, including any that might be particularly required for the instrument chosen. The complete melody should be eight bars long.

Instrument for which the melody is written: ...............................

Compose a complete melody using the given opening

 

 Writing for Voice

You’ll be given the first two lines of text, taken from poetry, and two blank staves. The instructions will ask you to write a complete melody for solo voice to fit the words of the text: you can choose whichever voice (soprano, alto, tenor or bass) you prefer. 

You don’t have to say which voice you’ve chosen, but you will have to keep the melody within the normal range of one voice, and use the appropriate clefs, (see “Lesson 9: Notating for Voices – SATB” for more about this). Here's an example question: 

Compose a complete melody to the following words for a solo voice. Write each syllable under the note or notes to which it is to be sung. Also indicate the tempo and other performance directions as appropriate.


The river glares in the sun

Like a torrent of molten glass.

Blank manuscript

 

Effective Composing

You might think that writing a melody without being able to hear it is impossible - but did you know that Beethoven wrote most of his great music when he was completely deaf?! Luckily, no one is asking you to write a 4-movement symphony - you only have to write a single melody line for 8 bars. But where do you start? 

Every piece of music has two vital elements - rhythm and melody. On top of that, cadences give harmonic shape to a melody, and should also be considered when composing. Also important are performance directions, which are words or symbols that help the musician interpret the notes they are reading. We’ll look at each of these in turn. 

Balance is also important: your melody should usually be 8 bars long, so you should break it down into two parts or "phrases", (this is called binary form). The first phrase will be bars 1-4, and the second phrase will be bars 5-8. If you like, you can then divide each phrase into 2, giving you four short 2-bar phrases. We can call these four phrases 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b. 

Let's look at rhythm, melody, cadences and performance directions in more detail.

 

 Rhythm

I want you to forget about melody for now, so in the following examples I’m going to use a one-line stave, so that we can focus on rhythm only. 

Here are the opening bars (phrase 1a and 1b) of some well-known tunes, notated in rhythm only:

 

  1. British National Anthem:
    British National Anthem
  2. Beethoven Symphony no.5, 1st movement
    Beethoven Symphony no.5
  3. Happy Birthday to You/Star Spangled Banner
    Happy Birthday or Star Spangled Banner
  4. New York, New York
    New York New York

 

What do they all have in common? They each have a rhythmic phrase which is repeated to create phrase 1b. You don’t have to write your second phrase with exactly the same rhythm as the first, but it should be quite similar

Look at how I’ve altered the second phrase of those four extracts, (tap out the rhythms on the table as you read them!)

  1. Rhythm swapped
  2. Note values altered
  3. Note values changed
  4. Syncopated rhythm

 

What kind of changes did I make?

Extract 1: I swapped around the rhythm in bars 3 and 4.

Extract 2: I changed 2 quavers (eighth notes) into 4 semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

Extract 3: I changed a crotchet (quarter note) into a quaver (eighth note).

Extract 4: I changed the semibreve (whole note) into a short, syncopated rhythm.

 

You can change the rhythm of phrase 1a in any number of ways; the important thing is not to change it too much!

 

The same guidelines apply when you create phrases 2a and 2b - keep the rhythms similar, but make small changes:

  • You could write 2a with the same rhythm as 1a, and 2b the same as 1b.
  • You could write 2a like 1b, and 2b like 1a.

There are no rules, except that there must be some connection and some similarity between the rhythms - don’t write a completely different rhythm for each of your four phrases!

 

Melody

Just like rhythms, melodies sound good if they contain repeated sequences. Do you know this children’s song? (It’s called Frere Jacques.)

Frere Jacques

This song simply repeats both the rhythm and melody in bars 1 and 3 to create bars 2 and 4. But if you look more closely, you’ll see that the melody in 1b (E-F-G) is the same as the first three notes of the melody in 1a (C-D-E)- but a third higher. 

This is an example of a melodic imitation: a section of melody which is repeated at a different interval. However, Frere Jacques is probably not the most interesting song in the world, so let’s look at another example! 

This is the “Gloria” chorus from the Christmas carol Ding Dong Merrily on High!:

Gloria Chorus

The rhythm of each bar is the same, but the melody is in sequences, with each bar starting one step down in the key of G major. 

There are several types of sequence which you can use to generate new melodic phrases, so let's look at them in more detail.

 

 Sequences

Bar to Sequence

This is the bar we’re going to sequence.

 

Type of Sequence

Example

Notes

Imitation

Change the starting note but keep all the relative intervals the same:

Imitation a 2nd higher

This sequence starts a 2nd higher.

Imitation a 5th higher

This one starts a 5th higher

Inversion

Turn the melody upside down:

Inversion

Retrograde

Write the melody back to front:

Retrograde

Retrograde Inversion

Upside down and back to front:

Retrograde inversion

Augmentation

Double the note values:

Augmentation

Diminution

Halve the note values:

Diminution

 

Of course, you can combine any of the above types of sequence. 

Your new melody should be a mix of your own ideas and some imitation of what’s already there - your new ideas need to be linked to the two bars you’ve already been given. Be inventive, but don’t stray too far away! 

(By the way, don’t worry about remembering all the names of the different types of sequences; you won’t be tested on them!)

 

 Cadences

(See Lesson 11 for basic information about cadences.)

Although you are only writing a single line of music, you should keep in mind the chords that could accompany your melody.

 In a short, 8-bar tune, the end of the first phrase will often (but not always) end on an imperfect cadence. This means that the end of the phrase would sound good if it was played with chord V. The chord which comes before V is up to you, but common imperfect cadences are I-V, II-V, IV-V and VI-V. Make sure that the notes which end your first phrase fit into one of these cadence chords. 

The end of the second phrase should end with either a perfect or a plagal cadence. A perfect cadence is V-I and a plagal cadence is IV-I. Perfect cadences are more common, and they sound more final than plagal cadences. Plagal cadences are common in religious music (but don’t let that put you off!) You should always end your composition with a tonic note, sustained for at least a crotchet's (quarter note's) length. 

Make sure the notes you have chosen for your melody fit the cadences at these points. (Don’t forget that your passing notes won’t be included in the chord). 

 

Performance Directions

Whatever instrument/voice you’re writing for, you will need to include performance directions for the player/singer.

You must include:

  • Tempo (speed). Use the accepted Italian terms.
  • Dynamics (volume). Indicate a starting dynamic, and indicate gradual increase/decrease of volume with hairpins.
  • Articulation (instrumental music=attack). Adding the right articulation indications will increase the marks you get for this question - but make sure you use them in the right places and don’t overdo it. (See the next lesson for more on this.)

 

Top Tips

My best tip is to keep in your mind that a little goes a long way. Do a little imitation, a little inversion, add a few directions to the player - but be sparing.

Take a look at some of the music you’re playing right now- just how many directions can you find in the space of 8 bars? Not many, I’d guess!

If you try to write something very complicated, you’re more likely to get into a mess. Keep it clean and simple, but make sure you do add some directions, which are both relevant and meaningful.

 

How can I learn to hear my compositions in my head?

Get into the habit of hearing music in your head. You’ll find this question much easier if you can accurately pinpoint the notes you’re writing, (you won’t be able to sing them out loud in the exam room!) 

Everyone can hear music in their head (sometimes you get a tune going round and round in there that you can’t get rid of), but learning to hear in your head what your eyes are seeing is a little harder. Take some music which you haven’t studied yet and try to read it without playing/singing it. Don’t panic - the more you practice, the easier it will get. 

Start off with just 2-4 bars, and build it up as you become more confident. Choose music that moves in small steps, not in big intervals, and without lots of accidentals. Check what was in your head by playing the bars on your instrument. Were they the same? 

Gradually move on to more complicated music- with difficult key signatures, tricky rhythms and huge leaps. Learning the skill of hearing music in your head also helps your sightreading a lot! 

You might find it easier if you make some kind of physical reaction as you read - if you can sing, you might feel your voice-box subconsciously changing as you change notes; if you play an instrument it might help if let your fingers move on an imaginary instrument.

 

Composer's Checklist

Here’s a checklist to use while you’re doing practice questions. (See Lessons 13 and 14 for more details).

Click here to print a copy of the table. 

All

Tempo  

Dynamics

 

Phrasing

 

Double bar at end

 

Range of notes fits

 

Cadences (1st=V, 2nd=I)

 

Imitation/Sequences

 

Modulation (optional)

 

Wind Instruments

Articulation

 

Breathing

 

String Instruments

Articulation

 

Bowing

 

Voice

Breathing (phrasing)

 

Clef, Key and Time

 

Syllables ok

 

Word Painting

 

Style

 
Tools

print music manuscript papermusic theory referenceonline metronomevirtual piano

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