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Adapting a Melodic Idea

Once you have decided which parts of the given opening are the most important (because they give the piece its character), you need to then adapt those ideas so that they keep their character, but are changed in some small ways. Aim for something which is similar, but not exactly the same. In this lesson we will explore some of the most common ways to achieve this.

Diatonic sequences.

Choose a phrase or part of a phrase (at least three or four notes for best results) then rewrite it starting on a different step of the scale.

In a tonal sequence, the rhythm stays the same, as does the interval number between each note, but – the quality of the intervals might differ. Keep an eye out for any augmented/diminished intervals and resolve them accordingly.

If the exact interval qualities are maintained in a sequence it is a “real” sequence, and can be used for modulating to a new key.

Inverted sequences

Keep the rhythm the same, but where the original moves down, the sequence moves up by the same intervals, (and vice versa).

Rhythmic Imitation

Isolate and reuse the most characteristic rhythm of the given opening. Useful rhythmic ideas include triplets or other tuplets, dotted and double dotted notes, syncopation, very fast notes and rests.

Inverted Rhythm

Reversing a rhythm – this is known as “retrograde” = “backwards”.

When the rhythm contains a dotted note, avoid creating unwanted syncopation.

Augmentation and Diminution

Augmentation = double the note values, diminution = half the note values. This technique is useful if you want to create a middle section which is contrasted in mood, but connected rhythmically.

Reuse an Uncommon Interval

Common intervals: 2nds and 3rds.

Quite common: 4ths and 5ths.

Less common: 6ths and octaves.

Unusual: 7ths, augmented and diminished intervals, compound intervals

Creating a Contrast

The beginning of a grade 8 composition (A) introduces the general melodic theme(s) of the whole piece. The middle section (B) should ideally be a contrasting idea, while still remaining connected in some way. If it changes so much that it appears to have no link with the first section, the composition will sound meaningless.

To create a contrasting middle section, you can use a combination of some of the following techniques (not an exhaustive list!)


Use the middle section to move to a related key.

E.g. Major – Relative Minor – Major, or Tonic – Dominant – Tonic


You could contrast the dynamics in each section, or change the frequency of dynamic change.

E.g. Loud – Quiet – Loud or Gradual changes – Rapid Changes – Gradual changes


“Tessitura” means “overall range of pitches used” – is the piece written for the low or high end of the instrument’s range, or somewhere in the middle?

E.g. Medium – High – Medium, or Low – Medium – Low

Rhythm and Melody

You can change the overall note values e.g. crotchets into quavers (quarter notes into 8th notes) to increase the tension, or change a melody that moves only by step into one which moves by larger intervals.

E.g. Quick – Slow – Quick, or No syncopation – Syncopation – No syncopation, or Steps – Leaps – Steps.


E.g.Slurred – Staccato – Slurred etc.

How to Practise

Take a melody and then alter one element at a time. Keep on making small changes, until the original melody becomes unrecognisable. Then ask yourself at what point did things fall apart, and are there some changes which seem to unglue things more severely than others?

Making Phrases

By now you should have several ideas about how you can create new sections of melody which are connected or contrasted with the given opening. The next thing to do is to connect these new ideas together to make complete phrases.

A phrase is like a sentence or clause in writing. In writing, you always include some kind of punctuation at the end of a sentence. Think about what happens when you read out loud – you would normally pause slightly whenever there is a comma or full stop.

In music, a phrase needs to end with a cadence. You can choose a cadence which feels like stop, (perfect or plagal cadence), which ends on the tonic chord. Or, you can use a cadence which feels only like a pause (imperfect or interrupted cadence), which does not end on the tonic chord. Most pieces end with a perfect cadence.

Within a phrase, you can have a number of mini sub-phrases, which do not have to end on traditional cadence chords. Cadences are only needed at the end of your main structural sections – the ones we named A and B.

Phrase Marks v. Slurs

A curved line over a group of notes can sometimes simply show phrasing, but most of the time (especially for orchestral instruments rather than the piano) it actually shows articulation, in the form of slurs.

In the composition question, there is no need for you to draw phrase marks to show where the phrases are. Slurs, on the other hand, will normally always be necessary. You can have lots of groups of slurred notes within one phrase, but you cannot have a group of slurred notes which lasts for example, four bars, because they would most likely be unplayable, (except perhaps at a very fast tempo).

As well as fitting your melody around one of the recognised cadences, you should also consider using other tactics to help the listener understand your phrase structure. Rhythm and dynamics should match the phrase structure.