Composition Tips & Tricks

There are so many different approaches to composition and lots of different genres & styles that students can use. It can be really difficult for students to know exactly that they need to do in order to make their composition work and get that covered target grade at GCSE. This blog is aimed at students who have got a fairly good composition but want to look for ways to enhance their work and improve their overall grade. This list is almost a composition audit and students might like to use it to see what they need to do next.

  1. Title & Tempo – I think a title is crucial. It tells the listener and more importantly the examiner exactly what the piece is going to be about. I always feel slightly concerned when I see Ternary in C for example! I like students to come up with a good title. I also insist that they add a tempo marking and preferably some kind of tempo direction or performance direction. All to often students simply open Sibelius and go with the default speed – this is a big no for me!
  2. Texture – this is always something I like to challenge. What about putting the tune in the bass instead of at the top of the texture. Imitation is a great tool, but students often avoid it! Call & Response is easy to add and so effective. I guess the key thing for me is that students look at their piece to ensure that there is more than one texture! And then they can write about it in their write-ups or use it as a focus for their piece.
  3. C-Major is lazy. There I said it! I really like students to think about others keys, and I feel that the choice of instrument should be linked to this choice. So if they are writing for a clarinet then they should write in E Major for the clarinet so that they can use the lowest note on the instrument. That is just one example and I would encourage students to think about their choice of key and therefore aim to write more idiomatically.
  4. Modulate, at some point! It is a simple technique and will also teach them a great deal about cadences and chords etc. Sticking in a lovely ii-V-I into the new key is really satisfying and is likely to pick up marks. An examiner would like nothing more than to see a cadential 6/4 chord for example. So if a student is finished and their piece still needs somewhere to go then I reckon a modulation might help!
  5. Pizzicato, if they have strings then use Pizzicato. Okay it might not be appropriate for the piece, but they should try it. I think my students to write for “strings” on Sibelius as a generic instrument. If they have a piano part I get them to try copying it on to strings to see what it sounds like. They often love off-beat pizzicato strings as a fresh sound. It is something to try. Obviously you can tell I use Sibelius for my composition, but I am sure it is easy enough on other software.
  6. Augmentation to make the ending a bit more grand and exciting. This is something I find really effective as a way of rounding off a piece. Repeat the final 4 bars of melody, but augment the melody to make it longer and make the ending grander, and more obvious I guess. Obviously you need to see if this works, but it is something students can try! And sometimes the end of a piece comes along too quickly or just isn’t powerful enough to mark the end of a piece. Sibelius will do all the hard work for you as well!
  7. First Beat Melody – This is my way of describing a melody where the first beat of every bar is accented. I find this can sound simple and potentially ineffective. What I like students to do every now and again is try starting with a rest or tying a note over the bar line. If a melody is essentially split up into one bar phrases then it is likely to not be as exciting as it could be! So get them to look at their work and see if they can add in the odd rest.
  8. Accelerando/Rallentando – Adding performance directions such as these doesn’t take long but can make the world of difference to a piece. The ending can sometimes be enhanced by either of these as can a transition between sections. It is important that students consider these options
  9. Stereo Panning – A good friend of mine mentioned this to me once and it is now firmly part of what I do with my students. I get them to pan their piece in Sibelius/Garageband/Logic so that it sounds like instruments are coming from the left or right. The thing is moderators and examiners are likely to be listening to these pieces on good quality headphones and I find that a properly panned piece sounds much better. They can picture an orchestra or rock band and think about where the sounds come from. It works really well if they have written a duet for example. Try it and see, it is really easy and it is something they can also write about in their write-ups.
  10. Pedal Notes – They are easy to add and work well in so many different places. A cinematic piece that starts with an Inverted Pedal note is really effective. They obviously change the harmony and make it often sound much more interesting. It helps students avoid root position chords and it is just a good device to add to a piece. If they don’t have a pedal note of some kind then they should think about adding one.

I could probably keep going, but these are the 10 that pop to mind – I guess I find myself saying these things a lot. You might be thinking – well this is all very well but I struggle to get my students to compose. I get that and I sympathise – and trust me I also struggle. But once they have something it might be that one or two of these things will just help them to enhance their work. I hope that the list is helpful and if you have any questions then please do get in touch. Ultimately you want students to listen to their work and if time, make it as good as possible!

Happy composing!

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