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Victoria Williams

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Compositional Techniques

 

Compositional Techniques

In the grade 7 music theory exam, questions on compositional techniques can range from describing similarities and differences to explaining or locating specific techniques within the score.

 

Similarities and Differences

You may be asked to compare two sections of the score and comment on the similarities and differences. This is a kind of “spot the difference” question.

Changes/similarities to look out for:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Dynamics
  • Articulation (e.g. accents, slurs, staccato…)
  • Key
  • Tempo
  • Instrumentation (which instruments are playing)
  • Expression (e.g. via Italian terms)

 

How Does the Composer Achieve an Effect?

Typical questions ask how the composer achieves a feeling of strength, climax, drama or change of mood. You’ll need to examine the same aspects of the music as listed above, but look in particular for things which fit the question.

  • A sense of heightened drama or climax is normally achieved by making the music faster, higher, louder, or a combination of these.
  • A feeling of strength could be achieved by using more instruments (especially powerful ones like French horns), and/or increased dynamics particularly in the lower register.
  • A change of mood is often brought about by changing any of the items listed above, and usually several will be changed for a clear contrast.

 

Phrases

You might be asked to mark out the phrase structure of the piece with brackets, or to say whether the piece consists of “regular phrases”, but what is a phrase and how do you identify one?

A phrase is to music what a sentence or clause is to writing. In writing, you need to use sentences if you want to make sense.

At the end of a sentence, you use a full stop (period), to signify that the sentence has finished. In music, the same is achieved with a perfect cadence (V-I).

In writing, a sentence is often broken up into shorter sections called “clauses”. The end of a clause is signified by a comma. The comma tells the reader that that particular part of the sentence is finished, but that there will be another part to follow. In music, this is achieved by an imperfect cadence (any chord followed by V). Phrases are often used in pairs, with a “questioning” phrase (imperfect cadence) followed by an “answering” phrase (perfect cadence).

 

Things to look out for:

  • Cadences are sometimes achieved with slightly longer note values, compared to the rest of the phrase. Looking at the note values used can help you locate the end of each phrase.
  • Phrases can be split up by rests – so rests are another clue, and easy to spot quickly.
  • Dynamics normally align with the start (and sometimes end) of a phrase.
  • Repetitions can help you work out the phrase structure. For example, an “answering phrase” might use similar rhythm, but with different melody notes.
  • Patterns in the beaming may provide a clue to where a phrase starts. For example, where a phrase begins on an upbeat, it’s common for this note not to be beamed back to the notes in the previous phrase.

 

In this example (“Davidsbündlertanz” by Schumann), there are two four-bar phrases. Box A shows the imperfect cadence (i-V) at the end of phrase one (B minor), and box B shows the perfect cadence (V7-I) at the end of phrase two (modulation to D major).

In box C, notice that the quaver (eighth note) B is not beamed back to the previous notes – this is a good clue that it’s the starting note of a new phrase. If you look at the rhythms, you will see that phrase two is almost exactly the same as phrase one. Can you find the difference in the rhythm?

phrases grade 7

 

Motifs

A motif is an easily recognisable, short musical idea, which is used as a seed to grow new music from. Repeated use of a motif throughout a composition helps to glue it together as a unified piece of music. Motifs are most often defined by their rhythm. The most famous motif in classical music is probably the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony:

motif grade 7 music theory

 

Melodic Sequences

A melodic sequence is section of music which is repeated at a different pitch. In this simple sequence, notes 1-5 are repeated but each is a scale-step higher. This is an example of a rising sequence, as the repetition is higher pitched. You can also find descending sequences.

 melodic sequence grade 7 theory

Like the motif, the sequence is used as a unifying technique – to ensure that a composition is built on connected ideas. The difference is that a motif tends to retain its rhythmic character and is normally quite short, whereas a sequence preserves its melodic character and can be considerably longer.

A sequence which introduces some minor changes which do not impact the overall character of the melody are described as not exact. Here, the sequence has a minor change on the second beat:

melodic sequence not exact

 

Imitation

Imitation happens when a section of music is repeated in a different part, or instrument, or pitch, straight away like a kind of echo. In keyboard music, imitation could occur between the right and left hand staves, or even on a single stave which has been divided into a higher and lower part.

Here is an example of imitation from Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata (1st movement).

melodic imitation grade 7 music theory

The piano plays C-Bb-Ab, which is immediately echoed in the clarinet part at the same pitch (transpose down a major 2nd into concert pitch!)

Imitation can be melodic, which means the entire melody is copied (as above), or just rhythmic. In rhythmic imitation, the rhythm is copied but the melody notes are changed. In this example, the flute and clarinet use the same rhythm, but the echo moves in a different melodic direction, and by a different interval:

rhythmic imitation grade 7 music theory

 

Parts Cross

The phrase “parts cross” means that between two parts, the higher one moves downward in pitch so far, that it becomes the lower one.

For example, in this passage for two clarinets, clarinet 1 begins on a higher pitched note than clarinet 2:

parts cross

But by the end of the phrase, the first clarinet is playing at a lower pitch than the second clarinet (see the boxed area).

 

Pedal

A pedal is a repeated note, (usually the tonic or dominant in the prevailing key) which is either repeated or sustained (held for some time), while the harmony changes above it. It gets its name from the foot pedal on the organ, which can sustain a note easily while the players’ hands change the harmony.

Most often, the pedal occurs in the bass line of a piece.

Here, there is a tonic pedal on C in the bass, while the harmony changes above (Am, G, F, Dm, C):

tonic pedal not sustained grade 7

 

A pedal can also occur above the bass, in which case it is an inverted pedal. A pedal which happens in a middle part can also be called an inner pedal.

This pedal on B (dominant) is an inverted, (or inner), pedal, which is sustained (held). The chords are i, V7, i, ii°, V.

inner inverted pedal sustained

A pedal which uses both the tonic and dominant notes is a double pedal.

To find a pedal quickly, scan the score for a note which is repeated several times, or look out for long note values which fill the whole bar or more. Next, check that the harmony is actually changing at the same time. A long held bass note on its own is not a pedal, unless the harmony changes too.

 

 

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