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Victoria Williams

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12. Composing a Melody: General Tips

Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 12: Composing a Melody - General Tips [Archived lesson]

 Please note: the ABRSM Grade 5 syllabus no longer includes any questions on composition 


Composing Melodies

In question 6 of the Grade 5 theory paper, you have to write a short melody. You have to choose to write it for either an instrument or a voice.

This lesson looks at the general techniques needed for composing a short melody. 

(Lesson 13 focuses specifically on things you need to know about writing for instruments, and Lesson 14 is about setting music to words).

More help can also be found on the mymusictheory blog:


Instrument or Voice?

Choosing whether to compose for an instrument or a voice will depend on several things:

  • If English isn’t your first language, you may have some extra difficulties writing effectively to a text. (You will need to understand what all the words mean, and also how they are pronounced).
  • If you don’t know much about either of the instruments offered, you might do better to choose the voice question.
  • If you’re a singer, you might find the voice question easier.

In the instrumental question, you are given two bars of melody and have to write another six. In the voice question, you are given two lines of text which you need to set to music.

Some people think the voice question is easier, because they assume you can write whatever you want, you can choose the key and time signature, and the total number of bars is flexible. However, in my experience as a teacher, I have generally found that students get higher marks by doing the instrumental question. This is because many people find it difficult to set words to music correctly, and they don't realise that their composition has to be structured and follow the "grammar rules" of music. Whereas with the instrumental question, there is less to write and you are expected to adapt something, rather than think something up from scratch.

In any case, you should practise both types of question before you take the exam. You will soon find out if one type of question is more difficult for you. Here's a little more information about each question type:


Writing for an Instrument

You’ll be given the first two bars of a melody, with the key and time signature. (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.

The choice of instruments will be from different families, for example the violin and oboe, or the bassoon and cello. (There is no wrong answer - choose the instrument you are most comfortable with.)

Here's an example question: 

Compose a complete melody for unaccompanied violin or flute, using the given opening. Indicate the tempo and other performance directions, including any that might be particularly required for the instrument chosen. The complete melody should be eight bars long.

Instrument for which the melody is written: ...............................

Compose a complete melody using the given opening


Writing for Voice

You’ll be given the first two lines of text, 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 say which voice you’ve chosen, but you will have to keep the melody within the normal range of one voice, and use the appropriate clefs.

Here's an example question: 

Compose a complete melody to the following words for a solo voice. Write each syllable under the note or notes to which it is to be sung. Also indicate the tempo and other performance directions as appropriate.


The river glares in the sun

Like a torrent of molten glass.

Blank manuscript


Effective Composing

You might think that writing a melody without being able to hear it is impossible - but did you know that Beethoven wrote most of his great music when he was completely deaf?! Luckily, no one is asking you to write a 4-movement symphony - you only have to write a single melody line for 8 bars. But where do you start? 

Every piece of music has two vital elements - rhythm and melody. On top of that, the harmonic structure of your composition will give shape to the melody, and should also be considered when composing. Also important are performance directions, which are words or symbols that help the musician interpret the notes they are reading. We’ll look at each of these in turn. 

Balance is also important: your melody should usually be 8 bars long, so you should break it down into two parts or "phrases", (this is called binary form). The first phrase will be bars 1-4, and the second phrase will be bars 5-8. If you like, you can then divide each phrase into 2, giving you four short 2-bar phrases. We can call these four phrases 1a, 1b, 2a and 2b. 

Let's look at rhythm, melody, harmonic structure and performance directions in more detail.

(These examples are based on an 8-bar melody. If you choose the voice question, you can write it for as many bars as you think appropriate, but eight is an excellent choice, because it is the most balanced. If you don't choose eight bars, then write it for four. Don't choose any other number!)



I want you to forget about melody for now, so in the following examples I’m going to use a one-line stave, so that we can focus on rhythm only. 

Here are the opening bars (phrase 1a and 1b) of some well-known tunes, notated in rhythm only:


  1. British National Anthem:
    British National Anthem
  2. Beethoven Symphony no.5, 1st movement
    Beethoven Symphony no.5
  3. Happy Birthday to You/Star Spangled Banner
    Happy Birthday or Star Spangled Banner


What do they all have in common?

They each have a rhythmic phrase which is repeated to create phrase 1b.

You shouldn't write your second phrase with exactly the same rhythm as the first (because your composition will be too short), but it must be quite similar


Look at how I’ve altered the second phrase of those three extracts, (tap out the rhythms on the table as you read them!)

  1. Rhythm swapped
  2. Note values altered
  3. Note values changed


What kind of changes did I make?

Extract 1: I swapped around the rhythm in bars 3 and 4.

Extract 2: I changed 2 quavers (eighth notes) into 4 semiquavers (sixteenth notes).

Extract 3: I changed a crotchet (quarter note) into two quavers (eighth notes).


You can change the rhythm of phrase 1a in any number of ways; the important thing is not to change it too much!


The same guidelines apply when you create phrases 2a and 2b - keep the rhythms similar, but make small changes, and make sure that phrase 2 is not identical to phrase 1.

There are not many rules about how you should adapt the rhythm, except that there must be some connection and some similaritybetween the rhythms - don’t write a completely different rhythm for each of your four phrases, and it must not be too repetitive.


When you write your composition, be sure to use rhythms and groupings which are correct for the time signature. The rhythms used in 3/4 are not the same as those used in 6/8, for example! Read the lesson on time signatures again, if necessary.

If the composition starts with an up beat (or "anacrusis" or "pick-up"), the last bar of the melody needs to compensate. Bar 1 is always the first complete bar. 

For example, if you have a crotchet (quarter note) up beat in 3/4 time, then bar 8 will contain only two crotchets (two quarter notes), because the first and last bars added together total one complete bar.




Just like rhythms, melodies sound good if they contain repeated sequences. Do you know this children’s song? (It’s called Frere Jacques.)

Frere Jacques

This song simply repeats both the rhythm and melody in bars 1 and 3 to create bars 2 and 4.

But if you look more closely, you’ll see that the melody in 1b (E-F-G) is the same as the first three notes of the melody in 1a (C-D-E)- but a third higher. In both cases, the melody rises twice by step.

This is an example of a melodic sequence: a section of melody which is repeated but starting on a different step of the scale.

However, Frere Jacques is probably not the most interesting song in the world, so let’s look at another example! 

This is the “Gloria” chorus from the Christmas carol Ding Dong Merrily on High!:

Gloria Chorus

The rhythm of each bar is the same, but the melody is in sequences, with each bar starting one step down in the key of G major, starting on the dominant note, then C (bar 2) then B (bar 3). 

There are several types of sequence which you can use to generate new melodic phrases, so let's look at them in more detail.



Bar to Sequence

This is the bar we’re going to sequence.


Type of Sequence



Melodic Sequence

Change the starting note but keep all the relative intervals the same:

Imitation a 2nd higher

This sequence starts a 2nd higher.

Imitation a 5th higher

This one starts a 5th higher


Turn the melody upside down:



Write the melody back to front:


Retrograde Inversion

Upside down and back to front:

Retrograde inversion


You can also combine any of the above types of sequence. 

Your new melody should be a mix of your own ideas and some imitation of what’s already there - your new ideas need to be linked to the two bars you’ve already been given. Be inventive, but don’t stray too far away! 

(By the way, don’t worry about remembering all the names of the different types of sequences; you won’t be tested on them!)


In the instrumental question, you are given an opening to adapt and create the rest of the composition from. In the vocal question, you will have to invent your own opening, but you will then need to adapt it to create the rest of the melody.


Harmonic Structure

(See Lesson 11 for basic information about progressions and cadences.)

Although you are only writing a single line of music, you should keep in mind the chords that could accompany your melody.

Your piece should be constructed in two halves of exactly the same length. At the end of each half, you need to use notes which fit an appropriate cadence. 

  • In a short, 8-bar tune, the end of the first phrase sounds best if it ends on an imperfect cadence. This means that the end of the phrase would sound good if it was played with chord V. The chord which comes before V is up to you, but common imperfect cadences are I-V, II-V, IV-V and VI-V. Make sure that the notes which end your first phrase fit into one of these cadence chords. 
  • The end of the second phrase should ideally end with a perfect cadence. A perfect cadence is V - I.  You should always end your composition with a tonic note, with the value of at least a crotchet (quarter note). 

Make sure the notes you have chosen for your melody fit the cadences at these points. (Don’t forget that your non-chord notes don't count). 

For the rest of your composition, you will write something that sounds great if your harmonic structure is good. Each bar of your composition should fit with a chord which exists in the key of your piece. (Work out which are chord notes and non-chord notes in exactly the same way as you do when working out cadences.)

A good harmonic structure is one which uses:

  • Chords I, IV and V at least half of the time
  • Chords II and VI occasionally
  • A different chord on each beat, or in each bar. Don't use the same harmony for more than one bar's worth: keep it moving.

Chords I and V should be used at the start of a composition. In the instrumental composition, you will be given the opening, so you don't need to worry about this. However, if you choose the vocal composition you should remember to use I and V straight away.

Chord III is not used very often.

Chord VII works the same way as chord V, because it fools our ears into thinking it is V7 (V with an added 7th e.g. G-B-D-F in the key of C major).

In a minor key, you need to base your chords on the harmonic minor scale. This means that chord V is always a major chord (e.g. E major in the key of A minor). Chord III must be avoided (because it is C-E-G# (for example, in A minor), which is an augmented chord, which is nasty). Chord VII also uses the raised leading note in a minor key (e.g. G#-B-D in A minor). 

Here's a summary of the recommended chords to use in a major and minor key:


Here is an example of a composition with a strong harmonic structure. The key is B minor. The melody begins with chords I and V, the first phrase ends with an imperfect (IV-V) cadence, and the end of the piece uses a perfect (V-I) cadence. The rest of the piece mainly uses chords I, IV and V, with a II and VI also used occasionally. Non-chords notes are marked with an X (remember, non-chords notes are an interval of a 2nd away from the previous chord note: see the lesson on progressions for more info.) The harmony changes at least every bar, sometimes it changes with each beat of the bar (e.g. bar 5).



Performance Directions

Whatever instrument/voice you’re writing for, you will need to include performance directions for the player/singer.

You must include:

  • Tempo (speed). Use the accepted Italian terms.
  • Dynamics (volume). Indicate a starting dynamic, and indicate gradual increase/decrease of volume with hairpins.
  • Articulation (instrumental music=attack). 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. (See the next lesson for more on this.)


Top Tips

My best tip is to keep in your mind that a little goes a long way. Adapt the opening melody without changing it drastically add just a few performance directions to the player - but be sparing.

Take a look at some of the music you’re playing right now- just how many directions can you find in the space of 8 bars? Not many, I’d guess!

If you try to write something very complicated, you’re more likely to get into a mess. Keep it clean and simple, but make sure you do add some directions, which are both relevant and meaningful.


How can I learn to hear my compositions in my head?

Get into the habit of hearing music in your head. You’ll find this question much easier if you can accurately pinpoint the notes you’re writing, (you won’t be able to sing them out loud in the exam room!) 

Everyone can hear music in their head (sometimes you get a tune going round and round in there that you can’t get rid of), but learning to hear in your head what your eyes are seeing is a little harder. Take some music which you haven’t studied yet and try to read it without playing/singing it. Don’t panic - the more you practice, the easier it will get. 

Start off with just 2-4 bars, and build it up as you become more confident. Choose music that moves in small steps, not in big intervals, and without lots of accidentals. Check what was in your head by playing the bars on your instrument. Were they the same? 

Gradually move on to more complicated music- with difficult key signatures, tricky rhythms and huge leaps. Learning the skill of hearing music in your head also helps your sightreading a lot! 

You might find it easier if you make some kind of physical reaction as you read - if you can sing, you might feel your voice-box subconsciously changing as you change notes; if you play an instrument it might help if let your fingers move on an imaginary instrument.


Composer's Checklist

Here’s a checklist to use while you’re doing practice questions. (See Lessons 13 and 14 for more details).

Click here to print a copy of the table. 







Double bar at end


Range of notes fits


Cadences (1st=?-V, 2nd=V-I)




Long tonic note at end


Wind Instruments



Range fits the instrument


String Instruments



Range fits the instrument



Breathing (phrasing)


Clef, Key and Time


Syllables ok


Word Painting


Style consistent




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