In this lesson:

Q3a Marking Criteria

In question 3a, you are assessed on not only how appropriate and musical your melody is, but also how that melody fits harmonically with the given piano part.

You will need to understand the harmony of the piano part – its key, modulation (if any), chords, and decoration notes, so that you can choose melody notes which sound good with the piano, but which are not simply based on undecorated chord-notes.

You are also assessed on what the ABRSM calls “grammatical aspects”. You are expected to follow the standard practices in harmony which you have learned earlier in this course and in earlier grades. We’ll explore this a little more later on.

With regards to the melody itself, you will need to shape the melody into phrases by using appropriate rhythms, keep everything connected by using similar (but not overly repetitive) rhythmic and melodic ideas. You will also need to write appropriately for the instrument in question.

Q3a Grammatical Aspects

Musical rules are descriptive and not prescriptive. In other words, these rules explain how to write in a particular style, which is based on music written in the Baroque and Classical eras. Although your composition might be a later (e.g. Romantic) style, the examiner is still hoping to see that you are aware of these earlier rules, as they were still predominant in later years.


Avoid consecutives between the melody and any other independent part. “Independent parts” include the piano melody and piano bass line, and there may also be inner melodies (alto or tenor parts). But sometimes notes in the piano part will simply provide harmony filler, and are not “independent” parts. Block chords and arpeggios are usually harmonic filler.

In this example, if we followed the Bb in the melody part with an A, we would be creating consecutive octaves with the right hand piano part, between two independent parts.

avoid consecutives

You are less likely to write a consecutive when parts move in contrary motion.   NB: Consecutive octaves are fairly common at cadences in this texture, where for example both instruments might use the dominant and tonic notes.


It is normally fine to double up the bass note of a chord. The only exception to this is if the bass note is the leading note, which should never be doubled (without an excellent reason).

Here for example, you might be tempted to follow the E with a D#, but as there’s already a D# in the accompaniment, and D# is the leading note in E minor, it would be better to pick, for example, a B instead.


It is also usually fine to double the root or 5th in any chord.

Avoid doubling the 3rd of the triad without a good reason. In a diminished chord, the 3rd is usually the best note to double, but in all other chords it is usually the least satisfactory.


A chord without a root is slightly ambiguous. If you hear an E and a G, you could interpret them as belonging to a chord of C major, or E minor (depending on the context). Include the root to make the chord clear.

The 5th of the triad can be omitted without causing any problems.

The 3rd should never be missed out – it is the note which makes the difference between a major and minor chord. 3rds may be omitted in added 7th chords, however, and a final chord can be unison tonics.

When you are composing, check the grammatical aspects as you go along. Do not write a whole composition, and then go back and check it for errors, because you are likely to need to make numerous changes.


A suspension happens when a note from one chord is held over into the next, producing a momentary dissonance. It normally resolves by step downwards to a chord note.

The effect of the dissonance is produced by the tension set up by delaying the real chord note, so it is important not to spoil the “punchline” by adding the resolution note too soon. Here’s an example.


Looking only at the solo part, it seems appropriate to write a C as the next note, but it would be a bad idea, because it will ruin the tension of the suspension. In the piano part, the D is suspended from a G major chord into an Ab major chord. It resolves to C, so C is the note which has been delayed in order to create tension. If you write a C as the first note in this bar in the solo part, the suspension will be overridden – you would not notice it. In this situation, the best note will be G. We can’t write an Eb because it would cause consecutive octaves.

Types of Motion

types of motion
Similar motion is when the parts move in the same up/down direction as each other.  Contrary motion is when they move in opposite directions.  And oblique motion is when one part stays still, and the other moves.  

You need to aim for contrary and oblique motion for the vast majority of the time, as this will help to create independent parts and avoid consecutives. Because you are writing a piece on three staves, you will mostly likely have a lot of similar motion between two of the parts, and that’s ok, as long as you use contrary motion in the other part. Avoid is all three parts moving in similar motion for any extended length of time.

Q3a Composition Style

Question 3a tests your ability to understand the harmonies and compositional techniques used by Romantic composers. In music, the Romantic era spans from the late 18th century right up to the mid-20th century. You’ll need to be aware of the general characteristics of music at this period of time.

Here is a short list, in chronological order of birth year, of some of the composers who have been chosen by the ABRSM for question 3a over the last few years.

Cherubini (1760-1842)

Beethoven (1770-1827)

Schubert (1797-1828)

Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Hofmann (1809-1894)

Verdi (1813-1901)

Brahms (1833-1897)

Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Grieg (1843-1907)

Stanford (1852-1924)

Bridge (1879-1941)

You might find that the composition was originally by someone much less well known though, for example:

Weissenborn (1837-1888)

Somervell (1863-1937) or

Quilter (1877-1953)

What are the characteristics of Romantic music?

Typically, Romantic music is an expression of human emotions: it tells a story. You can contrast it with Classical and Baroque music, which can sound a lot more mathematical, elegant or even simple, in comparison to Romantic music.

Romantic music uses a lot of strong, dramatic contrasts, and it is normal for the music to explore a wide range of pitches, including large leaps or visits to both ends of the instrument’s compass, as well as a wide range of dynamics – with both sudden and gradual changes.

In terms of harmony, Romantic music normally explores a wide range of keys and chords. In the classical era, a piece of music would tend to only modulate to a closely related key, and generally at a strategic point in the piece. In Romantic music these restraints are abandoned. You can expect a surprise modulation to any key, at any point in the music. In the same way, all kinds of chromatic alterations can appear, as well as dissonances, lovely rich harmonies with added 7ths and 9ths. But, Romantic era music is tonal – it is based on the major and minor key system. You will not have to write a piece based on a whole tone scale or anything as modern as that.

Romantic music tends to use a wide range of rhythmic note values. You can contrast this with Baroque music, which often reused the same running quaver (8th note) figures for a long time. Classical music tends to use phrases which are of an equal length – balance was a really important feature in the classical era. But in Romantic music, anything goes in terms of phrase length. Phrases might be of unequal or equal lengths. In question 3a, suggested phrase lengths are marked out for you, but you do not have to abide by them exactly.

Romantic music is often built using sequences or motifs, which are adapted and developed to create the rest of the piece. You need to look at the way the piece opens – does it move by step, leaps, or a combination? And then you should carry on in a similar way. Another thing to notice is the use of chromaticism – Romantic composers liked the added colour that using chromatic decoration gives to a piece.

Your composition will need to sound like it is from the Romantic era. The easiest and most enjoyable way to train your brain to recognise the Romantic style, is to listen to plenty of Romantic music. Try to listen actively rather than passively. Listen for key changes, drama and tension, melodic leaps, big contrasts, and notice how everything connects together.

The best source for free scores of out-of-copyright music on the internet is at

Q3a Method

It is difficult to give an exact method for tackling question 3a, because each question is quite different. However, there are some strategies and tips which you can learn.

Always begin by analysing. It is, of course, essential that you take notice of:

  • The time signature
  • The key
  • The instrument

You need to think both vertically, in terms of harmony, and horizontally, in terms of the melody itself. If you ignore either of these directions, your melody will either not fit the piano part, or will sound disjointed or uninteresting.

Think about the direction (up or down) the next note is likely to be (based on patterns used in the music, and conventions of voice-leading). Then check the harmony in the piano, and be sure that you are always using either:

  • Another chord note or
  • A standard type of decoration note

Most of the time notes which fall on the beat will be chord notes, but keep in mind that accented passing notes, appoggiaturas, and sometimes auxiliary notes can also appear on the beat.

Notes that fall between the beats, or on weaker beats of the bar might be chord notes or non-chord notes. If the piano part has a decoration note which sounds at the same time as note in the solo part, aim to harmonise with it in 3rds or 6ths.

Avoid poor doubling – never double the leading note or any dissonant note (e.g. 4th, 7th, 9th). Usually it will also be better not to double any preparation or resolution note either.

Check for consecutives with the bass line with each melody note you write and avoid them. Consecutives with the top or middle piano parts are less serious – it will depend on how harsh they sound.

Take notice of the phrase structure and make your phrases balanced rhythmically, using sequences where possible, and always end on a sufficiently long note at a cadence.

Keep in mind the range of the instrument you are writing for. Apart from keeping within its playable range, you will also want to shape the melody according to its rise and fall of tension, and avoid using too limited a range of notes.

Free Composition Practice Questions

abrsm grade 7 free download

Marking Your Work

Ask your teacher to check your work for you.

If you don’t have a teacher, you can use the MyMusicTheory marking services: see Music Theory Marking by Email for more info!