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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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B1. Composition - Architecture

Grade Six Music Theory Composition:  Lesson 1 -  Architecture in Music

How Compositions are Built

You wouldn’t try to build a house from scratch without first looking at a lot of different types of building, and without reading up on the techniques of house construction. Similarly, it’s a good idea to begin learning about composition by examining other people’s work and studying the techniques they used. If you compose without thinking about technique, you’re unlikely to score a high mark in your Grade Six music theory exam!

We’ll start by looking at the overall structure of a piece of music. The ABRSM book “Music Theory in Practice Grade Six” tells us that “music, unlike noise, is the result of planneduse of sounds, ordered and controlled to make a logical progression”. This is really crucial – an unplanned composition will generally sound random and pointless and sometimes downright irritating!

We can compare music to language in many ways. If we think about language, the smallest units we have at our disposal are the individual letters of the alphabet. We can arrange and group the letters to make words. We can’t just stick any old letters together if we want our words to be meaningful! We arrange words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. We could write out the possible progression like this:

Letter > Word > Clause > Sentence > Paragraph > Chapter > Book > Series etc.

In music, we start with a note. We combine small numbers of notes together to make a motif. We might combine motifs in a couple of sections, which together make up a phrase. A couple of phrases will make a sentence and a bunch of sentences will make up a section (of a different type!) A handful of sections could comprise a movement, and three or four movements can make up a piece.

Note > Motif > Section > Phrase > Sentence > Section > Movement > Piece etc.

In the same way that in language the structure has some flexibility (not all books have chapters, for example), musical forms also vary a lot. Some parts are indispensable however – there are no words without letters, and there are no motifs without notes.


Complete Piece or Complete Melody?

In the Grade Six music theory exam, you will have a choice of composition questions. You can either write:

  • a melody which forms a complete piece, or
  • one which is a section of a larger piece.


The composition techniques are more or less the same though, whichever option you choose. You will need to pay close attention to the wording of the question.

“Complete piece” means that the composition:

  • ends at the last bar you write, and
  • has to end on the tonic of the original key.

“Complete melody” means that

  • we can assume the piece will continue with more music after what you’ve written, and
  • it usually ends in related key, for example the dominant.



A typical eight-bar melody is divided up into two phrases, each of four bars.

The first phrase is the antecedent and the answering phrase is the consequent. Each phrase might be further subdivided into two two-bar sections.


Each section normally contains connected motifs or melodic sequences of notes. The similarity of these “musical words”, and the harmony underlying them, is what gives the melody a feeling of coherence – it is not just a random series of notes.

It’s important to remember that a phrase does not have to start on the first beat of the bar. But each phrase will contain the same number of strong beats.



Here are some examples of eight-bar melodies. Each eight-bar melody is made up of two complementary phrases.

Notice how, in each case, the melody is developed from the material in the first two bars by means of simple changes. The phrases are similar but not the same.


Our first example is from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 3, K. 281.


  • The antecedent phrase is from bars 1-4, and the consequent phrase is from bars 5-8.
  • Each phrase is sub-divided into two sections (bars 1-2, 3-4, 5-6 and 7-8).
  • The first section in both phrases begins with a dotted quaver (dotted 8th note) trill followed by two sextuplet groups (six notes in the time of four).
  • The first section of the second phrase begins an octave lower than that of the first phrase, but is identical in every other way.
  • The second section in each phrase contains some rhythmic material which is the same (the demisemiquaver (32nd note) rhythm) and some which is different.
  • In bar 3, the harmony on the first beat of the bar is IV-I. In contrast, in bar 7 the chord is ii.
  • Both phrases end with perfect cadences.
  • The last three notes in bar 8 belong, in fact, to the next phrase.  These are simply decorative linking notes.


Our second example is from a piece called “Rigaudon” by Handel.



  • The first section of the antecedent and consequent phrases is identical, except for the dynamics.
  • The second section of the first phrase contains a quaver (8th note) sequence, whereas the second section of the second phrase re-uses the quaver-quaver-crotchet (8th-8th-quarter) rhythm from the first section.
  • The first phrase ends with an imperfect cadence I-V.
  • The second phrase ends with a modulation to the dominant – D major. This is a perfect cadence.


Our final example comes from a Waltz by Schubert. This melody is actually the second 8-bar section of the piece, and it leads on to another contrasting section. It is a “complete melody” in itself, however.



  • The first section of each phrase has the same rhythm, but the final minim (half note) is a different pitch, which means the harmony will also be different.
  • The first section of the first phrase ends on the dominant of B minor (F# major). The first section of the second phrase ends on the dominant of D major (A major), which is the relative major key.
  • Bar 7 re-uses the rhythm of bar 4, with a different melodic shape.
  • The final three notes are decorative linking notes which belong to the next phrase.
  • The modulation to the relative major key is helped by the A natural in bar 6. The harmonic B minor scale uses A#, but A natural is in D major.




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