Composition GCSE A-Level Key Stage 3

Composing at Home 1

Composing at Home 1 - How can we start off our next great composition?

If you are reading this in 2020 you will know exactly why we are Composing at Home. But if you are reading this in 2120 then firstly, I am pleased to meet you and also, I am wondering what you think of our music. Is there a sound coming out of 2020 that we are not even aware of yet.

The thing is, I started thinking about everyone potentially composing at home and I started to think about what it might sound like. One day, will students study the music composed in 2020 and discuss how it links to Lockdown? Will they pick out freatures that link to Composing at Home, such as a surge in solo instrumental composition?

Your Instrument

I want to keep this thought in mind, Solo Instrumental composition. But I also want you to keep in mind that you are a composer, composing in 2020, at home, under lockdown. I think it is an inspiring thought to think that one day someone out there might study what you have composed today.

Your instrument should always be your first port of call for composition. But so often it isn’t, today we are going to change that. So you will need to go and get it out, get it ready and then journey with me through Composing at Home 1.

Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What qualities does your instrument have?
  • What sounds can you make using your instrument?
  • Are there any techniques that you can use – triple tonguing, glissando, Double stopping?
  • Do you know the range of your instrument?

It is a good idea to get to know your instrument really well before you start composing with it. You want your piece to work well for your instrument, but also explore your instrument as much as possible. If I think of the Clarinet I think of an instrument that has the largest pitch range for modern woodwind instruments. Therefore I can explore the lower end and the upper end and everything in-between. It would be “wrong” to not give the clarinet player a good range to play. 

Starting Points

Now that you have explored your instrument you need to start your composition. It is quite hard to just start a piece, although I think that you just need to start. So, pick a starting note and just begin to play. You might like to record what you come up with in-case you fall upon an idea. Once you have picked a starting note you will hopefully think about the key you are in and what notes you can play. This experimentation is important and will also get your warmed up. You might like to play a few things using your starting note:

  1. The Major Scale based on that starting note
  2. Now try the Minor Scale based on that note
  3. How about you now try playing the arpeggios for the Major & Minor
  4. Challenge – can you play any other scales or modes that start with your chosen note.


“the action of putting things together; formation or construction”

“a thing composed of various elements”

Composing is a process, a formation or a construction. It is where we take musical bits & pieces and start to form them into something. By playing through scales, arpeggios and general ideas, you are starting to gather ideas together.

  • Did you come up with anything you liked?
  • How do you feel about the key you ended up in?
  • Could you play comfortably in the key you landed upon?

It is important that you are working in a key, scale, mode or pattern that you are comfortable with. C Major always seems a little boring, so maybe avoid that. But also don’t write in C Sharp Major if you are no comfortable in that key. You might like to also adjust to take into account the lowest or highest potential note on your instrument!

Building Blocks

We are now going to choose some building blocks to work with and you are then going to start composing. What you need to keep in mind is that we are just starting to form up ideas. You are not going to compose a whole piece in one go. You are certainly not going to tick all of the exam criteria in one go. Let me give you a brief:

“Compose some ideas using a set key, mode or pattern on your chosen instrument including the given building blocks”

I have chosen the term building blocks, but you can think of these as key elements of music. I think it is good to determine a few things before you start:

  • Scale, Mode or Pattern
  • Time Signature
  • Tempo
  • Mood

Mood is important because it might help you to think of something as you play. You might find that you explore different moods, and that is okay. What you are doing is generating some ideas that are based around a few key components. You have a key/tonality, you have a tempo and you have a time signature. As you create ideas it is important that you record them. This could on a phone, laptop or tablet and of course you good write down the notation or some kind of graphic score.

Progress Review

The composing has begun and we are starting to give those listeners in 2120 something to get excited about! Well maybe not just yet, but we have something! Let’s think about how we can review what we have come up with so far.

  • How did you get on? 
  • Did you come up with any ideas that you like? 
  • What made these ideas work?
  • Have you landed on any motives or patterns?
  • Are you wanting to change any of the building blocks?

These ideas are going to form your composition, so it is important that you review them and then start to refine them. Make some changes, explore what you have created and then record these new ideas.

By the end of this process you should have lots of musical ideas and these are the main ingredients for any composition. You generated them and they are perfect for your instrument. In the next part we will look at what we can do with these ideas.

Further Support

Learning to compose can be tough, so I wanted to point you in the direction of a couple of great websites that you might like to visit:

I Can Compose

Passing Notes Education

These sites are aimed at students & teachers. I am sure that at this time students & teachers can benefit from the resources projects and ideas included.

And I will end by saying that the more you can listen to music for your chosen instrument the better. Every time you listen you get ideas & inspiration!

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