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Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 13: Composing a Melody - Instruments


The Grade Five Music Theory Composition Question

In your Grade Five Music Theory exam, you’ll be given the first two bars of a melody, with the key and time signatures. (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.

(There is no wrong answer- choose the instrument you are most comfortable with).


The choice of instruments will be from different families, for example the violin and oboe, or the bassoon and cello.

You will never have to write for an instrument on which we usually play several notes at the same time, like the piano, harp or organ.


Here’s an example question:

Compose a melody for solo violin or oboe, using the given opening. Include tempo and other performance directions, and any that might be specially needed for the instrument you’ve chosen. The finished melody should be eight bars long.

Example of instrumental composition question


 Choosing an Instrument

It’s a good idea to choose an instrument that you know something about! If you play the clarinet and you have the choice of bassoon or cello, you’ll probably write a better melody for the bassoon, as it is also a wind instrument. 

If you choose to write for a string instrument, you will need to include phrasing to show the player how to bow the piece. The first beat of the first full bar of a piece will normally start with a "down bow" (pulling the bow down across the strings). All the notes included in the first phrase mark will be played with the down bow. The following note/phrase will be an "up bow", and so on, alternating down and up. If the piece starts with an upbeat, it will start with an "up bow". You can add bowing symbols if necessary. 

If you write for a wind instrument, you should include articulation (slurred, tongued, staccato…) and breathing indications - clarinet players can play very long phrases without needing a breath, but flute players can’t. 

Whichever instrument you choose, you will need to know its range, i.e. what its lowest and highest notes are. As long as you don’t start using lots of ledger lines you should stay within the range required, but don’t forget that some instruments are less/more effective in different registers. For example, although the flute can play from middle C, this first octave is quite weak and much less bright than octave above. (Don’t forget to write which instrument you have chosen on your exam paper!)


If neither of the instruments offered are very familiar to you, you might be better off choosing the alternative question- writing a melody for voices, (see “Lesson 14: Composing a Melody for Voices ”).


 Melody Length

The melody should be 8 bars in total. You usually get 2 bars to start you off, so you will have to write 6. Notice whether the melody starts with a complete bar or not - if it starts with an incomplete bar, then your last bar should make up the beats, (so you’ll finish up with 7 complete bars and 2 incomplete bars). Don’t forget to finish with a double barline!


 Performance Directions

Whatever instrument you’re writing for, you will need to include performance directions for the player. You must include:


  • Tempo (speed). Use the accepted Italian or German terms.  
  • Dynamics (volume). Indicate a starting dynamic (e.g. FF ), and indicate gradual increase/decrease of volume with hairpins e.g. Crescendo hairpin
  • Articulation(attack). (See below). 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!


 Wind Instruments


Wind instruments usually play


legato (mark with a slur) Legato slur, or


tongued (no marking needed), or


staccato (small dot) Staccato



Breathing indicationWind players will need somewhere to breathe - either write a rest about half way through (or more frequently), or indicate places where the player can grab a quick intake of air by using a small comma - above the stave.

Keep in mind the tempo you’ve indicated, and remember that although clarinet players can play without breathing in for quite a long time, flute players can’t!


 String Instruments


String writing can include up-bow and down-bow markings, (which are always placed above the stave). Don't include them unless you know what you are doing!

Up bow sign Up-bow marking

Down bow sign Down-bow marking


 Notes with a legato slur are usually played with one stroke of the bow:Legato slur


String instruments are capable of playing more than one note at the same time (this is called "double-stopping") - but don’t attempt to write this unless you know the instrument in question well.



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