Grade 5 Music Theory – Composing a Melody in a Major Key

– Hi. In grade five theory, you’ll have a question that asks you to compose a melody. And it’s quite a big question, because it’s normally worth 15% of the entire marks on the paper. But lots of people are rather frightened of it, because they think, I have no idea how to write a melody, or they find it difficult to hear what they’re actually writing on a page. However, in many ways, it’s the most creative question on the paper. The chance to compose your own short piece of music. So it’s a skill well worth developing. There’s an alternative to this question which involves setting some words to music. And if you look back to the sessions on grade four, you’ll find there’s a whole lesson dedicated to how to set words to a rhythm, which was the grade four requirement.

For grade five, you’d have to write a melody as well. We’re going to concentrate on the question that’s inviting you to write an instrumental melody, and hopefully if you decide to go for the words option, you’ll pick up some tips on how to write a melody that fits your words. I’d start with a rhythm, and then think about the melody later. But when you come to writing the melody for that, all this should apply in some way again. It might be argued that writing the instrumental melody is a slightly easier option to deal with in the exam than having to deal with the words as well, but that’s entirely up to you. And some people will be very skilled at dealing with words, because they’re singers, or they’ve got a background of singing in choirs or working with words, and if that’s where you’re comfortable, then go for that question, it’s a wonderful thing to do to set words, to start to write songs. Here’s the kind of opening you might be given for the writing of an instrumental melody. You’ll be given possibly the first two bars, possibly a little bit less than the first two bars, and then you’ll be asked to complete a melody that’s eight bars long.


Now, I’ve just sort of sketched out eight empty bars with the given two bars in, so we can begin to see what we’re dealing with. And as you can see, we’re in the bass clef. One very important thing to establish early on is which key we’re in. So three sharps, if we have a look on the circle of fifths, we’ll see that three sharps belong to A major, or to F-sharp minor. And it’s a very good idea to know whether you’re writing a melody in A major or in F-sharp minor. Looking at what we’ve got so far, the first clue is that there are no accidentals. So that’s kind of hedging in favour of the melody being in A major, but let’s see if there are any other clues. Well, it starts on A, so that’s not necessarily always the case that we start on the tonic note, but it’s an indicator. When we look at the first bar, we see A, C-sharp, E, A. It’s a kind of arpeggio of A major. Or you could say that A, C-sharp, E all looks like a tonic triad in A major. So it’s looking as if we’re writing a melody in A major. Now, one thing I’m going to suggest to you, there are lots of different ways of doing this question, and if you can begin to hear what you’re doing, and you want to be very creative, then there’ll always be credit given for that if it works. If you’re a little bit less sure, let me give you a little bit of help into a method that might get you writing these melodies. First thing is let’s just number these bars so we know which bars we’re talking about. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. And really, if you’ve got eight bars, it rather lends itself to two phrases that are four bars long. So we could just begin, couldn’t we, by including a phrase mark over the first four bars, and another phrase mark over the next four bars, so we can see that we’re dealing with two four-bar phrases. While you sketch out the bars like this, don’t forget to include a double bar line at the end. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget to put that double bar line at the end, and it may just cost you a mark or so, so make sure you’ve got the double bar line at the end. Now, one thing you can do, is you can look at bars one and two, and you can think, well, I’ll just copy those two bars into bars five and six. Now you might think, well, that sounds like cheating, if I copy two bars into bars five and six, well, that’s half the melody written. And I’m not really creating anything, I’m just copying something. Well, that’s true, but there are many pieces of music where that sort of thing happens. You have a phrase that starts in a particular way, and then it goes off in one direction, and then the next phrase starts in exactly the same way, and goes off in a different direction. So it is a sort of technique that many composers use. And as a starter, you could always copy bar one into bar five and bar two into bar six, and then if you want to do something to elaborate it or to change it in some way, well, you could come back later and have a think about that. But for now, let’s just begin by copying bar one into bar five. And immediately we’ll start to feel better about tackling the exercise, because so many bars are already complete. And of course, that being the given material, there are things here that we might want to use in the other four bars, and it’s a good idea just to try and have some idea in your mind what this actually sounds like. You can kind of feel this arpeggio coming up. And then some notes that more or less move by step after that. You may just begin to get the idea of this melody. Let me just play you the first two bars. So you might just have begun to hear that shape in your mind. Anyway, for the purposes of trying to get something down that is going to give us a reasonable eight-bar melody, copy bar one into five, copy bar two into six. Now, I’m going to move next to bar eight, which may seem a strange thing to do, but when we come to the end of the piece, we want things to settle, and we want to feel that we’ve gone home to A major. So we don’t want to finish on some strange note of the scale like the leading note, we don’t want to finish on a G-sharp because the melody won’t sound complete. We want it to settle rhythmically, so we don’t want to finish on a hemidemisemiquaver, because it won’t sound complete if we do that. So we want to finish on a fairly long note, and maybe the tonic note. Now, the easiest thing in the world you can do is fill the last bar with the tonic note. You can do something more adventurous than that if you want to, but you could, for example, just think, well, I’m just going to finish with my tonic note, A. We could do something more adventurous in due course, but it would do for now. Now, we talked about cadences in an earlier session. And remember what we said, the last two chords of something form a cadence, that bit of musical punctuation that makes the ends of the phrases clear. Well, how about we think about a cadence at the end? Now, if we’re going to finish on a tonic, and we want a full-stop finish, then we want a perfect cadence or a plagal cadence, really, don’t we? So how about, for now, we go for a perfect cadence, which would give us chord V in bar seven, and chord I in bar eight. Now, what we’re going to try and do in bar seven is to use notes that belong to chord V. Now, how about we go and maybe have a minim there, and we go up to G-sharp and then up to B, that would be the easiest way of doing it, because in A major, chord V is E, G-sharp, and B. And don’t forget, if you’re at all worried about this, sketch out the chords, so you’ve got them. Let’s just quickly do that without doing every single chord of the scale. We’ll do a quick shortcut, shall we? Let’s have these in the treble clef for now, although you can write them in the bass clef if you’re happy doing that. Remember, we need to know about chord I, chord II, possibly, chord IV, and chord V. So if we just put the triads together, there’s I, and there’s II, there’s IV, and there’s V. It just helps us to spot the notes, doesn’t it? So, you see, chord V is E, G-sharp, B. E, G-sharp, B. So, you can see that already I’ve got the makings of an ending, because I’ve got the notes of chord V in bar seven, and I’ve got a note that belongs to chord I in bar eight. So it’s going to make a perfect cadence. Now, you might already be looking at that, thinking, well, that’s okay, but there seems to be an almighty big gap between these two notes. So there’s nothing wrong with just pencilling in that A that we did at the beginning, but then if you think, goodness, there’s a huge leap there, you don’t really want a huge leap before the end, do you? So we may decide we’re going to move this note up an octave. It’s the great thing about working in pencil, that like any great composer, you can have an idea in pencil, and you can rub things out, rearrange them. But you gradually evolve into the melody that’s going to work for you. So we could just sit on that A at the end, couldn’t we? If you thought, well actually, it’s a little bit boring, just sitting on that A for a semibreve, there’s nothing to say, well, if all these notes belong to chord I, isn’t there any reason why I couldn’t just use notes that belong to chord I to fill up the bar a little bit more so we’ve got something a bit more interesting going on? So we could do something like, have an A there, and then come down to E, because that belongs to chord I, and then maybe have a minim bottom A at the end. Well, already, that’s beginning to look a little bit more interesting, isn’t it? As I look at bar seven now, I can see I’ve got notes that belong to chord V, but it’s not looking amazingly exciting, is it? So far, the last two bars sound like this. And if I look back to the previous two bars, I can see the rhythm is a bit more interesting, isn’t it? Listen to bars five, six, seven, and eight. Doesn’t sound bad, actually, does it? But I wonder if we could spruce up bar seven particularly, so we’ve got a little bit of this rhythmic interest that we’ve had from earlier on. Well, one thing I could do is possibly to turn that into a dotted crotchet, and then here I could slip in one of these passing notes that we were talking about in an earlier session. So instead of going, this passing note gives me this. That already sounds more interesting, doesn’t it? I could even put another passing note in here, because whenever you have notes that are a third apart, you could try filling in the gap. So how about this, let’s put a passing note in there. So we’ve now got. Suddenly that bar seven has come to life, hasn’t it? And if I put the second phrase together, we’ve now got this. And you can hear that we’re going to have a cadence that’s implied by using those notes. So if I do the last two bars with chord V accompanying it, and then chord I, it comes out like this. So you can hear that the melody is implying a perfect cadence. Okay, well you can carry on forever just sort of modifying things, and tweaking them, and improving them, and in the exam, if you’ve got time to spare, that’s a very good way to spend it, just to see what you can do. There’s always a danger of overelaborating things and thinking, my goodness, I could get lots of semiquavers into bar seven. We don’t want to overdo it, but we want to have enough interest in it to make it interesting to listen to, and to make sure that what you’ve written sort of matches the given material. Now then, if this is a full-stop cadence, in this case a perfect cadence, you could have written a plagal cadence, of course. You could have had chord IV in bar seven, that would be fine as well, but we decided to go for a perfect cadence here. A full-stop cadence, anyway. Well, probably, at the end of bar four, we want to have a comma cadence. An imperfect cadence. So really, in bar four, I’m looking for something that belongs to chord V. Well, let me just start exactly as we did in bar eight. Chord V, E’s at the bottom of chord V, so let’s just stick an E in that bar. We could fill the whole of bar four with an E. That’s one way of doing it, isn’t it? Now, if this is going to be an imperfect cadence, in bar three we’re going to have to use I, II, or VI, because we’re going I-V, or II-V, or IV-V. So we’ve got to decide what we’re going to do. Doesn’t really matter, but for argument’s sake, let’s use a chord II. Now, chord II, B, D, F-sharp. I wonder if there’s something I could do with that. Well, when I started in bar seven, I took chord V and I went root, third, fifth, and built up the chord. How about we do something similar in bar three, but this time we’ll go down the chord, so we don’t do the same sort of thing, we kind of turn it upside down. So in other words, start with the top note of II, come down to the next one, and come down to the bottom one. So we could do something like this, for starters. So you can see that in bar three, I’ve got notes that belong to chord II. Followed by E that’s the root of chord V. And again, it sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? Now, again, just as we looked at this, this is just looking a little bit plain at the moment. We probably want to have a bit more to spruce up, to match some of the rhythmic interest that we had in the first two bars. Now, I suppose I could do exactly what I did here, put in the passing notes and have exactly the same rhythm, but maybe that’s a little bit obvious. But what we could do is something like this. Let’s turn the F-sharp into a crotchet, and then we could repeat the F-sharp, and then use a passing note, how about that as an idea? So we’ve now got. Even that makes it more interesting than it was before. I could put another passing note in here if I wanted to. I could put another note at the end of the bar. I mean, these are all possibilities. When we get to bar four, it seems a little bit sad just to leave that poor old semibreve on its own filling up the whole bar. But if I do this again, that’s going to be a bit too obvious, isn’t it? But let’s not overcomplicate it. How about we go E for a minim, and then I come down an octave at E for another minim? And that would just give us a little bit of interest there that’s sort of on the same lines as the last bar, but again, not exactly the same. How do the first four bars sound? Well, that seems to work quite nicely, doesn’t it? You could, if you wanted to make life a bit more interesting here say, well, we had this dotted rhythm here, so we could maybe have that same dotted rhythm at that point. That makes it sound like this. Certainly it’s beginning to sound much more satisfying as a melody, isn’t it? So we end up with two four-bar phrases. The first finishes with an imperfect cadence, and the second finishes with a perfect cadence. Though as I say, it could finish with a plagal cadence. And we’ve mapped the same start of the phrases, and then we’ve done something different in the second half, so so far it all goes like this. Which works quite nicely, doesn’t it? Now, if you’re running out of time, you could leave that quite happily at that stage. Don’t forget, though, that you need to add a tempo. Now, I don’t know if you feel this is a fast piece or is a slow piece, or something in between, but you could put a word like moderato at the top. Plenty of Italian or German or French terms that you would know, but how about moderato, just giving us that moderate feeling? And if you feel it faster or slower, then that’s fine, you can call it allegro, or andante if you like. You might want to include a rallentando at the end, by which case, just to slow down in the last two bars. So if you wanted maybe in bar seven to write ral or rit, you could do that. You might want it just to get a bit quieter at the end. So slow down and get a bit quieter at the end. You could do that, you might feel the thing rather differently. You want to put some dynamics into it as well, so maybe we could start at a sort of mf moderately loud, and then if we’re going to get quieter at the end, maybe we could get louder towards that midpoint. So have a little crescendo up to the cadence there, and maybe a forte for the cadence. And then the second phrase could maybe go back to MF again. And then you’re going to slow down and get a bit quieter at the end. What you don’t want to do is to put thousands of dynamics in the piece, because that’s not how music is. We’re much more subtle about the changes that we include in music. So starting there, getting a bit louder, coming back to the starting point, getting a bit quieter, that would be a perfectly reasonable scheme for eight bars. But you could think of other possibilities as well. And then you would already have chosen and instrument, because for grade five theory, you’re always given a choice of two instruments. For example, this in the bass clef. You might have been invited to write for the cello or the bassoon, for example. It’s an important thing just to make sure you’re writing inside the range of instruments. There’s a session in the grade four list of sessions we’ve done on instruments and telling you a little bit about bottom notes where they become important. The bottom note of the flute is middle C, the bottom note of the oboe is B-flat, they’re the ones that sometimes cause a little bit of trouble with this. But the cello or the bassoon could play all these notes quite happily here. If you’re writing for a string instrument, you might want to put some bowing in, but if you’re not a string player, well, it might not be a bad idea to choose the bassoon option if there’s a string and a wind option, because you don’t really have to worry about bowing for a bassoon. Then make sure that any other marks that you decide to put in the score make sense. You might want to put an accent mark in or something. Maybe you want to mark out these two notes at the end of the first phrase and have an accent mark there, that would be rather nice, wouldn’t it? But don’t write things like pizzicato if you’re writing for the trumpet. Because pizzicato means plucked, and it’s something that only a string player would expect to do. So don’t write things that don’t belong to an instrument. But this gives you an idea how you might go about the task. If you’ve got time left at the end of the exam, you might want to have another look at bars five and six, and think, well, is there a way that I could elaborate that a little bit so it’s not quite just a simple repetition of bars one and two? Even if it was fairly straightforward things like doing something like this. And then you’d have to modify the rhythm a little bit here. So you could just get something slightly different going on in those two bars. And then you could decide you’re going to repeat this first G-sharp, for example, and do something like that. So our first two bars go. And these two bars go. You could even decide you’re going to dot this quaver and turn this one into a semiquaver. And then you could do something like that. And suddenly you’re just sprucing up a little bit that repetition. So the completed melody that we’re going to offer at this stage is one that goes like this. And that would do pretty nicely. Anyway, I hope that’s given you some ideas on how to tackle this kind of question. And good luck with your melody writing. It could be the start of a wonderful composing career.

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