The composition question at grade 8 is similar to the questions set at grade 6 – you are given an opening of around 1-2 bars and are asked to compose for a solo orchestral instrument (a choice of two is given). You will choose one of two given openings.
Unlike at grade 6, you are not specifically asked to make a modulation in either of the options. However, to gain a good mark at this level modulation will be expected.
Grade 8 ABRSM Composition Marking Criteria
To gain top marks in a composition question, 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.
Shape, Direction and Phrase Structure
Shape and direction in music are achieved through increasing or decreasing the tension, so that a story unfolds. Ideally, a composition will move towards a single climax point, which is usually around 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through, which is the moment of peak tension/excitement.
In a 12-bar composition, aim to write an ABA (ternary) structure, where the two phrase As are similar but not identical, and B is a contrast (although still obviously thematically connected). Writing the second A phrase in a different key but with essentially the same music is a convenient way to achieve this (for example, you could transpose the opening into the subdominant).
In a 16-bar composition, the structure could be AB (binary, with two pairs of questioning/answering phrases) or AABA. You will not score higher for simply writing a longer composition, but you may find it easier to write 16 bars, because it is a more balanced number.
Style and Character
At grade 8, there are usually a couple of “interesting” elements in the given opening which you will be expected to identify and then re-use, as you build out the rest of the piece. Some examples:
- Chromatic decoration notes (e.g. auxiliary, passing, appoggiatura)
- Unusual leaps (e.g. 6th, 7th, augmented/diminished intervals)
- Unusual rhythms (e.g. triplets, syncopation, double dotted notes, demisemiquavers (32nd notes)
- Chromatic chords (e.g. as passing chords)
These elements should be re-used in a similar way in the second A phrase. In the contrasting B phrase, one (or more elements) can be picked out and used to develop new musical ideas.
Chord progressions must be logical, and cadences must be handled correctly. Although the question rubric does not mention modulation, it is expected that you will modulate, and you are unlikely to score highly unless your composition visits at least two other keys. You may be tempted to used implied chromatic chords, but this is usually not necessary (unless the given opening includes an implied chromatic chord). Implying a chromatic chord in a single line solo melody is often quite difficult unless you write a broken chord or arpeggio, so you need to consider whether writing in arpeggio-style fits the general character of the piece.
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 or otherwise connected, throughout the rest of the piece. This means you should avoid suddenly introducing rhythmic motifs late in the piece, which have not already been established (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 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. The composition is written at concert pitch, so keep in mind whether the notes would be still be playable if transposed into written pitch (in particular, keep horn parts below G5 and explore the notes below middle C).
Articulation (such as slurs and staccato) must be consistent, balanced and playable.
Here is an example of a grade 8 standard composition: