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Next UK ABRSM theory exams
Wednesday 6th March 2019

Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 14: Composing a Melody - Voices

This lesson explains how to tackle the voice composition question in the ABRSM Grade 5 Music Theory exam. You should read Lesson 12: General Tips for Composition first. The composition question gives you a choice of either an instrumental or a vocal composition. Instrumental compositions are covered in lesson 13.

The Voice Composition Question 

In the Grade 5 Theory voice composition question you’ll be given two lines of text, usually 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 write which voice you’ve chosen, but you will have to keep the melody within the normal range of one voice. You can use either the treble or bass clef, whichever you are more comfortable with.

 

Voice ranges - Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass

Try to avoid extreme highs and lows of the range.

 

Melody Length

The length of the melody is up to you, but a well-balanced melody will normally last for 4 or 8 complete bars: each line of text should fit into 2 or 4 bars.

Often the melody will need to start with an up beat (which means an incomplete bar), in which case your last bar should make up the beats in the last bar. Don’t forget to finish on the tonic note, with a double barline!

 

Writing the Melody

The voice composition question is assessed in quite a few different ways. You will need to work out a rhythm which fits the stress of the words, and a melody which suits the meaning of the words. It's a good idea to begin by sorting out the rhythm, then add a melody to the rhythm when you've worked it out.

Each individual syllable of the text needs to be set to at least one note. To make a good rhythm, you need to work out where the stressed syllables are in the given words, and place the stressed syllables on the strong beats of the bar.

Then you need to construct the entire rhythm of the piece and pick a suitable time signature. Next, you need to decide on the mood of the piece (based on the meaning of the words), and create a melody which fits the rhythm and mood.

Finally, you should add performance directions to your composition.

Write in the words as you write each musical note, so that you have enough space for both. When you have finished, check that the way the words are written for each note has been done correctly - this is known as the "verbal underlay" (explained below!) If you write all the melody first, you’ll find that you haven’t got enough space to write the words neatly. If you write all the text first, you will probably get the relative spacing of the notes wrong!

So here are the steps:

  1. Work out the stressed syllables
  2. Write a rhythm and choose a time signature
  3. Choose a mood and key, and write the melody/words underneath
  4. Add performance directions
  5. Check the verbal underlay

 

1. Work out the stressed syllables

Look at your first line of text and decide which syllables you think should be stressed - these words will be sung naturally on the first beat of the bar.

How easy this is depends on the words you’ve got. Here are some examples.

Old castles on the cliffs arise,

Proudly towering in the skies.

 

Here are the stressed syllables in red:

Old castles on the cliffs arise,

Proudly towering in the skies.

 

How did I work out the stresses? 

Try saying the words aloud and clapping or stamping your foot in time. If you seem to be clapping on every word, try clapping at half the speed (but carry on speaking at the same speed). Say the lines aloud several times without stopping, and you should start to instinctively start clapping on four accented words.

(If you find this very difficult to do, you should probably choose the question on writing for an instrument, rather than for voice.)

 

Here’s another example, which is a bit harder: 

The river glares in the sun

Like a torrent of molten glass

 

Try the same clapping exercise. Again, halve the speed of your clapping if you seem to be clapping all the time. You should end up clapping at these points:

The river glares in the sun

 Like a torrent of molten glass

 

2. Write the rhythm

Now take your pencil again, and sketch in a rhythm above each line of text. You can either choose a time signature before you start, or "see how it goes" and select one at the end. 

 Most texts will fit into a variety of time signatures, and there isn’t one single correct answer. However, sometimes the words of the text might lead you to choose a particular time signature; for example words about a battle could suggest a marching 2/4, or romantic words often sound smoother in triple time.

Be consistent: use similar types of rhythms throughout. Don't be too repetitive though, and make sure that the first and second halves of the piece are similar but not identical. (They should be like fraternal (not identical) twins: with some similarities, but easy to see the differences!)

You need to write at least one note value per syllable. Feel free to write more than one note per syllable if you want!

 

Here are two possible rhythms for this text:

vocal-composition-1

 

vocal-composition-2

 

3. Mood and Melody

Decide whether the music should be in a major or minor key. Look at the words again and think about how they make you feel. If they are sunny, positive words, use a major key. If they are dark, sad or aggressive, use a minor key. 

The words might also suggest a particular style to you. It could be a lullaby, a march, a love song or something else completely. 

Think about word painting. Word painting is the technique of using notes to imitate the literal meaning of words in the text. 

For example, if you have the word “low”, you use a low note, if you have the words “soaring” you write ascending high notes and so on. Other evocative words could be “climb”, “fall”, “sigh”, “stop,” "rushing" and “jump”. There won’t always be words which you can paint with, but if you can find one, do try to use it!

 

4. Performance Directions

You will need to add a tempo at the beginning of the piece - again, think about the mood you want to create. You also need to add dynamics. You need a dynamic for the first note, and then some changes of dynamic which follow the mood and contours of the piece. Bear in mind that it is most natural to crescendo while singing a rising melody, and decrescendo when the melody falls.

It's a good idea to write any dynamics above the stave, so that they don't get mixed up with the words of the text.

 

  5. Check the Verbal Underlay

Each syllable of the text must be aligned correctly with its corresponding note.

Each syllable of a word should be centred underneath the note it is sung to. 

 When a word has two or more syllables, you need to break it up. Use hyphens (-) to link the syllables together. Break up the word so that each syllable starts with a consonant which you can sing. For example, let’s break up the word “Constantinople”. It’s got five syllables, so the correct way to break it up is like this: 

Con - stan - ti - no - ple

Each new syllable starts with a consonant which you can sing. 

 

Here are two other ways to break it up, but they are wrong:

Co - nsta - nti - nop - le

This is wrong because you can’t sing “nsta” or “nti”, and “le” isn’t pronounced that way in the word.

 

Cons - tant - i - no - ple

This is wrong because the “st” sound should be kept together, and the third syllable should start with a consonant.

Words that have grammatical endings such as “-ing” or “-ed” or “est” etc., can be split so that the main word is joined to its ending, for example “breath-ing” (not “brea-thing”).

 

Here’s a notated example of some hyphenated words:

Hyphenating syllables

 

You can write more than one note to be sung to one syllable. Use one or more long dashes under each note that the syllable should be sung to, and connect the notes together with a slur, like the word "us" here:

Notating more than one note to one syllable

 

 Beaming

In the old days, quavers (eighth notes) and smaller  were not supposed to be beamed together in vocal music. You were supposed to write

Unbeamed quavers

and not

Beamed quavers

These days though, it's preferable to beam the notes together. You may well come across old vocal scores which use this old notation style. If you do, look more closely and see if you can identify any other changes in the way music is now written down! 

 

 Breathing

Don’t forget that singers need to breathe, especially if your tempo is slow! You don’t need to notate breathing points, but keep in mind that it’s easier to grab a quick breath at the end of a minim (half note) than in between quavers (eighth notes)!

 

Example Composition 

Here's an example of a complete composition to the text "The river glares in the sun".

vocal-comp-3

 

I chose the time signature of 3/4 because I feel that triple time feels more flowing and therefore more "river-like". I decided to make the word "river" meander around a bit, whereas the word "glass" would be flat and still (word painting). Notice that the word "glass" doesn't need a hyphen - it's sung to a tied note, which counts as just one note.

I chose a minor key overall, because the words seem quite negative. However, I decided to write an imperfect cadence on the word "sun" in the relative major key (the notes fit the chords of G major then D major), because the word "sun" is positive. The key moves back to E minor at the end, with a perfect cadence on the syllables "-ten" and "glass" (chords of B major and E minor).

The melody begins low and gradually rises up to high E. For this reason, I started at a moderately soft dynamic, and crescendoed through to the end.

The rhythms in each bar/phrase are similar but not identical at all. The rhythm is built from standard note values (i.e without triplets, double-dotted notes or syncopation, etc.). Both halves of the composition use a combination of minims, dotted crotchets and quavers (half notes, dotted quarters and eighths). The last note is held on for two bars so that the entire composition becomes eight bars in total. If I had stopped in bar 7, it would have felt a little unbalanced. 

The harmonic structure of the melody is strong (see lesson 12). The chords used are (in E minor)  V, I, VI, (in G major) I, V (in E minor) IV, I, II, V, I. There is a good variety, with chords I and V being used more often.

 

 

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