Adam Parnell B.Mus(Hons)RNCM

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Music GCSE Composition

Adam has studied composition at one of the world’s leading music colleges (The Royal Northern College of Music) and has published various compositions through Music By Arrangement. He has also written a guide to composition that is used in secondary schools in England entitled ‘Basics of Composition Book 1’.

Composition lessons are available either for students with a casual interest or for students working towards course requirements for G.C.S.E. or ‘A’ level.

Full and half day workshops are available for schools.

Basics of Composition: Book 1

A workbook by Adam Parnell for GCSE Music composition classes or individual students.

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‘Basics of Composition Book 1’ is a study of a method of composition that will allow even the weakest students to compose simple, well structured pieces. The book starts by explaining how to move from one note to the next. By the end of the workbook students should be able to compose at least a 24 bar melody with a simple accompaniment or counter melody. Even weaker students, once they have worked through the book, should be able to compose a melody with a solid structure, good compositional technique and functional harmony.

This workbook is designed to complement the traditional ‘composition workshops’ used in schools. Many teachers’ composition lessons consist of the students ‘getting on with some composition’ whilst they help individuals with specific queries or questions.

While this method is useful in terms of differentiating work for students of different abilities it has a number of drawbacks:

  • It is teacher intensive (usually only working on a one to one basis).
  • Information is often repeated at different times to different students.
  • It is not very uniform in its approach.
  • It produces varying quantities of output between students.

This workbook is divided into 6 chapters, each focusing on a different technical aspect of composition. Each chapter is further subdivided into 4 steps, each of which should take between 10 and 20 minutes to deliver. At the end of each page is a short ‘technical exercise’ which should typically last between 5 and 10 minutes. The technical exercise relates directly to each step and should provide students with useful tools for their own compositions. Generally speaking, these 24 lessons are designed to be used throughout the 1st year of a G.C.S.E. course. When writing this book I envisaged my last Yr 10s maybe covering one chapter every half term, at the rate of one ‘step’ a week, taking up the first part of a composition workshop. The exact timing would of course depend on what I had covered in listening lessons, theory, performance etc. Personally when I compose, or when I teach composition, I prefer not to cross out anything. I would encourage all students to leave early attempts in the workbook (there is plenty of extra space provided) as these attempts can provide insights into the students thought processes for them and for you. As Maths teachers are fond of pointing out: “The working out is as important as the answer.”

Due to the size and scope of this book, combined with the fact that classes and indeed students have differing levels of ability, it will sometimes be necessary to explain certain words and relevant points of theory. Throughout the book I have tried to use relatively simple language but some technical vocabulary is unavoidable. It is therefore recommended that you read the workbook before presenting it to the students so that you can clarify any points that may arise beforehand and not upset the pace of your composition lesson. For example, even the first page will not be suitable if your students struggle with basic staff notation.

A step by step guide to teachers guide is in preparation. This will include an optional test out of 50, at the end of each chapter, which will directly relate to the theory covered. Where possible, aural questions will also relate to the theory, demonstrating that an understanding of how music is composed coupled with some educated guessing can achieve results. The finished workbook of technical exercises should provide a personal composing resource for each student that they can refer back to and use as a starting point for their free compositions. The method set out in this book covers only the basics and, as the students’ compositions evolve, you should encourage them to experiment with bending the guidelines laid out within.

Some sample pages from the book are available. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader). Please feel free to print these out and try them with your students. (Or if you are a student, try them yourself).

Contents:

Part 1: Moving between notes.
1.1. Moving by step.
1.2. Moving by leap and filling in.
1.3. Moving around chords.
1.4. Chromaticism.

Part 2: Structure and compositional devices.
2.1. Structure and the importance of repetition.
2.2. Small scale repetition.
2.3. Sequences.
2.4. Inversions and Retrogrades.

Part 3: Harmony.
3.1. Using chords and the perfect cadence.
3.2. More about chords.
3.3. Writing melodies over chords.
3.4. Key structure – the dominant and relative keys.

Part 4: Melodic devices.
4.1. Upper and lower neighbour notes.
4.2. Passing notes.
4.3. Appogiaturas and acciacaturas.
4.4. Suspensions.

Part 5: Creating an accompaniment.
5.1. Chord spacing.
5.2. Chord voicing and voice leading.
5.3. Riffs.
5.4. Textures.

Part 6: Counterpoint.
6.1. Parallel motion.
6.2. Oblique motion.
6.3. Contrary motion.
6.4. Counterpoint within a single melody line.