GCSE Music Compositions: 10 Things You Need to Get Started

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GCSE Music is a great qualification for students with musical experience who want to formally study the subject. The course includes lots of different aspects of music you might not have come across before. There’s a performance part, which students are generally most familiar with, having started learning an instrument before they start the GCSE. However, there’s also content about music from around the world, music in films, music styles throughout history, and more. The part of the course lots of people worry about most is the composition. It’s not uncommon to have never composed music before GCSE – I know I hadn’t! A lot of the time, the hardest thing is just getting started. It can be daunting to have to start a piece completely from scratch, or from just a short brief. It can help to break it down into a checklist of things your piece needs. It’s less overwhelming if your to-do list says ‘choose a time signature’ rather than ‘start GCSE composition’.

This article will go through 10 things like this to help get you started with your compositions. Going through these, which may seem small individually, will together give you a solid backbone from which you can develop a really good piece!

Disclaimers: This list is in no particular order! Everyone has a different approach to composition, and finds it easier to start with different things. Feel free to jump between items in this article when getting started on your composition.

Additionally, some of your compositions may not be completely free, but instead, set to a brief by the exam board. The points on this list still apply – you just might have a little less choice, because your piece must match the brief.

1. Choose the instrument(s)

Something you’ll decide early on is what instruments you are composing for. Piano is a popular choice, as it’s an instrument most music students are familiar with.

If you play an orchestral instrument like the trumpet or oboe, you might want to compose a melody for this instrument, with a piano accompaniment. In fact, you can do this even if you don’t play the lead instrument.

Just be careful that your melody in this case is actually playable on that instrument. For instance, if you are composing for violin, you will need to think about notation for up bows and down bows, which you might know nothing about if you don’t play a string instrument.

You also don’t want to accidentally include notes you can’t physically play on that instrument, so make sure to look up its range!

It is technically possible to compose for an orchestra for your GCSE compositions, but very few students choose this. There will be a huge number of parts to write, rather than just one or two.

However, you could compose a piece for a small group, often called chamber music in the classical world. This could be a string quartet, or wind quintet, as examples.

Equally, you aren’t restricted to classical music. The small group could be a vocal part with an accompanying band, a jazz band, or a small guitar group.

2. Pick a music style

Following on from this, you can choose a musical style for your piece. For instance, if you’ve chosen a string quartet, your piece will likely be classical.

If you’ve chosen to compose for piano, you might want something modern and jazzy, something chordal and romantic era, or something intricate and baroque. If you are composing a song, you can think about styles like pop, rock and many more. There are lots of choices!

You can have a look at some example GCSE compositions that got A and A* grades here from Music at School. There certainly isn’t one particular style that is needed for a top grade!

3. Pick a general mood

Alongside the musical style comes the mood of the piece. In the early stages, this doesn’t have to be more detailed than ‘upbeat’, or ‘mysterious’, or ‘dramatic’.

However, it’s useful to have this general idea of what you want the mood to be, as this will influence your whole piece. Knowing what you want the overall piece to sound like, before you start, will help your piece feel coherent, rather than jumping between lots of different moods.

That being said, it’s absolutely fine if you want the mood to change during the piece, perhaps suddenly halfway through, or gradually throughout so you end with a different mood than you started with. Once again, it’s just useful to have a general idea of this.

Dynamics and articulation will also really help set the tone of the piece, so it’s really important to include these – but you most likely won’t start adding these in until later in the composition process.

4. Decide on a key signature

At GCSE level, it may seem like the specific key signature doesn’t much impact your piece – it won’t impact the quality of your composition if you write it in D major rather than E major. However, your piece does still need a key signature!

Start by deciding whether you want a major or minor key. This can link to the mood you have chosen. If you want to write a dramatic ballad, a minor key would be better. If you are writing any sort of jazz piece, you might want to have a look at blues scales instead.

Your key signature will also be important when it comes to modulation. Modulating is where you transition from one key to another at some point in your piece, and is recommended if you are aiming for top marks.

Modulation is tricky, so you only need it if you want the highest grades. You won’t be modulating to a random key, but a related one – for traditional major and minor keys, your options are the dominant, subdominant, or relative minor/major.

For instance, if you start in C major, you can modulate to G major (the dominant), F major (the subdominant) or A minor (the relative key).

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about this yet – your teachers should cover it if they haven’t already, and if they don’t, ask them about it! It’s also not something you need to think about right as you start your composition. However, for more information as and when you need it, you can check out this video from Music Matters.

Choosing a key signature then helps once you start writing out chord progressions and starting your melodies, as you have set chords and notes in that key to work with. Modulating is also a good thing to think about when planning the structure of your piece. There’s more on each of these things later in this article!

5. Think about a title

Something many students forget about is giving their piece a title! You’ll also hear different opinions on whether to choose this before or after doing the composition itself.

Some people say to wait until you have your piece, because then you can listen to it and see what words or themes best describe the piece. This way, you get a title that accurately represents your actual composition, not what you thought it would be when you started.

I think it’s useful to have at least a working title early on, to help keep your piece focussed on a particular theme or idea. Remember, you are free to change the title as your piece develops.

6. Decide on a time signature

Something else your piece will definitely need is a time signature. Most people will stick to common ones here – along the lines of 4/4, 3/4, or 6/8, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

You have a lot of freedom when it comes to this, as each time signature isn’t specific to a mood or time period (although there are a couple of exceptions to this, such as a waltz, which has a characteristic 3 beats in a bar).

If you are doing a jazz style piece, you might also want to think here about having swung quavers, as this is typical of the style. So if you have a piece in 4/4, and a bar with 8 quavers, they will not be all the same length.

If you want a proper guide to swung rhythms, it’s much easier to hear them than try to understand a written explanation – check out this video from Music Matters.

7. Think about the structure

The structure of your piece can sound like something abstract and hard to choose before you start writing. However, there are actually plenty of set structures you can use to help you plan out your piece.

For example, binary and tertiary form were popular in baroque music, but can be used in a lot of other styles. Binary pieces have two distinct sections – A and B. They will often have different melodies or motifs, and can have a different mood.

Tertiary is where you have 3 sections, normally A, then B, then back to A. The second A section is similar to the first, but often with something new to make it more interesting than an exact repeat.

This change could be a new key, or changing which instrument (or hand, for piano) plays the melody, or adding in a countermelody. The possibilities here are endless.

Other common structures include the 12-bar blues for a blues or rock-and-roll piece, or a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure for a song.

Knowing things like this helps break your piece down into more manageable sections. For instance, if you choose tertiary, you can focus on just the A section to begin with, then work on adapting it for the second A section, then move on to the distinct B section. This can be easier than trying to write the whole piece, or whole melody, at once.

8. Write down some chord progressions

Now we’re getting into the actual musical content of your compositions. (This article is focussed on things to think about when you’re just getting started on your compositions, so this section will be brief. There’s plenty more advice on the writing process itself that will come from your teachers, textbooks and your own experience.)

There are actually lots of existing common chord progressions you can think about for your pieces, which can be less overwhelming than starting completely from scratch. Firstly, you can think about cadences.

For instance, if you have regular 4- or 8-bar phrases, they will typically end on either an imperfect cadence (where the last chord is chord V in your key), or perfect (where the last two chords are chords V then I).

If your composition is a song, there are common pop chord progressions used in many existing songs, such as I-V-VI-IV. You can find some common progressions here from LANDR, and try them out to see what sounds you like.

9. Think about the texture

Your composition will include multiple parts – even if the piece is just for piano, there will be parts for each hand. This means you need to think about the texture of the piece, and how it will sound when all the parts play together.

The texture of the piece involves things like whether you have big chords played at once, giving a thick texture, or chords split into arpeggios or other patterns with one note at a time, giving a thinner texture.

So, once you have some chord progressions, you can move on to choosing how these will be played as accompaniment to the melody – as full chords, broken up, scalic, or even using notes of the scale for a countermelody. Check out this page from VIVA for a guide to different textures in music.

You can also have a look at the AQA GCSE Music syllabus, linked here, particularly the assessment grid for the composition. This includes a list of some of the textures they’re looking for if you want the top marks, as well as guidelines on things like rhythm, structure and harmony.

10. Try out some melodies/hooks

Finally, we’ll touch on the melody of your piece. This is well into the writing stage now – but this point is here on the list of things to think about when you’re starting off because some people will begin with just an idea of a melody, riff, or short phrase, and build the piece around this.

This will still work – your melody idea will influence your choices for things like the mood and major/minor key signatures. In fact, knowing a little bit of melody you want to work with can automatically decide things like the time signature.

After working through the things discussed in this article, you might want to check out this workshop from Hunt School Music, all about writing melodies.

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