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B7. Composition - How to Compose

Grade Six Music Theory Lesson B7. How to Compose

Lessons B1-B6 have covered the basics of how compositions are made. The next step is to combine all these elements together and begin to craft your own compositions.

At this point we need to stress that you are composing as part of a music theory exam – not for a composition exam! In order to get a high score, you need to demonstrate that you know how a composition is structured and by putting theory into practice. You don’t get high marks for showing a lot of imagination or by breaking away from the established rules. As in most areas of art, you need to learn the rules before you break them.

So the best way to begin your composition is by reviewing the given opening, and then making a plan. After that you can do the composing, then finish off by polishing.

Reviewing the given opening

  • Check the key and time signature of the opening.
  • Look at the rhythms, motifs and sequences and decide which elements are characteristic of the piece.
  • Check the length. It will usually be two full bars, but not always.


Making a Plan

You’re now ready to compose!



  • Make minor modifications to the given material to complete the antecedent phrase. Think about sequencing and reusing motifs. Try to use 2-bar sections.
  • Make sure your melody fits a suitable cadence (and possible modulation) at the end of the antecedent phrase.
  • Make minor modifications to the antecedent phrase to make the consequent phrase.
  • Don’t forget to include an interpolation if you want to.
  • Make sure the consequent phrase ends on a perfect cadence in the right key.



  • Double check that the instrument which you’ve written for can actually play the notes you’ve written. This shouldn’t be a problem unless you’ve written very low or very high notes. Don’t forget that the flute cannot play lower than middle C, and the oboe's lowest note is Bb below middle C. You can check the ranges for instruments here.
  • Add in performance instructions. You should indicate the dynamics, phrasing and articulation and maybe also expression. Articulation is especially important for all wind instruments – the players need to know whether each note should be attacked with the tongue or not. Use phrase marks to show which notes should be played in one breath or sweep of the bow. Make sure your wind player has somewhere to breathe! You can add bowing marks to string music if they add something to the piece musically - don't just add them for the sake of it though.
  • Double check that you have not made any silly mistakes like writing the wrong number of beats in a bar. In particular, if the piece started on an up-beat, make sure the last bar contains the right number of beats.
  • Sing your melody through in your head, quite slowly. Make any adjustments or improvements which seem necessary.


Example Answers with Commentary

“Continue this opening to form a complete melody for unaccompanied flute. It should end with a modulation to the relative minor and should be between eight and ten bars long. Add performance directions as appropriate.”


1. Review the Opening.

  • It’s in A major. (The question tells us to modulate to the relative minor, so we know it must be major!)
  • It’s in 4/4 time.
  • The first bar is basically a falling tonic triad with an added B as an auxiliary note. There is a leap of an octave. The second bar moves by step for the first two beats with F# as another auxiliary note, then there is a falling perfect 4th.
  • The section is 2 bars long. The next section will start on the last beat of the second bar. The final bar will have three beats in it.


2. Make a plan

  • I will decide to write a 10-bar composition. The antecedent phrase will be 4 bars long, and the consequent will be 6 bars and contain an interpolation section.
  • The music has to modulate to F# minor by the end.
  • The given opening appears to end on a V chord, so the antecedent should probably end on I, in order to prevent repetition.
  • I will make the music modulate in bar 9. D major is a pivot chord, because it is IV in A major, and VI in F# minor. The end of the piece will be a perfect cadence, C# major to F# minor.
  • I can write out my plan like this:


  • Notice how the piece is now completely structured, with ordered phrase and section lengths, sensible cadences and a suitable modulation. When you are awarded points in the Grade Six music theory exam, this is what the examiner will be looking for. Having a pretty tune is an advantage of course, but the foundation of your composition is very important. 


3. Composing

First I need to complete the antecedent phrase.

Because the first bar would be harmonized with chord I, and the phrase will end on chord V, I’ll use notes which are part of the chord IV to add some variety. 

I’ll adapt the quaver (8th note) rhythm from bar 2, using the notes of the D major chord moving in small steps, and then using the notes of the A major chord moving through the triad.

I’ll then add a big leap of a 10th up to high C#, in an echo of the octave leap in bar 1. This is a piece for flute, which is quite at home playing in that register.

I’ll start the section after a quaver (8th) rest, which will give the flautist a chance to catch his/her breath.


Next I’ll take the motif starting from the first beat of bar 1 and write a sequence which starts one step lower down the scale. This means my section ends on G#, which also fits chord V, making the cadence at the end of the phrase imperfect.



The next section is the start of the consequent phrase. I need to develop the material from section A first.

Again I give the flute player a quaver (8th) rest. I’ll start the next section on G#, because the previous section started on a repeated note after the rest (E).

I use the same rhythm from bar 1, and use the notes from the same chord (I). However, in bar 1 the figure starts on C#, so I’ll start on A for variety. Instead of leaping up an octave, I’ll go up a 4th to A, and move smoothly by step to make bar 6 a sequence of bar 2, starting a 3rd higher.



Next comes the interpolation. There should be in increase in drama, so I’ll make the melody continue to rise. I can do this by putting the opening up one octave starting on the E.

Again, instead of the octave leap, I’ll put a leap of a 4th, which is similar to the end of bar 5. This is also helpful, because it suggests the chord of D major at the end of bar 8, which is the pivot chord we need in order to modulate to F# minor.



Finally we need to write the last section based on section B.

We assume that chord IV in A major is now VI in F# minor. We need the notes in the next bar to fit chord V (C# minor), so that we can incorporate a perfect cadence and also to include the E# which will help to fix the new key, because it’s a note which doesn’t exist in the old key.

I’ll base the melody on bar 3, but invert the first half of the bar, for a little variety.

The second half of the bar is similar in that it’s a falling triad. At this point I add the octave leap (up to C#).

The final bar is a sequence of bar 4.



4. Polishing

All the notes would be easy to play on a flute. However, I need to look carefully at the end of each section. In some places there is a quaver (8th) rest, in others there is not. We need to be consistent, while bearing in mind that the player needs to breathe. Since the first note of the piece is a crotchet (quarter note), I think it will be better to start both  phrases with a crotchet (quarter note). However, I can begin the two section Bs with a quaver (8th). I need to change bars 4 and 8 accordingly.

I need to add some phrasing, articulation, dynamics and breathing marks. I will try to keep the phrasing and articulation of similar patterns consistent throughout. The piece will start loud, become softer, then crescendo during the interpolation, finishing again quite loud. I use commas to show suggested breathing places.





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