Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 13: Composing a Melody - Instruments
- Please note: I recommend you read Lesson 12: General Composition Tips before reading this lesson.
- Voice composition will be covered in detail in the next lesson.
- You may also be interested in our Video Course on Instrument Composition
The Grade Five Music Theory Instrumental 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.
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.
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, the very lowest notes are quite weak and much less bright than octave above.
Complete details about the ranges of all the standard orchestral instruments can be found in the reference section of this site.
Don’t forget to write which instrument you have chosen on your exam paper!
The melody should be 8 bars in total. You usually get around 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).
Here, for example, the first note is an up beat. The last bar and the first bar added together make one complete bar.
You don't need to add bar numbers, but you might find it useful to do so.
Only the first and last bars can be "incomplete". You will probably need to use two staves to write your whole composition out, so make sure the first bar on the second stave is complete: don't split a bar across two staves.
Don’t forget to finish with a double barline!
Whatever instrument you’re writing for, you will need to include performance directions for the player.
You must include:
- Use the accepted Italian or German musical terms. You won't get extra marks for using an obscure term, so it's a good idea to play it safe and use a common term such as "Moderato".
- If you pick a very fast or very slow tempo, you might make the composition particularly awkward to play for the chosen instrument, so unless you are 100% sure, use "Moderato" or "Andante", which are both moderate tempos.
- You can use a metronome marking if you prefer, e.g. , but be sure to use a number which is actually found on a metronome (you couldn't use the number 59, for example!) Also, make sure you use the value of note which is indicated by the time signature. If the time signature is 4/4, you would use a crotchet (quarter note), because the time signature means "count crotchets". If the time signature is 6/8 though, you would have to use a dotted crotchet (dotted quarter note), because 6/8 is a compound time signature.
- The player needs to know what dynamic the piece begins at, so be sure to add a starting dynamic (e.g. "mf"), directly under the first note.
- You should also indicate some gradual increases/decreases of volume with hairpins e.g. . Make sure that the beginning and end of the hairpin is accurately placed under specific notes.
- Make sure that all the dynamics you write are logical. If you write "mp < pp" it is very confusing, since you have indicated a crescendo which gets quieter!
- It's a good idea to make the loudest part of the melody happen somewhere around bars 6-8, as this is where we expect to hear a musical climax.
- Adding the right articulation indications will increase the marks you get for this question.
- If there are no articulation markings, a wind player (woodwind and brass) has to attack each and every note with the tongue, and a string player has to change the bow direction with every note. This is not only tiring for the player, but it makes the music sound rather jagged and unlyrical.
- The legato marking (or "slur") is used to show that wind players should play a group of notes with one breath, or that string players should play a group of notes with one sweep of the bow. Be sure to use legato markings in your composition. You can slur all the notes in one bar, or half bars, or groups of faster notes, like quavers (eighth notes). Don't slur more than one bar though - a wind player is likely to run out of breath, and a string player will run out of bow! Slurs should be written on the opposite side of the note to the stem, but it's ok to write them on the other side if there isn't enough space. Here are some different ways you could slur the same melody, slurring the whole bar, the half bar, and the pairs of quick notes:
- You can also use other types of articulation, such as staccato, accents and tenuto, but these are optional.
- Whatever articulation you use, try to be consistent throughout the melody. For example, you slurred each half bar from bars 1-4, then you should do the same in bars 5-8. If you put staccato on the semiquavers (16th notes) in bar 2 (for example), then do the same for any similar notes/rhythms in the rest of the piece.
Tempo, dynamics are articulation are the only performance directions that you must add. There are some other markings which are optional:
Wind players will need somewhere to breathe. You may indicate places where the player can grab a quick intake of air by using a small comma - above the stave.
Although you don't have to put breathing marks in, you do have to make sure that your melody is playable by a human player! If you slurred all the notes across four bars and put a tempo of "molto adagio", you would end up with a dead flautist. Think about what you are writing!
It can be nice to add a pause symbol on the last note of your piece.
String parts sometimes include special symbols which tell the player whether to play a note with their bow moving upwards or downwards.
However, bowing directions are normally only used a) in beginner's study books to help them out or b) when the direction of the bow is not what the string player would expect.
What does a string player expect? A "down bow" is used on a "down beat". A "down beat" is another word for a strong beat; the first beat of a bar is always a "down beat". (It gets this name because a conductor moves his/her hand downwards to show the first beat of each bar). An "up beat" occurs before a down beat, and the player uses an "up bow". So, if your composition begins with an up beat (or "anacrusis" or "pick up"), then a competent string player would automatically play it with an "up bow" and then use a "down bow" for the first beat of bar 1, and so on.
For this reason, it's completely unnecessary to cover your 8-bar string melody with bowing directions. You won't get extra marks for them, and you might end up losing marks if they don't make logical sense.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be a advanced string player and are confident that you know how to use bowing directions for good effect, then by all means use them. Here are the symbols: you should learn them in any case, as you may be tested on them in other parts of the exam paper.
String instruments are capable of playing more than one note at the same time (this is called "double-stopping"). A whole range of sounds can be produced by striking the strings in different ways, such as "pizzicato" (plucking the strings with the fingers), "tremolo" (shimmering the bow rapidly up and down) or "spiccato" (using the wooden part of the bow instead of the hairy part).
Wind instruments can produce effects such as "flutter-tonguing".
Both wind and string instruments can play "vibrato", and brass/string instruments can play with a mute.
None of these special effects are necessary for your exam composition, and we would strongly recommend avoiding them. The examiner is not looking for fireworks: they are are looking for a balanced, well-constructed composition. You can read up on the ABRSM's marking criteria here.