Despite many students being left to their own devices to work out the composing section of the Leaving Cert Music paper, this is a section of the paper that absolutely shouldn't be disregarded or pushed aside during your exam preparation. In fact, this section of the paper is worth equal marks to the listening section and worth half the marks of the practical exam. The composition deserves time and dedication rather than just "make it up on the spot, on the day"! Ellen, who achieved a H1 in Leaving Cert Music, has written this guide to help bring about clarity on this section of the paper that many students struggle with. The guide is a comprehensive exploration of the composing paper, breaking down the key elements of an accomplished composition to guide you through every step of the process and journey. Check out some extracts from Ellen's comprehensive guide below!
Why not view this composition element of the paper as a journey. Before you take off on this journey, you must be aware of a number of essential elements and keep these in mind throughout the journey. Imagine them to be like safety procedures, demonstrated by you, for the benefit of your fellow passenger, the examiner. They are fundamental to succeeding in this journey. Check Ellen's full guide to read the comprehensive pre-flight checklist.
Read the instructions carefully!
For the melody writing it is crucial to read the instructions! The first step of this part of the composition requires you to identify the key signature, one of the most important steps as it determines the entire melody! A major melody will always ask you to modulate whereas a minor melody won't. You can't take this as a given however, so create the habit of double checking by looking at the fourth bar, where the presence or absence of accidentals usually reveals a lot.
The steps involved in the Melody Writing
Step 1: Identify the key signature and choose your instrument.
Step 2: Work with what you've got! The first four bars contain all of the information you could possibly need. Break it down bar by bar, draw out your chord bank and write the relevant scale with its tonic solfa.
Step 3: Modulate. Even if you're in a minor key and aren't have to modulate, it adds an element of "wow!". Modulation always occurs in bars 7 and 8.
Step 4: The B Phrase. Each of the A phrases are similar but B is different. Avoid "winging it!" and instead build the B phrase using sequences.
Step 5: Saying goodbye. Teachers have different methods for finishing off melodies, there are guidelines but ultimately endings will be different. Keep the time signature in mind here when using long notes!
Step 6: Finishing touches. Before the final goodbye, add in and check your "wow" elements to grab as many marks as possible! These include dynamics, phrases, solfa, unessentials, markings, big steps grouping and accidentals.
Practise makes perfect!
As melody writing is a very practical element of the written exam, pratise is so important so that you can learn from your mistakes. You can't simply rote-learn melody writing! If you have the time it would be a very wise idea to try some mock papers. They're often more challenging than the actual exam questions that appear in June but that is sure to make you ready to take on whatever the SEC will throw at you in June!
Where to begin with harmony composing?
The second element of the composing paper is harmony composing. Some people find this more challenging no matter how much time they may dedicate to it! If that's the case for you just try to accept that and do your best. Start with the chord bank that there's space for before the question. This chord bank is very helpful as it tells you the key of the composition and also leaves space for you to fill in the rest. It's a perfect place to start in this question. It'd also be a good idea to allocate a rough work page for working out chord progressions, etc.
Step-by-step guide to the harmony composing
Step 1: Fill in the table provided. Remember to never use chord three or chord seven, ever!
Step 2: Chord progressions. Some chord progressions just don't work, ask your own teacher for a list of the good, the bad and the ugly!
Step 3: Identify notes in the bars. The harmony chord in the box is based on the notes below it. It'd be a good idea to go through each bar and write the name of each melody note below it in light pencil.
Step 4: Find your cadences. There'll be a cadence at the end, usually a final cadence but occasionally it can be non-final. There should also usually be a non-final roughly at the half-way point, but this isn't always the case.
Step 5: Choose your chords. Ensure it is the best fit for the bar!
Step 6: Composing the bass line. This is often seen as the hardest step. Each teacher uses different approaches so that's where you should probably start. If you'd like some inspiration, Ellen shows her approach in the full guide.
Step 7: Finishing touches and cautions. This is the final step where you tidy up your answer.
Enter the exams with your eyes wide open!
The harmony question requires you to draw on your interpretation skills more than your composition skills. Your eyes need to be wide open as you enter the exam as there are plenty of traps you could fall into. Inevitably you will fall into some of these traps no matter how much you practise as you're human after all but, the more aware you are of them the less likely you will be to fall for lots of them!
Why not check out the full guide here? It's a thorough guide filled with advice and tips that we simply couldn't all fit into one blog post! It includes detailed answer breakdowns of State Exam questions, where Ellen leaves no stone unturned in showing the process to you along with lots of pro tips!
Best of luck in June, you've got this! We know you'll be fantastic!
Ellen and everyone at Studyclix! :)