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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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6. Score Reading: Describing the Sound


Grade 8 Music Theory - Describing Sounds in a Score

You may be asked some questions about the way the music sounds, or how the composer has achieved a particular effect. Some typical questions include:

  • Describe how the composer builds tension and excitement/a climax
  • Which words could you use to describe the sound?
  • How is [section 1] contrasted with [section 2]
  • How does the composer make a repeated note more interesting?
  • Why does this section sound shrill/calm?
  • Which features illustrate the tempo/expression markings of the piece?
  • Which features suggest this is/is not the end of a section?
  • Describe the similarities and differences between [section 1] and [section 2]


Whatever the question, the answer will be connected with at least one of the principal dimensions of music, namely:

  • Pitch
  • Tempo
  • Rhythm
  • Key/modality
  • Dynamics
  • Attack


When music is written at a medium level, meaning a moderate tempo, middle-of-the-range notes, even paced rhythms, and a moderate dynamic, it is not very exciting. Most pieces of music contain sections like this though, because they are the “default” values. A satisfying composition is often one which has calm sections interspersed with more exciting ones – this keeps the listener’s interest up but does not wear them out!

In order to increase the tension, drama and excitement, the default values are increased. Pitch becomes higher, tempos become quicker, rhythms become less even or are doubled/quadrupled, key changes occur (often very rapidly), dynamics increase or are contrasted considerably and notes are attacked fiercely, with accents or staccato. Any number of these effects can be combined – the more values are increased, the higher the sense of tension. Words you might be able to use to describe the sound include high-pitched, harsh, shrill, loud, full-sounding, powerful, anxious, restless, explosive, passionate, exciting, dramatic or dense.

In order to relieve the tension, the opposite techniques are used – the dynamics and pitch are reduced and the pace slows down. Words you might be able to use include quiet, flowing, calm, restful, thin, level in dynamics, low-pitched, sweet or tranquil.

Features that are commonly used toward the end of a piece are the pedal (especially dominant), return to the original key, repetition of original themes and cadences.

If you are asked to describe the similarities and differences, try to include enough detail to illustrate your point clearly. Don’t simply say “the dynamics are different”, for example, but explain how they are different: “the first section is played very quietly, whereas the second section is played at a moderately loud dynamic”.



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