Compose a Melody for Grade 8 Music Theory ABRSM
This lesson gives you a brief outline of how to think through the Grade 8 composition question.
For an in depth look, plus hints tips, worked examples and personal help, please take a look at our Video Course on Composition for Grade 8!
Introduction to the ABRSM Grade 8 Composition Question
In the ABRSM Grade 8 Music Theory exam, the composition question is worth 20 points. You will be given a choice of two questions, which will both consist of a given opening for you to continue.
You will be tested on your ability to create a composition with a good harmonic foundation, an interesting and well-developed melody, effective modulations and correct notation. The melody must be suitable for the chosen instrument.
In this section of the course you’ll learn:
• how to analyse and describe the most important ideas of the given opening of your piece
• how to adapt those ideas to create a meaningful whole, with structure, sound harmony, and well-shaped phrases
• how to make your piece sufficiently complicated – because a simple piece at grade 8 is not going to get you top marks, even with a pretty tune.
When you have read through the course and are confident you know what is expected of you, you should start by outlining the whole structure of your composition. You will be able to answer the following questions, which will help you to create a solid plan for your composition.
1. How long is your finished composition going to be? Choose either 12 or 16 bars. The minimum is 12, and longer than 16 is allowed, but will take you more time to finish!
2. Secondly, what form will your composition have? E.g. ABA, or ABAB. (The letters “A”, “B” and so on are used to identify sections of music which are the same, or very closely based on the same idea. Having two contrasted sections is ideal for this length of composition, but it is up to you which form you choose).
3. What length of phrases? (Four-bar phrases are recommended, since they create balance.)
4. How many modulations? (2-3 main modulations are recommended. Your piece can “pass through” several keys though).
Analysis of the Given Opening
Every note or symbol that you write should have a justification – if I asked you “why did you write that G# there?” for example, you should be able to say: because
• it’s connected to something else
• it’s a contrast to something else, or
• it’s structural
A connection has a strong, audible similarity to something which has already happened.
A contrast creates variety – the contrast needs to be strong enough for a listener to detect.
The note is required because of the harmony or phrase structure. E.g. for a good cadence or modulation.
When you begin to compose, your first notes must be connected to the given opening. The contrast stage will come later in the piece, and the structural elements will be at the cadence and modulation points. For now, let’s focus on finding a connection with the given opening.
How to Find the Important Features of the Given Opening
1) The rhythm. What sort of note values have been used- long, short, dotted, a mixture? Is there anything unusual? Are rests a feature?
2) The melodic intervals. Does it move by step or leap? If both, is there more of one type or is it evenly balanced? Does it use any unusual leaps such as an octave, 7th, or augmented 2nd? Are any of the notes chromatic alterations, or do all the notes belong firmly to the key?
3) The harmony. Which chords underpin the given opening? How quickly does the harmony seem to change? Are the chords used straightforward, or do they have something interesting added in, such as added 9ths or chromatic alterations?
4) The performance directions. What speed is it going at, and what’s the general character of the piece – lively, sad, romantic, aggressive or something else? Do the dynamics change gradually, or are there rapid contrasts? What dynamic level has the music reached by the end of the given opening? What sort of articulation has been used?
In this given opening, the rhythm is spiky and built with dotted notes and rests. It moves only by step, including a chromatic step. The entire opening would fit with a tonic A major chord (the B# is an appoggiatura). It is at a lively tempo, and the staccato, accents and “giocoso” indication show that it is quite quirky and humorous in character.
Adapting a Melodic Idea
There are several ways in which you can adapt a melodic idea to create some new, but connected, material. Here are the main traditional ways that composers do this.
Pick a phrase or part of a phrase – at least 3 or 4 notes for best results – and then change the starting note to a different step of the scale. Bar 1 has been sequenced over and over again here, to illustrate the point, using the B minor harmonic scale:
In each sequence, the rhythm is the same, and so is the size of the steps between each note – it moves up by two steps, then falls by a third.
But – the quality of the intervals isn’t the same in each case. The first two notes sometimes form a minor 2nd (e.g. bars 2 and 5), in others they form a major 2nd (bars 3 and 4) and even an augmented 2nd (bar 6).
Keep an eye out for any augmented/diminished intervals, because they will often need special treatment to soften their harsh sound.
Keep the rhythm the same, but where the original moves down, the sequence moves up by the same intervals, and vice versa.
Isolate and reuse the most characteristic bit of the rhythm of the given opening. Things to look out for include triplets or other tuplets, dotted and double dotted notes, syncopation, very fast notes and rests. In this example, the triplet figure could be used to seed some new ideas:
You could repeat the triplet pattern to produce something like this:
Retrograde means “backwards”. Write out the same rhythm, but back-to-front. You do need to be careful using this technique however, because if the rhythm contains a dotted note, you are likely to create some unwanted syncopation. If you reverse the rhythm shown above, you’ll end up with a semiquaver + dotted quaver (16th note + dotted 8th). This is a syncopated rhythm, because the longer part of the group falls on a weaker beat than the short part. If syncopation is going to be feature in your composition, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but you should avoid using one-off syncopated bars as they will be out of character with the rest of the piece.
Instead of reversing the entire rhythm (as in retrograde rhythm), instead reverse or mix up the order of the grouped rhythms that occur on each beat. Now the triplet is on beat 3, and the dotted rhythm is on beat 1. Swapping the rhythm is a great way to change things up a bit, without creating unwanted syncopation.
Augmentation and Diminution
Augmentation means “double the note values”, and diminution mean “halve the note values”. This technique is useful if you want to create a middle section which is contrasted in mood, but connected rhythmically.
Reuse an Uncommon Interval
In almost all music, the most commonly used intervals are 2nds and 3rds. They create smooth, melodious melodies, are easier to sing or play, and easier for our ears and brains to process.
Intervals which are found in chords, namely 4ths and 5ths, are also relatively common, but used much less than 2nds and 3rd.
Even less common are 6ths and octaves. Octaves are useful when you need to move into a different range because you are running out of notes. A leap of an octave is also a good way to create an increase of tension or excitement.
The intervals which are most rarely seen are 7ths, augmented and diminished intervals.
When you analyse the given opening, take particular notice of any intervals which are unusual. They will be the ones which add character to the piece, and so should be used a few more times as you write the rest of the composition.
Creating a Contrast
The beginning of your composition exists to introduce the general melodic theme(s) of the whole piece. The middle section is where it gets interesting - this is the place to create a contrast with the beginning, to change key and to liven things up in terms of tension and drama.
To create a contrasting middle section, you can use a combination of some of the following techniques. The following ideas are not exhaustive and correspond to section B, in the organisation pattern A-B-A. Don’t make B a complete contrast though, – you still need to keep a lot of elements sufficiently connected. It if changes so much that it appears to have no link with the first section, that is too much.
Use the middle section to move to a related key.
E.g. Major - Relative Minor - Major
or Tonic – Dominant - Tonic
You could have contrasting dynamics in each section, or change the frequency of dynamic change.
E.g. Loud – Quiet – Loud,
or Gradual changes – Rapid Changes – Gradual changes
“Tessitura” means “overall range of pitches used” – is the piece written for the low or high end of the instrument’s range, or somewhere in the middle?
E.g. Medium – High – Medium
or Low – Medium – Low
Rhythm and melody
You can change the overall note values e.g. crotchets into quavers (quarter notes into eighth notes) to increase the tension. Changing a melody that moves only by step into one which moves by larger intervals is another idea.
E.g. Quick – Slow – Quick
Or No syncopation – Syncopation – No syncopation
Or Steps – Leaps – Steps
E.g. Slurred - staccato – slurred etc.
How to Practice
Take a melody and then alter one thing at a time. Keep on making small changes, until the original melody becomes unrecognisable. Then ask yourself at what point did things fall apart, and are there some changes which seem to unglue things more severely than others?
You will need to connect your ideas together, to make complete phrases. A phrase is a bit like a sentence or clause in writing, with some kind of punctuation at the end. A phrase needs to end with a cadence.
• STOPS: perfect (V-I) and plagal (IV-I) cadence.
• PAUSES: imperfect (any chord-V) and interrupted (V-VI) cadence.
Within a phrase, you can have a number of mini sub-phrases, and they don’t have to end on cadences. Cadences are only needed at the end of your main structural sections – the ones we named A and B.
Aim to end a phrase with a longer note, or a rest. This helps to communicate to the listener that there is a natural pause. A rest is useful as a breathing space for wind players too.
The melody notes which fit the last chord in each cadence should fall on the strongest beat. For example, in an imperfect cadence, you can choose any chord to precede V, but chord V itself should fall squarely on the first beat of the bar.
In the following composition, the phrases have been marked out in boxes. You can see that the end of each phrase uses a standard cadence. There are quite a few imperfect cadences here, which is fine, since they imply that the music has not finished yet. You would want to avoid using too many perfect cadences at the end of each phrase though, as it will interrupt the flow of the music.
Also notice that the phrases all begin on an upbeat, to mirror what happens at the start of the piece. It’s not essential to do this, but something to consider which will help to give your composition a feeling of balance.
Modulations are not required, but strongly recommended. You are unlikely to get a high mark in the exam if you don’t modulate. I would recommend writing two to three main modulations, spread at even intervals (i.e. don’t write two modulations in the first quarter of the piece, and then no more!)
Keys that are closely related to each other are easier to work with.
- the relative major or minor
- the dominant
- the subdominant
In the key of C for example, the most closely related keys are A minor, G major and F major.
You can also modulate to the closely related keys of the closely related keys, as illustrated below. The centre of the diagram shows the “home key”. The next layer of keys are the closely related keys, and the outer layer are the keys related to the middle layer.
The Supertonic Modulation
One very common and easy to use modulation technique is the supertonic modulation. To do this, move from the tonic to the supertonic major key, then to the dominant major key, then back to the tonic. The supertonic and dominant chords can also take an added 7th for added interest.
E.g. C major > D major > G major > C major
or A minor > B major > E major > A minor.
How to Modulate
The easiest way to modulate is via a pivot chord. A pivot chord is one which exists in both the old and new keys. You can modulate without a pivot, but they often help. V7 usually makes a stronger modulation than just V.
The progression of chords should be this:
Pivot chord – V7 (new key) – I (or i) (new key).
These chords should occur one after the other, without any other chords occurring between them. Ideally you would place the new tonic chord on a strong beat.
For example, to modulate from C major to F major, fit your melody to these chords in close succession:
D minor (pivot) > C7 (V7 in F major) > F (I in F major)
To modulate from C major to A minor:
D minor (pivot) > E7 (V7 in A minor) > A minor (i in A minor)
Fitting the Melody to the Harmony with Unique Notes
A unique note is one which only exists in the new key, and not in the old. In order to write a convincing modulation, you will need to make sure you use the notes which are unique to the new key in your melody. If you don’t, the result will be an ambiguous harmony which is neither one thing nor the other.
Let’s take a modulation from C major to A minor as an example. We could use a pivot chord of D minor, which is chord ii in C major and iv in A minor, to make the following progression:
ii/iv (Dm) – V7 (E7) – i (Am)
The note which is unique to A minor (and not in C major) is G#, so we will need to ensure that the melody contains a G# at the point when the E7 chord is intended. If we used, let’s say, only E and D at that point, the ear would not be convinced that the intended harmony is E7, and would probably process it as C major still.
Another way to modulate is to use a chromatic sequence. Copy part of the melody onto a different starting note and add accidentals, so that the interval quality (e.g. major/perfect etc.) remains identical.
The given opening of your composition will already include
- the tempo,
- some articulations such as slurs, and
- at least a starting dynamic.
Don’t forget to copy these over in exactly the same way, when you copy the first two bars on to the staves provided!
Make sure that the rest of the piece uses performance directions in more or less the same way - be consistent – use the same type of directions, in the same sort of places and in about the same amounts, all the way through.
Make your performance directions coincide properly with your phrases
Try to imagine someone actually playing your piece – how would it be best expressed in terms of dynamics?
Make sure that your dynamics are written precisely, underneath the note or notes they affect.
At the end, consider using a rit., and/or pause.
Avoid using the very lowest playable notes for wind/brass as they are often lacking in tone quality. Also, don’t forget that wind/brass players need to be able to breathe somewhere.