Grade 7 Music Theory - Composing a Melody
In the ABRSM Grade 7 Music Theory exam, there is a choice of compositions, but the type of question is different in each case.
On this page you'll find a quick overview of how to tackle both types of question. For a more detailed course, you can enrol in the MyMusicTheory video course for Grade 7 Composition. The course includes detailed lessons, demonstrations of worked examples of both types of composition question, a 49-page PDF and support.
The questions are always numbered as 3a and 3b, so that's what I'll be using to refer to the different question types throughout this course. Take a look at the intro video to the full course:
Composition Question 3a
Complete the solo part to fit a given piano accompaniment. Normally you'll be asked to complete about two full staves-worth, and you'll be given about 2 bars of the solo part to start you off.
The idea behind this question is that you are being tested on:
- your ability to understand the harmonic structure from the piano part, and
- your ability to create a melody which fits nicely with that accompaniment.
Composition Question 3b
You are given 1 or 2 bars as a given opening for a solo instrument to complete, with a choice of two instruments. If you choose this question, you will need to add performance directions.
Occasionally in this question, you are also given a harmonic progression to work from. You'll also be given an opening of 1 to 2 bars, but whether you choose to use it or not is up to you.
The Marking Criteria
See http://www.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/information-and-regulations/music-theory-marking-criteria-grades-6-8/ for full details about the marking scheme for the grade 7 composition question.
For question 3a, you need to have good musical grammar - this means observing the rules which learnt about when studying harmony for grade 6, and includes things like avoiding consecutives and doubling the appropriate note of the harmony.
You also need to make sure, of course, that the solo part actually fits together properly with the piano part.
For question 3b you need to make sure you add performance directions, and they need to be meaningful ones! You need to use the ideas from the given opening or chord progressions, if you were asked to do that specifically.
There are 20 points available for the composition question, and you'll get awarded a minimum of 7 points for handing in a complete attempt at the composition, so make sure you do put something down on the page, even if you're having a really bad day.
Shape and Direction
To get top marks for your composition, you need to make sure that it has a good shape and a good direction. To achieve this, you'll generally be making your melody move by step, with some larger leaps, and you also need to make sure that nice wide range of notes is used, a good rule of thumb would be to make sure your melody sits within a range which is wider than one octave, if at all possible.
The harmonic structure of a piece will also help to give it direction. In question 3a and sometimes in 3b, the harmonic structure is already in place, so that's one less thing you need to worry about. Sometimes for question 3b though there is no harmonic structure outlined, so you'll need to make sure that the chord progressions which underpin your melody are actually going somewhere.
Whichever composition you choose, try to think of the direction as being something like the plot of a story. Each musical phrase is a separate but connected part of the overall story, and you should be working towards some kind of climax, most likely just before the end of the piece.
Suitability to the Instrument
You need to make sure that the composition you write is suitable for the instrument you're writing for.
Most importantly perhaps, this means you need to know what the lowest playable note on each of the standard orchestral instruments is. You really only need to be aware of the lowest playable note and not the highest, because the lowest note is defined by the size of the instrument itself, whereas the highest note depends on the player's ability.
All the instrument ranges can be found here:
For question 3b, you also need to be aware of how articulation, (slurs or other types of attack), are a necessary part of the music.
The string instruments have more possible sounds than any other family in the orchestra. A string player can attack the instrument with either side of the bow, with their fingers, they can add mutes, and it's possible to play some chords with a technique called double or triple stopping. If you are a string player, you might want to think about adding specialist string performance directions, such as bow directions, pizzicato and so on. But it's not a requirement at all, and you should only attempt to put specialist directions into your composition if you really know what you're doing.
There is no requirement to add even basic up and down bow marking for string instruments. Bowing directions are normally worked out logically by the player - for instance an upbeat is attacked with an up bow, and so on, so there is only a need to add specific bowing instructions if you are after some special effect or other.
When you write for a woodwind instrument, it's good to know that a smaller part of the instrument's range will produce the most expressive and flexible notes. By “flexible”, I mean that they have a wide dynamic range, without the sound being distorted, for example.
If you take the flute for instance, the lowest notes on the flute sound very mellow, soft and breathy, and it's pretty hard to play them at a very loud dynamic. The higher octaves on the flute produce a much brighter, and louder, sound.
The composer Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a well-respected book about orchestration, “The Principles of Orchestration”, and he included a table with the sweet spot of each instrument's range.
You need to add articulation when writing a melody for question 3b. Usually this is in the form of slurs.
For string instruments, slurred notes are played with one sweep of the bow in the same direction. It's generally not possible to play a large number of notes with one bow sweep though, so only slur smaller groups of notes - around one or two beats worth would be a good plan.
For wind and brass, slurred notes are played without any further intake of breath, and the first note is attacked with the tongue and the other notes follow in the same breath. So it goes without saying that you need to remember that the players have to breathe somewhere.
Attacking a note with the tongue or bow produces an accented effect, so avoid writing several tongued or bowed notes in a row, unless that is the effect you really want. In any case, if you did want that effect, I'd suggest putting a specific articulation on the note, such as staccato, tenuto or accents, because leaving a large number of notes with no articulation creates music that isn't easily grouped into phrases.
If you are working with a given opening, you'll need to gather some information about how that opening is constructed, and use similar ideas in the rest of your composition.
In question 3a you'll always be given a couple of bars or so to get you started.
In question 3b, you'll also be provided with an opening phrase, but if you also have a chord progression to work with, the printed opening will be optional. But even if you choose to start the composition in your own way, it needs to be carefully structured so that whatever you write at the start is related melodically to what you write further on.
Types of Melodic Movement
There are two basic types of motion, called conjunct and disjunct. Basically these two words mean "joined together" and "not joined together". Conjunct motion is when the melody moves by step, and disjunct is when it moves by a leap of any size, from a 3rd or greater.
In most music, both types of movement are used, but there is usually more conjunct, or stepwise motion, than disjunct, within an individual tune. Conjunct motion sounds fluid and songlike and you can use quite long stretches of it at a time. Conjunct motion, in contrast, sounds more jagged or spiky and is best used in small doses.
Here are some tunes written by Mendelssohn in his collection of “Songs Without Words”. These pieces are written for solo piano, but their style is of a songlike melody with an accompaniment. I've isolated just the tune parts of the first Song.
Song Without Words No.1
Notice here that there are three phrases marked out: two short phrases followed by a long one which is about twice as long. The first two phrases move smoothly by step, and the only disjunct motion is between these two phrases, when the E leaps up an octave. The third phrase contains a little disjunct motion combined with conjunct - this makes the melody a bit more interesting than if it had contained only more conjunct motion.
Sequences are small fragments of melody which are repeated, but starting on a different step of the scale. Sequences are a really important piece of the melodic puzzle - if you don't make any attempt to use sequences, your melody is likely to sound very random. Sequences are part of the glue that sticks the various parts of your composition together to make a coherent piece.
Look back at Mendelssohn's first Song without words.
At first glance you can easily see that the 2nd phrase is a sequence of the first - we have four descending conjunct notes, first beginning on A, then on E. The third phrase looks completely different, doesn't it? But if you look a little closer at the end of the third phrase you'll see that it ends with the same four-note descending pattern, so although the rhythm is different here, it's still closely connected in terms of melody.
You need to think about the rhythms that are used in your composition in pretty much the same way that you think about melody - ideas that are presented at the beginning of the piece, or in the piano accompaniment for question 3a, should be reused elsewhere in the rest of your piece. While you definitely don't want to just repeat the same rhythm throughout, you do need to make sure that there is a consistency within the rhythms that you use.
Here's an opening which was written by Brahms - it's the beginning of the second movement of his first clarinet sonata.
What sort of rhythms has Brahms used here?
The first bar contains a long note which is repeated as a short note, then the second bar contains a tied note and a bunch of demisemiquavers or 32nd notes. These are the sort of rhythms then, that we'd expect to find re-used in the rest of the piece. They give the melody a definite shape, and you'd need to continue by using the same shapes as you go along - with some variation of course, - you don't want to it to get boring.
As you can see, the next two bars are a sequence of the first two in terms of melody and rhythm - the rhythm is identical. Bar 5 has something a little different - the tied note is in a different position here. Brahms doesn't just keep on repeating the same two-bar rhythm, but the rhythm here is clearly taken from the opening, as he's reused the demisemiquavers or 32nd notes.
What sort of note values could be considered interesting enough to give a piece character? It will very much depend on the individual piece, but some things you can look out for are:
- Very quick notes
- Dotted notes
- Tied notes
Look at how the section ends - on a crotchet (or quarter note F), and a rest. The longer note F helps to show that the end of a phrase or section has been reached, and the rest does the same, but also allows the player somewhere to breathe properly.
Melody Writing Tips
1. Avoid two leaps in the same direction, unless the notes form a triad.
2. Avoid leaps of a 7th
3. If you use a diminished interval, make sure it resolves by step.
4. Augmented intervals can also be used, but use them with care! As with diminished intervals, you can use this dissonance, as long as you make sure that the dissonance is resolved to the nearest note.
3a - Grammatical Aspects
In question 3a, you are expected to get the grammatical aspects of your composition mostly correct.
So, what do you need to look out for?
You want to make sure that the melody you write never moves in consecutive perfect 5ths or octaves with any part of the accompaniment. Look at the left hand piano part as well as the right hand.
In this example, if we followed the Bb in the melody part with an A, we'd be creating consecutive octaves with the right hand piano part.
The rules about consecutives are not quite as strict as they are when you write 4-part harmony though. Occasionally, they could be used for a special effect - think of the beginning of Beethoven's 5th symphony, where the entire orchestra plays in unison.
Generally speaking, it's ok to double up the bass note of a chord. The only exception to this is if the bass note is the leading note, which should never be doubled.
Here for example, you might be tempted to follow the E with a D#, but as there's already a D# in the accompaniment, and D# is the leading note in E minor, it would be better to pick, say, a B instead.
The reasoning behind this is that the leading note has a very strong pull towards the tonic, and should generally be followed by the tonic note. If you put two leading notes into a chord, you will have two pulls towards the tonic, but you have to avoid consecutive octaves, so you'll come unstuck.
Generally speaking, it's ok to double the root or 5th in any chord.
The note which you should never double without thinking it through carefully, is the 3rd of the triad. In a diminished chord, the 3rd is usually the best note to double, but in all other chords it's usually the least satisfactory. In a major root position chord it usually has a much better effect when it's NOT doubled, so that is definitely one to avoid. You should never double the third when it's the leading note.
A suspension happens when a note from one chord is held over or delayed, when the following chord sounds, producing a momentary dissonance. It normally resolves by step downwards to a chord note. The effect of the dissonance is produced by the tension set up by delaying the real chord note, so it's important not to spoil the "punchline" by adding the resolution note too soon. Here's an example of what I mean.
Looking only at the solo part, it seems natural to write a C as the first note in bar 2, but it would be a bad idea, because it will ruin the tension of the suspension. Here the D is suspended and resolves to C, so C is the note which is delayed in order to create tension. If you write a C as the first note in this bar, the suspension will be overridden - you won't even notice it. In this situation, the best note will be G. We can't write an Eb because it would cause consecutive octaves.
Types of Motion
Similar motion is when the parts move in the same up/down direction as each other.
Contrary motion is when they move in opposite directions.
And oblique motion is when one part stays still, and the other moves.
Avoid all three parts moving in similar motion for any extended length of time. It's ok to have all three staves moving in similar motion for very short amounts of time, but try to avoid it as much as you can.
3a - Style
Question 3a tests your ability to understand the harmonies and compositional techniques used by Romantic composers. In music, the Romantic era spans from the late 18th century right up to the mid-20th century. You'll need to be aware of the general characteristics of music at this period of time.
Characteristics of Romantic Music
Generally speaking, Romantic music is an expression of human emotions: it tells a story. You can contrast it with classical and baroque music, which can sound a lot more mathematical, elegant or even simple in comparison to Romantic music.
Romantic music uses a lot of strong, dramatic contrasts, and it's normal for the music to explore a wide range of pitches, including large leaps or visits to both ends of the instrument's compass, as well as a wide range of dynamics - with both sudden and gradual changes.
To save you a bit of effort, I've put together a Youtube playlist of music by Romantic era composers which has been composed or arranged for one instrument plus piano. The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLyZpSAfmPoZEqb7nKWMShyz7AzCtfofXi
(I'm always adding to the playlist, so do let me know if you have video which would be a good addition to the list!)
3a - Plan of Action
Here is a step-by-step plan for answering question 3a which is explained thoroughly in the next pages, and I'd recommend that you follow all the steps when you do your first few practice compositions. After a short while though, you'll probably want to adapt it to suit your own needs, and that's fine. Just make sure that you have looked at all the different aspects of the piece before you get started.
1. Take notice of the key, time, composer and instrument.
2. Sing through given melody in your head
3. Analyse the harmony
4. Notice any similarities and differences
5. Analyse the melodic structure
6. Analyse the rhythmic structure
7. Look at how the parts combine with each other
8. Make a decision about aims for your
3b - Introduction
There are three possible ways of writing an answer to question 3b, and you won't know until exam day what your options are, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with all the possible variations before the big day.
The three possible way to write this question are:
1. Composing from a harmonic progression with a given opening
2. Composing from a harmonic progression with your own opening
3. Composing with a given opening without a given harmonic progression
If you're given a harmonic progression, you'll also get an example opening. You have to use the chord progression exactly as it's given, but it's up to you whether you use the example opening or not.
If you're not given a chord progression, then you will get an obligatory given opening which you have to continue from.
In all cases, you should write out the complete melody on the staves provided, including copying out the given opening if you are using it.
Whichever type of question you are writing, there are some things which need to be done in every situation.
1. Write an 8-bar composition
2. Include full performance directions.
3. Copy over the performance directions of the given opening as well as the notes, when you start your piece.
4. Write your music out carefully and neatly. Use a pencil, and draw lines with a ruler if possible. If anything on the page is difficult to read, you might lose points, and you will definitely lose points for errors in your notation such as stems the wrong way round on notes, putting the wrong number of beats in a bar, or beaming notes in the wrong-sized groups, and so on.
3b - Dealing with a Given Chord Progression
If you’re given a chord progression, you'll be given a series of chords which fill up eight bars. The clef and key signature will be in place, as these will of course fix the pitch of the notes you're looking at, but normally there won't be a time signature in place.
Each chord will have three or four notes in it and will be written in any inversion. There won't be any rhythm given to these chords, but the notation used should give you an idea of how they are intended to be used in the composition.
In this case for example, we're looking at a piece in the bass clef with three flats in the key signature. This means the first chord is C minor, and the harmony of C minor will last for the entire first bar. This piece is, therefore in C minor.
Four note chords will be a triad with an added note such as a 7th or 9th. You might need to re-stack the chord notes to figure out the base triad.
In bar 3, the note heads are black to show you that the harmony lasts for less than a whole bar - you have two chords here, and how you divide up time between the chords will be up to you.
Take a moment now to work out the rest of the chords in this progression.
They are: Cm D°7 D°7 Fm7 D°7 Cm Fm7 D°7 D° C
The Given Opening Compared to Chords
The chord notes will tend to fall on the strongest beats of the bar. The strongest beat is the first beat, and subsequent beats will be weaker. Notes which are in between the main beats are off beats and the location where most of the melodic decoration will be found. There are exceptions though - you can use accented passing notes for example, as well as unaccented ones.
You can use any type of non-chord note you want (passing notes, auxiliary notes, suspensions, anticipations and changing notes), and you can move freely from one chord note to another, which means you do have a lot of options as you place each note down.
3b - Making your Own Chord Progression
If the question in your exam paper doesn't contain a chord progression, it doesn't mean that chords and harmony will not be assessed - quite the opposite in fact. If there is no given chord progression, you will need to figure one out for yourself. I would strongly recommend not leaving it up to chance, or where the music seems to take you. Your harmonic structure needs to be logical and convincing, and you will get better results if you take a moment to plan out what you are going to do.
There is no requirement to include a modulation, but your melody must be interesting harmonically.
You'll need to start by working out the key of the given opening of course. At this stage you should have no difficulty in working out key based on the key signature and melody notes used in the first bar. Using Roman numerals, note down the chords that have been used so far - you'll normally get around 2 bars to start you off.
At the end of the first phrase, you need to work out some kind of cadence. Some suggestions:
1) use an imperfect cadence, so you'll land on chord V on the first beat of bar 4 or,
2) modulate to a related key and use V-I or V7-I, with I in the new key landing on the first beat of bar 4.
The easiest keys to modulate to are the ones which are most closely related, so the relative major or minor key, the dominant, or the subdominant.
The chords you choose are up to you, but here are some tips.
- While it's possible to write a harmonic progression which only uses primary chords (I, IV or V) it won't sound very interesting.
- It's not possible to write a harmonic progression which only uses secondary chords (ii, iii, vi and vii) without destroying the tonality of the piece. Chord vii sounds a lot like V7 and is best treated as the same chord.
- Chord V is usually used in the major form, even in a minor key.
- Augmented chords should be avoided.
- Chords with added 7ths or even 9ths will add colour and interest. At the very least, aim to use V7 leading to I.
- The supertonic 7th is also quite easy to use and flows nicely to chord V. II7 works as a major, minor or diminished chord, so it's really flexible.
- If you are very confident, you can even consider using altered chords such as the beautifully juicy Neapolitan 6th, or one of the augmented 6th chords - the Italian, French or German.
Grade 7 Composition Exercises
Compose a melody using the following chord progression, of at least 8 bars. You may use the given opening if you want to. Choose from trombone or cello and state your chosen instrument. Include performance directions.
Compose a melody of at least 8 bars using the given opening, for cello or bassoon. State which instrument you have chosen and include relevant performance directions.
Compose a melody to fit with the given accompaniment, which is adapted from a song for voice by Schubert. Write the melody for violin. Suggested phrase marks are given.