The Dreaded Composition Question…

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The prospect of sitting a Grade 5 theory exam is always met with groans from students! Most kids want to enjoy playing their instrument, without too much focus on the written work that sometimes accompanies it. However, if sitting ABRSM exams, students must pass their Grade 5 theory before being allowed to progress onto Grade 6 practical. And it doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds. In fact, most people find that the theory helps them to progress with their playing, and their musical understanding and interpretation comes on hugely! One of the trickiest parts of the exam is the 15-mark composition question. Here are some tricks and tips to nail this question, securing yourself a good percentage of guaranteed points:

The Question

There are two options for this question. You can either complete a melody that has been started, or you can write a melody to a given verse. The completed melody will need to be around 8 bars long. I always advise my students to attempt the first option because:

  • They will give you around 2 bars to start from, so you only have to write about 6 more.
  • They give you lots of musical ideas, in the rhythm and the melody, which you can use and develop through your composition.


Use the following steps to be sure not to forget anything:

  • Work out what key the melody is in (be careful to check whether it is major or minor), and decide which instrument you are going to write for
  • On your rough paper, make a note of any defining rhythms and intervals from the opening they give you
  • Map out a harmonic structure for your melody, which should look something like this:
Bar 1 Bar 2 Bar 3 Bar 4
Bar 5 Bar 6 Bar 7 Bar 8
  • Pencil a rhythm above the stave, making sure that every bar adds up. Tap it quietly to yourself to make sure it’s well-balanced. Phrase it into two four-bar phrases, with longer notes at the end of each phrase. Use some of their opening rhythms, and develop these to make them more interesting.
  • Start drafting your melody. Aim to finish on the dominant in bar 4, and on the tonic in bar 8. Be careful about your use of the leading note – try not to use it too much unless using it to lead to the tonic. Don’t use huge intervals – try to keep within a range of about a 10th, in case you go outside of the range of your instrument. Use some of their melodic characteristics, and develop these to make them more interesting. 
  • Add phrasing, tempo marks, dynamics, and articulation (and a double bar line at the end!)

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