Grade 5 Theory: Melody Writing

Today’s post has been kindly written by Pamela Rose. Pamela (pictured below) is a piano teacher who specialises in teaching Grade 5 Theory. The importance of this exam shouldn’t be overlooked, as (for me) it plays a key part in understanding how music is constructed and structured. The ABRSM exam board require a pass at Grade 5 Theory (or alternatively, Grade 5 Practical Musicianship or Grade 5 in a solo Jazz subject), in order to undertake Grades 6, 7, and 8 practical exams, so for many this test is crucial. In this post, Pamela highlights one area of study; writing melodies.

Melody Writing for Grade 5 Theory
Pamela Rose

The mark of our success as music teachers is the creation of independent musicians.  This independence is born of understanding and enables a deep and lifelong enjoyment of music. Students who understand the music they play and hear are more likely to carry on playing and achieving their full potential.  I believe Grade 5 Theory is a lot more than a certificated door to the higher practical grades – it’s an opportunity to help music students evolve into fully independent and comprehending musicians.

For the last 16 years I have specialised in teaching the Grade 5 theory level to all instrumentalists and have published an online website where I teach music theory at the piano so students can connect the music they read with what they play and hear:  This teaching is called multi modal, and I like to teach in this way from the very first lessons.  You can view some of this early teaching online by clicking on this link here.   
There are many challenges in Grade 5 theory exams, but certainly one of the greatest for most students is writing a melody.  However, given the right tools, writing a melody is not so daunting. In I have deliberately structured the lessons logically for students to build their knowledge progressively, so that the foundations for each lesson are already laid and melody writing is prepared for in this way.
Here are just a few pointers for Grade 5 Melody Writing.  I hope they help.
To start,  a word of warning – do not copy the given opening.  Although it is important to use elements of the given opening, copying is not advisable.
Students need to know the key signatures of major scales and their relative minors in order to determine the melody’s key.  If it is in a minor key they will need to keep the 6th and 7th or just the 7th raised depending on the opening, so an understanding of harmonic and melodic minor scales is helpful.
Once the key is determined, the last note will normally be the tonic (first note of the scale).
Students need to understand the time signature (the number and value of the beats in each bar). Importantly, each bar must have the correct amount of beats. Rhythms need to adhere to the time signature and be correctly grouped.  Any anacrusis or upbeat needs to be provided for in the last bar, and the last note must not be shorter than a whole beat.
The melody should be 8 bars long.  2 four bar phrases with the melody and dynamics rising and falling together in each phrase will keep the melody well-balanced.
Students need to say which instrument the melody is written for and keep the melody within that instrument’s range and capabilities (no large leaps).
Many students worry about what notes they will use in the melody. Melodies need a sound harmonic structure and if students know the key and understand tonic triads and cadences, then using the notes of the chords to make an imperfect cadence in bars 3/4 and a perfect cadence in bar 7/8 (chords I II V I in the last 4 bars work very well) is not a problem.
Performance directions are necessary. A tempo marking – Moderato or Andante work in most situations – logical dynamics, and maybe a ritardando at the end of the melody.  A pause on the last note can be effective.
A double bar line is needed to end the melody.
Anybody who struggles with this might find my video lesson on “Writing a Melody” very useful (
Grade 5 Theory can be the conduit to musical understanding.  Even for advanced performers the constant relating of theory and understanding to playing, listening and composing is a vital ingredient for musical enjoyment throughout our lives.

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