Question 3b in the ABRSM Grade 7 Music Theory Exam paper is a solo melody composition, with a given opening.

In this lesson:

Q3b Marking Criteria

To gain top marks in question 3b, 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.
  • Use the given chord progression, if this option is chosen.

Shape, Direction and Phrase Structure

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

The composition should be moulded into two clear, equal-length phrases, each of which ends with a harmonically and rhythmically appropriate cadence.

Style and Character

To create a thematically coherent composition, you’ll need to reuse the rhythms and melodic intervals from the opening, (in particular, if there are any unusual features), to create the rest of the piece. Sequences and imitation are useful devices which can help to create cohesion.


A “convincing” harmonic foundation means that the chord changes happen at a suitable speed, 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.

If you choose a question where the chord progression is given to you, make sure you use the given chord notes as proper, structural, chord notes (i.e. on the strong beats unless they are following an accented non-chord note). These should then be decorated with the standard decoration types (passing notes, auxiliary notes etc.) to fill out a more interesting melody.


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 used (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.

Dynamics with letters (p, f, etc.) should be placed under the first note of each phrase and hairpins should be used mid-phrase. Make sure the dynamics would not be ambiguous for a player to interpret and that the overall range is suitably wide.

Articulation (such as slurs and staccato) must be consistent, balanced, musical and playable.

ABRSM Grade 7 Music Theory example composition Q3b

Working with a Given Opening

The first two bars of a short composition need to set the character/style of the whole piece. There will normally be a few elements in the opening which provide the “interest”, and these are the elements which should then be re-used, at different pitches and with some other minor alterations, to create the rest of the piece.

You will already have learned a lot about how to do this at grade 6. The same techniques apply at grade 7, so in this lesson I will review what was previously covered.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.2 no.1 begins like this.

composition opening

The first six notes all belong to the arpeggio of F minor, which is the tonic chord. It is quite easy to sequence the whole idea at a different pitch by basing it on another chord. We could move it to chord iv, Bb minor like this:

sequence new chord

We could also alter the decoration motif slightly, for a little more variety. Here is the same idea but based on a dominant C major chord.

C major chord

This is the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op.2 no.2 in A major.

composition opening A major

We could invert the melody like this:

inverted melody

Here, the music is much more conjunct (no leaps), but still recognisably rhythmically connected:

more conjunct

Keeping the same 2-bar rhythm going for the whole piece is inadvisable, because the music will quickly become predictable and uninteresting. So, rhythms also need to be adapted, but remember that the further you stray from the original, the less connected the ideas will sound.

In op.1 no.1, the rhythm from bar 2, beats 1-2 could be used to fill up both beats 1-2 and 3-4 in a different bar:

reuse rhythm

Re-using the faster demisemiquaver (32nd note) motif of op.1 no.2 could create an increase in tension.

faster notes more tension

Rhythms which fall on a weak beat will sound more urgent if they are shifted onto a stronger beat (i.e. beat 1, or mid-bar in duple/quadruple time).

Here, the demisemiquavers are placed mid-bar (beat 2) on a stronger beat, which is an effective way of building up momentum or increasing the tension:

move to stronger beat

Whichever way you choose to adapt the opening two bars, there are some points which you will always need to keep in mind:

  • The end of a phrase should be rounded off with a cadence, which is normally a rhythmical as well as a harmonic device. The note values at a cadence are usually longer than the note values in the rest of the phrase. Any suitably long note can be used – you do not need to use a rhythm that has already been used in the music.
  • Avoid repeating the same rhythm throughout. Try to build the tension to a climax point, somewhere in the second half by combining a more intense rhythm with other features such as higher pitch and louder dynamics.

Q3b Working with a Chord Progression

In question 3b you may be given a series of chords which lasts for eight bars. The clef and key signature will be in place, but normally the time signature is not given.

Each chord will have three or four notes in it and can be written in any inversion. The chords are not given a specific rhythm, but the notation should give you an idea of how they are intended to be used in the composition.

chord progression for composition

In this example, we have a piece in the bass clef with three flats in the key signature. This means the first chord is C minor, and the harmony of C minor will last for the entire first bar. Bearing in mind the key signature of three flats, we can assume that the whole piece is going to be in C minor, since it is normal to start on the tonic, or perhaps dominant chord, but very unusual to begin on chord vi.

In the second bar there is a four-note chord. Four note chords will be a triad with an added note such as a 7th or 9th. In this case, we have D diminished, which is D-F-Ab, with an added C on top, so this is chord ii°7. Work out the Roman numeral name of each chord and pencil them in, so that you can see the harmonic structure more clearly.

In bar 3, the note heads are black to show you that the harmony lasts for less than a whole bar – there are two chords here, but how you divide up time between the chords will be up to you. For example, if you are writing in 4/4, you could give each chord 2 beats’ worth, or you could choose to give the first chord three beats and the second chord one beat, and so on.

The name of the first of the two chords in bar 3 is less obvious to the eye, because it is not in root position. You will need to re-stack the chord notes to work out the triad which the chord is based on. The notes are F, Ab, C and D. Restacked in thirds, the chord is D-F-Ab-C, so it is actually the same chord as the previous one, but because the bass note is F instead of D, it is written in first inversion.

Although the chord progression contains chords given in various inversions, you do not need to try to map this out in your composition in any way. The lowest note at any point of a chord can be any note of the given chord. For example, although a C minor chord might be notated in 2nd inversion, it doesn’t mean you have to use a G as the lowest note – you can use C, Eb or G.

Take a moment now to work out the rest of the chords in this progression.

chord progression chords

Making a Melody

The chord notes will tend to fall on the strongest beats of the bar. The strongest beat is the first beat, and subsequent beats will be weaker. Notes which are in between the main beats are off beats and the location where most of the melodic decoration will be found. There are exceptions though – you can use accented passing notes for example, as well as unaccented ones, and appoggiaturas. By placing the chord notes themselves on stronger, more accented positions within the bar than non-chord notes, the harmony can become evident.

You will then need to “join together” these chord notes by using melodic decoration between them. You can use any type of decoration note (passing notes, auxiliary notes, auxiliary harmony notes suspensions, anticipations and changing notes), which means you do have a lot of options as you place each note down, but try to be consistent in the patterns you use, so that the whole melody feels connected.

Do not move from a chord note to another one via a decoration note which isn’t one of the standard decorations mentioned above (passing notes etc.). Avoid non-chord notes which you can’t categorise – they will cause your melody to move in unusual ways and will risk making it sound awkward.

When you have one chord to use for a whole bar, pay attention to which notes are falling on and off the beat. It’s a common error to focus only on the first beat of the bar and to let the rest of it flow “as it will”, without keeping the harmony under close control.

In 4/4 for example, you would normally expect a chord note on each of the four crotchet (quarter note) beats, or at least on the two minim (half note) positions. If you place a non-chord on beat 3 (which is relatively strong), you risk altering the implied harmony at that point. Here is a bar which is supposed to fit with a C major chord:

implied harmony

Here, because beat three has the note A, the brain/ear will process the harmony here as A minor. If the intended chord is C major, this will be a problem.

On the other hand, the C on the third beat here, which falls to G on the 4th beat, ensures that the correct harmony of C major is implied. 

Q3b Making Your Own Chord Progression

If the question in your exam paper does not contain a chord progression, it does not mean that chords and harmony will not be assessed – quite the opposite in fact. If there is no given chord progression, you will need to figure one out for yourself.

I would strongly recommend not leaving it up to chance, or where the music seems to take you. Your harmonic structure needs to be logical and convincing, and you will get better results if you take a moment to plan out what you are going to do.

You will need to start by working out the key of the given opening. Using Roman numerals, note down the chords that have been used so far.

Next sketch out a harmonic framework for your eight bars. You are going to balance the composition into two four-bar phrases, so mark that out with two brackets.

At the end of the first phrase, you need a cadence. The first cadence chord will be in bar 3, and the second in bar 4. Perfect, imperfect or interrupted cadences will all work well, but do remember that after an imperfect cadence you will need to move away from chord V carefully, because normally only moves to I or VI (in the same key).

You should end the piece in the original key, with a perfect cadence. The tonic chord of a perfect cadence will usually land on a stronger beat than the dominant chord.

After sketching in the given opening and two cadences, there will only be a few more chords to add in, to complete your harmonic plan. You should change the harmony either once or twice a bar on average, which means you only have about 3 bars left to be creative with.

The chords you choose are up to you, but you always follow the standard progressions, and aim to use secondary chords as well as primary chords, for variety. If you are trying to use a secondary chord, such as ii, which is D minor in the key of C major, be sure to use enough chord notes so that there is no ambiguity about the chord. Only using the notes F and A would probably imply chord IV rather than chord ii, and only using D and F might imply chord V7, (depending on what comes next). Using all three chord notes will ensure that D minor is implied. Chromatic chords like the Neapolitan 6th can also be used, if you are feeling adventurous!

Q3b Musical Form

The biggest mistake I see in students’ compositions, is that they often seem to be like a rambling walk in the countryside, with no path planned and no destination in mind!

Harmony works with melody to help fix some signposts within a composition, for example, cadences are great at signalling the end of a phrase. Your brain is so used to hearing the typical cadences in Western music, that it will fill in the gaps for you and whether you realise it or not, you are predicting what comes next. Your brain expects a tonic chord after a dominant chord at the end of a piece, and if it doesn’t happen, you end up feeling surprised or even confused.

Musical form works in a similar way, in that it helps to add signposts that will prevent your melody from sounding random and directionless.

Describing Form in Music

We’ll use capital letters to mark out musical form. The first idea in the piece will be called A. A new idea will be called B and so on. You can change a musical idea in subtle ways without changing it completely.

Here’s a simple tune by John Alcock [1715-1806].

Alcock - melody with form

Phrase A runs for the first two bars. It’s characterised as a quaver (8th note) passage in mostly conjunct (stepwise) motion.

Phrase B runs for the next two bars and although the rhythm is the same apart from at the very end, the melody is now mostly created with disjunct motion (leaps of a third or more), so it’s clearly different in character.

Bars 5-6 are a repeat of the beginning, so we’ll call this A again.

The last two bars start the same way as phrase B, but this is the end of the section, and we move towards a cadence with some ornaments and longer note values. You could call this B1, a slightly altered B.

Now here is the same beginning, but continued without any consideration about form. Play it through. How does it sound to you?

composition with no form

It feels like it’s just running around random notes, killing time until it gets to the tonic Bb at the end. You can’t make any predictions as you listen, because there’s nothing to latch on to. Your brain needs a certain amount of repetition – whether of rhythm, melody, harmony or all three, so that it can make those predictions and ultimately make sense of the music. If I was going to describe the form of this piece, I’d only really able to say it is A-B: A lasts for two bars, followed by a very long and wandering B.

So, you need form. What sort of form should you aim for?

A-B-A1-B1 is a good plan, because it is balanced evenly and has some repetition.

A-A1-B-A is good as well – the last phrase A will not be identical to the beginning, since it will include a cadence and suitable ending, of course.

What you want to avoid is A-B-C-D, which will be something different every two bars,

 Also avoid repeating everything too much note-for-note as well – A – A – A – A!

This is where sequences come in handy – you can repeat phrase A more or less exactly, but starting on a scale step higher for example, and you’ll have made another A, but this time slightly altered.

Free Practice Exercises

PDF Grade 7 Free Composition Exercises

Marking Your Work

Ask your teacher to check your work for you.

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