Monday, February 23, 2009

10 Ways to Get More Marks in the Grade 5 Theory Composition Question

As the date for the ABRSM music theory exams approaches (5th March 2009), I'm sure a lot of you are starting to panic a bit, and are looking for some quick tips. Luckily, there are quite a few things you can easily do to grab a few more marks here and there.

Here's a list of things you can do to maximise your points in the "composing a melody for instruments" question. These tips aren't about how to actually compose a melody - if you need some help with the composition side of things, pop over to and read up the lessons on composing.

These two lessons are a good place to start:

General Tips

Composing a Melody for Instruments

This list will hopefully score you a few extra points by making sure you've covered everything you need to include. Remember it's not just the tune - it's about being neat, accurate and adding useful and meaningful directions for the performer. The ABRSM does give marks for being tidy - so that's where we'll start! (The links will take you to relevant lessons on for more info.) There are 15 points at stake in the composition question - that's more than the difference between a merit and a distinction!

10 Tips for Composition Success!

1)Use a ruler. Barlines, note stems and beams should all be drawn with a ruler, and not one that you've nervously chewed the edges off... Try it next time you write some notes, and see what a difference it makes.

2)Dynamics.  Think out your dynamics - don't just chuck a few in randomly! Look at each and every note and check that the player will know what dynamic you want him/her to play. It's especially important to put a starting and ending dynamic. If you use a hairpin, put a dynamic (like FF) at the end so that the player understands how much of a dim/cresc. you want. Examples of illogical dynamics - writing a P, followed by a Dim, followed by a P, or writing an MF, followed by another MF, with nothing in between.

3)Spacing of Notes. The first note in each bar should be quite close to the barline. The space to the right of each note depends on what kind of note it is - the longer the note, the bigger the space. A semibreve (whole note) should have a nice long space after it, before the next barline.

4)Barlines. End your piece with a double barline. You're handwriting music, not printing it, so don't worry if your bars don't fit neatly up to the end of the printed stave; it doesn't matter if you have a bit of stave left over with nothing on it. But don't draw barlines at the right hand edge of the stave unless that's where the bar finishes- if your last bar is half-way along the stave, that's where you drawn your barline!

5)Phrasing. Whatever instrument you're writing for, you need to think about phrasing marks. It's better to choose an instrument you're familiar with, if possible. Phrasing marks which make the music interesting are the best kind of course. But if you really don't know what else to do with them, put a long one over the whole first phrase, and another over the second.

6)Tempo. Always indicate the speed of your piece at the beginning of the melody, above the stave, using an accepted Italian, German or French term. (You can also use a metronome marking, if you prefer). Don't mess around with trying to change tempo in the middle of the piece - 8 bars is too short! It's often a nice touch to put a ritenuto at the end of the piece - if you choose to do so, don't start it too late. Students often put a rit. on a final dotted minim, for example. How can you slow down just one note?! 

7)Articulation. If you write for a wind instrument, you need to include some articulation markings ("articulation" means "attack of the note"). The long phrase marks mentioned in 5 will tell a wind player to play "legato" (all in one breath), but no markings at all mean they will "tongue" every note, which sounds quite jagged and makes a clarinettist tired (well, me anyway!) You can make the music a bit more interesting by adding some staccato or tenuto signs - but don't go wild, less is more. You should also put in a small comma (above the stave), to show the player where to breathe. The best place for this is between the first and second phrases. 

8)Bowing. If you write for a string instrument, you might want to include bowing marks. Be sparing, and only put them in if you understand how bowing works. Bowing phrase marks are essential - a curved phrase mark over each group of notes you expect to be played with one sweep of the bow. If you don't play a string instrument, don't choose to write for one - there will always be an alternative.

9)Expression. Again, less is more. One well-chosen term at the beginning of the piece is better than peppering your composition with foreign words! Remember that you should already have a tempo term, so choose something that complements it. Expression terms should be written under the stave.

10) Check your work! Go back and count the notes in each bar, making sure you haven't mis-calculated somewhere. If the piece started with an anacrusis (or "up-beat"), the last bar should make up the missing beats. E.g a piece in 4/4 time starts with a single crotchet, so the last bar would have 3 crotchets. Your piece should have 8 complete bars in total - so that might mean 7 whole bars plus 2 incomplete bars.

Good luck to all of you facing E-day on March 5th! And thanks to my online students for providing me with some inspiration for writing this post! 


  1. thank you sooo much, this really helped me !!

  2. this is great. I have my exam tomorrow :O

  3. Your articles and website are a great resource for both beginning and advanced learners. I especially appreciate the help with foreign terms! Keep up the good work!