GCSE Key Stage 3 Composition

One Note Composition

For GCSE Music I like to think of composition as a journey and I start my students off with a One Note Composition.

This is not a new idea or anything particularly original from me, but I thought I would share it as I know it works really well. I am also thinking along the lines of using Notation software such as Sibelius – but you could use this concept with other pieces of music software. I find it useful for introducing my students to Sibelius.

Why One Note?

At the start of a GCSE course it is important to get students really thinking about what composition is. How do you start a piece? What are the various factors that you need to consider? What makes a piece “good”?

I find that starting off with just One Note means that students aren’t getting worried about melody, harmony, pitch and tonality. They are focussing on what the process of composing is all about for them.

Good Composing Habits

The thing with composition is that you want students to approach it in the correct way. There is little point sitting them in front of a computer and just saying compose. Similarly you want them to get going quickly and be creative, without too many barriers getting in the way

So get them to choose one note – a G, or C etc. They can work in different octaves but they have to just use one specific note. They can change anything else, work in any time signature, use dynamics, accents etc. But just one note.

What is the point?

The point behind this approach is that it gets them thinking about what composing is:

  • What time signature am i going to use?
  • How fast is my piece going to be?
  • Will I change tempo, or time?
  • Where might I add crescendos or accelerandos?

How often do students think that a piece of music will just happen, it won’t. They need to plan it out, work out a structure and also think about the purpose. A piece of music with only One Note could easily have a specific purpose. Can they create mood with only one note and if so, how?

It will of course frustrate some students who will want to work with more notes. So it is important to emphasise how this is going to benefit them on their composition journey.


Structure is key to this piece and students may need some help with this. They need to work out what is going to hold their piece together – a rhythmic hook or pattern. They then need to consider how they are going to create a sense of beginning, middle & end. How do you build up to a climax with only one note? How can you create contrast with only one note and one instrument?

All of these thoughts will really help them to develop as composers. The end product will show how much thought has gone in to structure and it is important to review this with them. It might be good to use a GCSE Mark Scheme for composing to help highlight the positive things they have included. I use the mark scheme because it also gets them used to the language that the exam board uses to assess their work.

Intro to Notation Software

I find that this project is also a great way to get them familiar with the Software that they might use to capture ideas and put together their composition. They learn how to add notes, change rhythms, work with score markings and score text. What I love to see is that they experiment with rhythms and create interesting rhythms. I encourage them to include rests and think about note values. I just find that it gets them composing and thinking about music in a really different and creative way. They have to listen and they have to think about everything other than melody.

Learning to use software effectively is important because then it doesn’t get in the way of the composing process. But also it is a tool to help and it is not the only way to compose. You could easily encourage students to work on this piece using their own instrument. But it is good to be able to present work using software such as Sibelius or Dorico.


Let’s face it, Rhythm is a great starting point for composition. How many times do we see students work in 4/4 time at 110 beats per minute and fill bars with crotchets and quavers and no rests. We need to get students to engage with rhythm in order to write melodies that are interesting. I have listened to dozens of 1 Note Compositions in my time and I find that there are some that are really good and some that are awful! The ones that have rhythmic themes are particularly good.

Extension Work

As an extension you can then start to teach them about Retrograde, Augmentation and Diminution. You could lead into work on Minimalism or a study of rhythms around the world. You can teach them more about time signatures, and you could actually tell them that they have to use a Simple & Compound time signature in their one note piece. I have linked this to minimalism through clapping music, topical at the moment and there is an iOS app for it.

One Note Composition

So if you want to try an different approach to composition then why not try the One Note Composition and see where it leads. It would also work with a top set Year 9 group or KS3 group.


  1. Great idea and surprised I have not heard of it or thought of it before! I think there’s something crucial missing from your bullet points, though: ‘how will I articulate a clear structure?’. I suspect this could really help with the very tricky task of balancing contrast with continuity at points of structural transition- I’ll give it a go and find out!

  2. Good point and I agree. I think structure is also crucial. I think maybe students should be given some clear parameters, and I suspect I have done this before:

    1. Use at least 2 time signatures
    2. Have a clear structure – Ternary, Rondo?
    3. Use a variety of different rhythmic ideas.

    I guess it could easily be differentiated to different students. Some could be given certain rhythms that they have to include?

    I suspect that this composition is just a starting point and is all about sparking creativity. But in-fact on reflection there are lots of applications, extensions and add ons to the basic principal!

  3. This is fab! Think I’m going to enjoy going back to secondary school, teaching only A Level is a tad……samey..

  4. We have been doing the one note composition for a few years and it is a good way into composition. We listen to Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata so the students can see that they can make a effective piece this way.

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