GCSE A-Level Key Stage 3 Composition

That sounds boring, try this!

At this time of year students are constantly seeking ways of spicing up, developing and generally improving their composition work. The job of a music teacher is to ensure that they are aware of all the compositional tips and tricks. I like to ensure that when students submit work it is packed full of musical features that really enhance their work.

The obvious approach is to give students briefs and teach them all of the skills at the start. But for me I like students to create and develop ideas and then look at how they can enhance them. Along the way I find myself teaching them additional stuff that might make their work better and I like it that they have analysed their own work.

One issue that I often encounter with GCSE compositions is that it can get repetitive and boring. Harsh words I know, but true. My students are well aware of this and I always ask them to think about it and listen out for it. A piece of music needs to take the listener on a journey and the mark scheme will refer in some way shape or form to how interesting, stimulating or satisfying the piece is. The good thing is that this is often a good approach to develop a composition. In the AQA Old Spec Unit 2 composition students are asked to comment on issues that encountered along the way. If they encounter a “boring” section and then successfully changed it, then this gives them something to comment on in the write-up.

So here are my top five ways of making a piece of music less boring:

  1. Hemiola – Students at GCSE level need to be aware of this most wonderful rhythmic device. It was often used by Bach and is of course seen in music from many different genres. If a student wants to make their ending really solid, or spice up the end of a section, then they might want to try adding a Hemiola.
  2. Change Key for Goodness sake – a proper modulation, potentially using a ii-V-I in the new key, is always a winner. Couple this with a slight tempo change and maybe the addition of some ornaments, and the music will reach a new stratosphere!
  3. Percussion for Colour – The piece is likely to have drums, or a beat of some kind. But have they added Wind Chimes, Cymbal rolls or a tam-tam. Adding percussion can add colour to a piece and also help to fill in gaps and create atmosphere. Get students to think about where they might add this – it mustn’t be random, but when well placed, percussion can make the difference.
  4. Unison – Often students neglect to have everyone doing the same thing at the same time. This is a powerful texture and easy to add to a piece. It creates a sense of climax, but also emphasises a motif or melody. I find that it is good to have the percussion or drums also follow the same rhythm.
  5. Rhythmic DevicesRetrograde, Augmentation, Diminution – I love these tools on Sibelius and I find that they are so useful in a piece. IF a student is looking to enhance the end of their piece I suggest that they think about using Augmentation. If they want to come up with a new rhythm they I suggest they play around with retrograding existing rhythms or ideas. For a minimalist piece these tools are crucial, but they are useful in any style. Sibelius, and I am sure other software platforms, will automate this for you, and so it is an easy approach and can give the piece an injection of new ideas.

Not only are the 5 ideas above useful for composition, but they are also useful concepts for the listening and appraising exam. Students need to be able to identify these features in listening extracts and also comment on their impact. If they have used them, experimented with them or rejected them they are much more likely to understand their musical value.

So if a students is asking for ways to improve their work why not throw the above 5 things at them and see what they can do with them. They might just find they are exactly the thing their piece needed.

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