How to Compose a Melody – Tips for Grade 5 Theory of Music


Lots of my online students need a bit of help when it comes to composing a melody in the Grade Five Music Theory Exam (ABRSM syllabus).

My last post was a list of tips that will get you a few extra points, whatever you’ve composed, but this post is a bit more technical – how to actually write a good tune.

Creating a good melody is all about sequencing – taking bits of melody and rhythm, and changing them in small ways to make music which feels “glued together”, rather than just a lot of random notes! The techniques of sequencing are explained in more detail over at . This post is really sequencing in action – a real life example of how we can the opening notes given to us in the composition question, and use them as inspiration for the rest of the melody.

I’m not going to put any any performance directions or phrasing on to these melodies – so you can focus on the melody and rhythm only. The choice of instrument for this question is trumpet or clarinet, and all the melodies would work on either instrument. The task is to compose an 8-bar composition, made up of two 4-bar phrases, based on the given opening.

Below each worked example, you’ll see a short commentary of what was going on in my head while I was composing them.

This is the opening we’re going to work with:

Here’s our first go:

From the first bar, we’ve taken the crotchet/rest/crotchet/rest rhythm, and from bar 2 we’ve taken a minim tied to 4 quavers which move along the scale.

To finish the first phrase, we’ve sequenced the first and second bar, but moved the notes up by one degree of the scale. This finishes the first phrase. The cadence is V – I.

To make the second phrase, we’ve re-used the rhythm in bar 5, and inverted the melody to make bar 8. In bar 9, we’ve got almost the same as bar 2, but introduced a crotchet rest as we’ve got lots of crotchet rests in the piece, and the melody is now 2 degrees of the scale higher than in bar 2. The cadence is again V-I.

Here’s a second possible answer:

This time we’ve decided to put the piece into C minor instead of Eb major.

Bar 3 is like bar 1, but is one degree of the scale lower. Bar 4 is like bar 1, but is 6 degrees of the scale lower. The B natural gives us a cadence onto a chord of G major, which is V in C minor. This completes the first phrase.

To make the second phrase, we’ve kept the rhythm if bar one, but changed the interval to a 5th. This isn’t a new interval in the piece – there’s a perfect 5th betweeen bars 2 and 3, and a diminished 5th between bars 3 and 4. Then we’ve worked on the scale motif by extending it slightly in bars 6 and 7, and the piece ends with with another perfect interval.

Here’s a final way to write this composition:

This one is in C minor too. We sequenced bar 1 by changing the direction of the melody to make bar 3, but kept the interval as a third. We worked on the thirds again in bar 4, with G-Eb then Eb-C both falling thirds. We added an F# to make it more interesting. The cadence would be IV in bar 3, then V-I in bar 4.

In bar 5 we’ve kept the rhythm of bar 1, but the rise up a 4th to the C is a new interval. It sounds good because it’s using the notes of the C minor arpeggio, and so does bar 1, so there is a clear link there. Bar 6 is a sequence of bar 2, starting on the 6th note of the scale instead of the 2nd, and moving in the opposite direction, bar 7 is a sequence of bar 5 but starts a 4th lower, and bar 8 is a sequence of bar 4 – the Eb to D motif is a strong mirror of the G to F# motif in bar 4. The cadence would be V in bar 7, and I in bar 8.

Hopefully that’s given you a few ideas of ways to manipulate the opening notes of the composition question and to create something which sounds good and gets you lots of points! Don’t forget there are 15 points at stake for the composing a melody for instruments question in the Grade Five Theory of Music Exam.



How to Compose a Melody – Tips for Grade 5 Theory of Music — 6 Comments

  1. Hi Victoria,

    I really enjoy this lesson and the tips are easy to follow. I have some students who are doing a composition portfolio
    and I think that this information will help them.

    Thanks you for sharing!

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