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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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16. Composing a Rhythm

Grade 2 Music Theory - Lesson 16: Composing a Rhythm

Suitable for:  Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 

Please note: Composition will be removed from the ABRSM grade 2 exam on the 31st December 2017. Composition will remain in the Trinity Syllabus


Trinity Grade 2 Composition

In the grade two Trinity exam, you may be asked to compose a short melody to a given rhythm. You will normally be given some guidance on the notes you need to use, for example:

  • use notes of the tonic triad
  • use the first five degrees of the scale

In this question the examiner will be looking for the following:

  • correct notation (stem direction, nicely drawn notes)
  • accurate copying of the given rhythm
  • correctly written key signature
  • correct selection of notes (take notice of the clef!)

Here is an example.

Write a tune to the given rhythm using the notes of the tonic triad. Use a key signature and finish on the tonic.

G major

trinity triad composition

First of all, work out which notes you are supposed to use. The key is G major, so the notes of the tonic triad are G, B and D. The tonic is G, so that is the note we need to end on. You can use the notes in any register – high or low, but your melody will sound better if you avoid lots of enormous leaps!

Here is one possible answer:

trinity triad composition answer


Here is a different type of question.

Write a tune to the given rhythm using the first five notes of the scale. Use a key signature and finish on the tonic.

D minor

trinity scale composition

The first five notes in the scale of D minor are D-E-F-G-A and the tonic is D. Try to use all the notes.

Here is one possible answer:

trinity scale composition answer

ABRSM Grade 2 Composition

Rhythm Review

Composing a RhythmComposing a rhythm in Grade Two Music Theory is just a little bit harder than for Grade One.

You may find it useful to review the Grade One lesson first, to get the general idea, then return to this page to see what's new for Grade Two.

What's New

In Grade Two, you're only given one bar of rhythm, and you have to compose three more.

The rhythms you are given (and those you are supposed to write) will be a little bit more complicated than in grade one. They'll often include dotted rhythms or triplets, for example.


Example Question

Here's a question for us to work through together:

Write a four-bar rhythm using the given opening.

Write a four-bar rhythm using the given opening


How do we start? The first thing to learn is that your 4-bar rhythm must be made up of two phrases - we'll call them A and B.

Phrase A is the first two bars, and phrase B is the last two.

We can think of phrase A as a "question", and phrase B as the "answer".

Phrase A is a question, and phrase B is an answer


Question Phrases

As you can see, in grade two we are actually only given half a question phrase (whereas in grade one you're given a complete 2-bar question). The same kind of thing in words could be something like why do you.....?" or "have you ever......?"

There are probably millions of ways to finish these questions in a sensible way, and even more ways to finish them with something meaningless!

We could ask

  • Have you ever been to France?
  • Why do you get up at 7 o'clock?

 But it wouldn't make much sense if we asked

  • Have you ever yesterday afternoon?
  • Why do you rabbit mountains?

In music, the question must also make sense - musical sense. This means that you need to write something which fits with the first bar, and not something that is totally unconnected to it. Let's take a look at some examples.


This is ok, but not very interesting. We didn't create anything new, so we shouldn't expect many points for this! You won't normally get more than 7/10 if you copy the given opening exactly.


This doesn't fit very well because none of the note values in bar 2 appear in bar 1, so there's no connection.


This one is good - bar two uses some old material from bar one (the triplet), and some new material (the minim (half note)).


This one is also good - the note values all appear in the first bar, but we've changed the order of them. So, there is a strong connection, but it's not an exact copy.


Again, this is good because it re-uses some, but not all, of the rhythms from bar 1.


Not such a good choice - the only note value which appears in both bars is the crotchet (quarter note), but everything else is completely different. It's probably best not to include rests in your rhythm, unless they are part of the rhythm given in bar 1.

Answering Phrases

Before we think about answering the question phrase, we need to choose a completed question phrase. Let's say we finish our question phrase like this:

Finished question phrase 

Look at the types of rhythm we've used on each beat.

We've got three types: a plain crotchet (quarter note), a triplet quaver (8th note) group and a dotted quaver/semiquaver (dotted 8th/16th) pair. 

We should use mostly these same types of rhythm in our answering phrase.

The very last note of the phrase should be a reasonably long one (at least a crotchet (quarter note)), so that the rhythm sounds properly finished.

Let's take a look at some answering phrases and see which ones are any good, and why. 


This sounds fine. We re-used some of the important rhythms, but not in the same order, and we finished on a nice long minim (half note).



This doesn't sound very good. Because we forgot about the triplets, the last two bars don't match the first two very well. 



Here we forgot to re-use the dotted rhythm, and the last bar is certainly not very interesting! 



This one is good - the rhythms are re-used in a different order and the final note value is a nice long end note. 



This is also a good answer. The rhythms are linked, and the last note is a long enough ending note.



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