Marking Criteria

In the ABRSM grade 6 exam you are asked to finish a composition from a given opening. The given opening is around two bars, and the complete composition should be 8-10 bars. The instrument to write for is specified in the question.

To gain top marks in an composition question, you need to write a melody which:

  • Has an “excellent sense of shape and direction” with a “balanced phrase structure”.
  • Maintains and develops the style and character (melody and rhythm) of the given opening.
  • Implies a “convincing harmonic foundation”, with any modulation successfully handled.
  • Is rhythmically accurate, including handling of any anacrusis.
  • Suits the instrument and “explores its range”.
  • Has “musically applied” performance directions.

Shape, Direction and Phrase Structure

Shape and direction in music are achieved through increasing or decreasing the tension, so that a story unfolds. Ideally, a composition will move towards a single climax point, which is usually around 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through, which is the moment of peak tension.

Tension can be increased or decreased in a number of ways.

Increase in tensionDecrease in tension
Smaller note valuesLonger note values
Faster chord changesSlower chord changes
Higher pitchLower pitch
Harder articulation (e.g. accents)Softer articulation
Louder dynamicsQuieter dynamics
Larger intervalsSmaller intervals

The composition must be moulded into clear phrases. The end of a phrase is signified by a cadence, which is achieved by using a suitable implied chord progression and slower rhythm. Phrases should ideally be the same length (usually 4-bars per phrase).

Phrases that end on a tonic chord sound rounded off, those that end on a dominant or submediant sound open-ended. Ideally the composition will use an imperfect or interrupted cadence to end the first phrase, and a perfect cadence to end the second phrase.

Style and Character

To maintain the style and character of the given opening, you will need to reuse the same kind of rhythms and melodic intervals. In particular if there are any unusual features (such as leaps, triplets etc.) then these features should be elements of the whole piece. A good plan is to finish off the first phrase with a similar (but not identical) rhythm, and then make the second phrase a sequence of the first.


A “convincing” harmonic foundation means that the chord changes happen at a suitable speed, the chord progressions are logical and not too limited in scope, and that cadences are handled correctly. If the composition includes a modulation, this also needs to work smoothly.


At this grade, it is expected that you will be able to write rhythms which are suitable for the given time signature, without any errors. This means that not only must each bar add up correctly, but you should also be careful to use rhythms which have the correct number of beats per bar, and that grouping/rests are notated accurately. (For example, 3/4 and 6/8 could both have six quavers (8th notes) per bar, but they must be notated in different ways).

If the given opening begins with an anacrusis, you must adjust the length of the last bar to take this into account, but you will also be given additional credit if you are able to create an answering phrase which starts with a similar anacrusis.

Rhythm is a fundamental element of a piece of music. Once the rhythmic style has been established in the first couple of bars, the overall style of the rhythm should remain similar throughout the rest of the piece. This means you should avoid suddenly introducing rhythmic motifs late in the piece, which have not already been established (in particular, avoid suddenly introducing syncopation, irregular tuplets, or “extreme” dotted rhythms. Never reverse a dotted rhythm, as this creates syncopation).

Idiomatic Writing and Performance Directions

Everything you write must be playable on the instrument you are writing for. You will of course need to keep to the playable range of the instrument, but you will also need to consider whether the dynamics you have chosen are feasible. For example, the lowest C on a flute cannot be played fortissimo, and the very highest register is difficult at pianissimo. If you are unsure, keep to medium dynamics when you are at the extremes of an instruments range.

Dynamics with letters (p, f, etc.) should be placed under the first note of each phrase. You should also include gradual dynamic changes (cresc. and dim.) using hairpins. Make sure the dynamics would not be ambiguous for a player to interpret. Try to include a reasonably wide range (at least p to f).

Articulation must be included in a consistent and balanced way. Usually notes that are quavers (8th notes) or quicker always have some type of articulation instruction (slur, staccato, etc.). Similar rhythmic ideas should normally be articulated in the same way. Slurs must be playable – if you are unsure, do not slur more than one whole bar at a time, and never include repeated notes in a slurred group (the second note must be articulated).

Example Composition

Here is an example of a good composition for flute. The given opening is shown in small notes.

ABRSM Grade 6 example composition
  • Broken chord idea (first 3 notes) is reused in bars 2-3.
  • Rhythmic ideas re-used several times without being overly repetitive.
  • Upbeat taken into account in final bar, and also the second phrase begins with the same type of upbeat.
  • Implied harmony is logical and sufficiently varied.
  • Each phrase ends with a suitable cadence (implied chords and longer note).
  • Melody is shaped towards a climax point in bars 6-7, which is the highest and loudest moment.
  • Dynamics are placed in roughly equal numbers in both phrases and make musical sense. Dynamics are written under notes which either start a phrase or are the first note in a bar. Hairpins are used for nuances.
  • Tempo is included.
  • Articulation (slurs) is used in the same way for similar rhythmic ideas.
  • Ends on the tonic.
  • Notation is correct.
  • Voice leading is correct e.g. leading note moves to tonic by step in V-I, melody turns after a leap etc.
  • Range is suitable for the flute (not too low in the range, using some of the higher register).