Jun 08

A Winning Formula for Grade V Composition (Instruments)



A Formula for Writing the 8-bar Composition

If you are really stuck on the composition question (grade five music theory), you might like to know that there is a kind of “formula” you can use in order to generate a composition. The formula provides you with a functioning melody – you will still need to add in phrasing, dynamics, tempo and other instrument-specific directions, and you might want to make minor tweaks to the rhythm.

This is not a “cheat” – you need to understand about keys, chords, scales and cadences to get this to work. But then, you need to know all that stuff anyway! Here’s how it works:

Part One – Preparation

1) Decide on the key. (Accidentals = minor, but sometimes it’s minor although no accidentals appear. Check the first note and what chord the first notes seem to be part of.)

2) Check how many bars you’ve been given. In most cases, you get exactly 2 bars (including the anacrusis where appropriate). But sometimes you might get one or two beats more, or less. Check, it’s important.

3) Understand that our composition will consist of four phrases, which are exactly the same length – i.e. 2 bars each.

Part Two – Rules

1) Never write a melodic interval which is augmented or diminished. (There are special rules which apply to these dissonant intervals, so it’s best to just avoid them.) Choose another note – always write a semitone step where you can. For example, don’t write E-Bb (diminished), instead write E-F (semitone).

2) Always end phrase 2 on a long note, which is part of the dominant chord.

3) Always end phrase 4 on a long note which is the tonic of the piece.

4) Try to make the leading note lead upwards to the tonic. In some cases the dominant is ok too.

5) Always sharpen the leading note in a minor key, when the following note is the tonic.

6) In minor keys, use the melodic minor scale. Therefore, the notes will be sharpened on the way up, and flattened on the way down.

7) Always write part of a scale which arrives at the tonic, for the last 4-6 notes of the piece.

Part 3 – Composition

We’ll use an example from the 2006 exam to work through. Here’s the opening:

2006 music theory question

1) You have phrase 1 already. We start at phrase 2. Start phrase 2 one scale note higher than phrase 1, and continue for 1 bar, always one scale note higher. The rhythm will be the same.

bar 32) Bar 4 is the end of phrase two, and should be an imperfect cadence. Continue writing the melody from bar 2 one scale note higher, until half way through bar 4, then write a long note which is part of the dominant chord. This piece is in F, so the dominant chord is C.

bar 4We chose C, as the dotted crotchet. G would have been a bad choice, as the note before is G, and E makes a weaker sounding cadence.

3) Start bar 5 on the same note as the first note of the piece, then invert the melody. So if the melody goes down in bar 1, put it up in bar 5, and vice versa. Remember to avoid augmented or diminished intervals – choose the next nearest note instead, or make a leading note go to the tonic. If the melody moves by step, simply move by step in the opposite direction to bar 1. If the melody moves in 3rds/4ths/5ths or 6ths however, you will find that the notes make a chord. In this case, make the chord move in the opposite direction. For example, C-D-E would become C-B-A (melody), but C-E-G would become C-G-E or C-A-F (downwards chords).

bar 5Here, the first beat is a melodic inversion, and the second beat is an inverted chord. We could have written F-C-A instead of F-D-Bb, as an alternative.

4) Continue the inverted melody/chords in bars 6 and 7.

Here, in bar 7, we changed the first note. The original melody has a leap of a 5th, but that would give us a melodic interval of Bb-(low) E, which is a diminished 5th. We substituted the note A, which is a semitone distance from Bb so always a good choice.

5) Bar 8 should be a perfect cadence. Make bar 8 a scale, starting on the next note up or down from the end of bar 7. (E.g. bar 7 ends on D, bar 8 starts on C). Make the scale last for 1/2 the bar – make the notes as small as necessary so that you have enough! The second half of bar 8 should be the tonic note – nothing else. In triple time (3/2, 3/4 and 3/8) the last bar can contain nothing but the tonic, and the scale can be in bar 7.

bar 8


In my next post, I’ll work through the other three composition questions from the 2006 grade V paper.

Here are the steps in summary:

Bar 3 = bar 1 up a  note

Bar 4 = bar 2 up a note, plus imperfect cadence

Bars 5-7 = bars 1-3 inverted

Bar 8 = scale and tonic.



If you’d like to sign up for my video course on composition for the Grade 5 ABRSM Music Theory exam, see http://www.mymusictheory.com/for-students/video-courses/403-video-course-grade-5-composing-a-melody-for-instruments for more info!



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  1. Jerry

    Thanks that was amazingly easy to learn. My teacher does it a similar way, but I couldn’t quite understand it too well the way she explained it. This was extremely simple and could you please post the other compositions so I can get a feel of how to do it? I’m taking my exams next month and if you already have the compositions up can you send the link to my email:

    1. Victoria

      Hi- the link to the other examples is http://blog.mymusictheory.com/?p=373

  2. Sophie


  3. Karen

    So happy I found your blog. Thanks for the tips! You explanations are systematic and it gives me a better idea on how to write compositions. Hope to score straight A’s for my Grade 5 Theory exams!

  4. Paul

    Hi Victoria,
    Using your composition formula, how do you suggest dealing with the end of bar 4/start of bar 5 when a piece starts on the dominant note?
    Many of thanks!

    1. Victoria

      Do you mean to avoid being too repetitive? You can pick another note from the dominant chord to end the first half, or make other slight tweaks. You don’t have to copy every note of the sequence exactly in any case, you can make slight changes here and there without destroying the link between phrases.

      1. Paul

        Yes, my concern was for repetition of the dominant note at the beginning of bar 5. Thank you!

  5. Andrew Bryant

    Hi – if the piece starts on an anacrusis does the long note at the end of the second phrase start earlier than if there wasn’t an anacrusis. If so I assume the next phrase starts at the end of the 4th bar, not the start of the 5th? Thanks. Sorry, but urgent inquiry as grade 5 is this afternoon!

    1. Victoria

      Hi Andrew, if there is an anacrusis, it is essential that the last bar takes this into account.
      If there is an anacrusis you can also make a more balanced melody by starting the second half with an upbeat too. The end of the first half should end with a long note on beat 1 of bar 4, and the beginning of the 2nd half would start at the end of bar 4. You don’t “start the long note earlier” though – the note should land squarely on beat 1, but then adjust the length. It’s not essential that you do this, but you might get more marks if you do and the result is a better-balanced melody.
      Good luck in your exam!

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