Tips for making your Grade 1 composition a success

Tips for making your Grade 1 composition a success

Picture of Jean McCreery

BY: Jean McCreery
19 July 2017

A story is told that in October 1787, on the night before the premiere of his latest opera - Don Giovanni, Mozart was to be found drinking the evening away with his friends. At some point during their revelry, a friend pointed out to Mozart that his new opera was still missing its overture.

Mozart, perhaps not lacking in self-confidence, took this alarming news in his stride. He apparently carried on with his celebrations and only headed home around midnight to begin composing the missing piece. A mere three hours or so later he had completed another masterful overture. No problem. Another version of this tale sets it on the morning of the premiere, with Mozart nursing a terrible hangover as he wrote.

Whilst I wouldn't recommend you follow Mozart’s approach to it, with Trinity’s graded music exams you do have the chance to play something self-composed as one of your three exam pieces, whichever instrument you have chosen.

As a student, it creates a real feeling of ownership and achievement to write and perform your own piece or song for your exam. Watch this video where composers share what it’s like to hear your own work come to life. 

If, while learning your new instrument, you have been creating some little technical challenges for yourself, then it's a great way to put your new found skills to the test.

Here is a quick guide as to what you need to be aware of when composing your own piece.

Common assesment criteria across instruments

  • Performance is the focus of assessment for your own composition.
  • Own compositions are assessed by the same criteria as the other two pieces played.
  • Marks are not awarded for the quality of the composition.
  • Own compositions can be played accompanied or unaccompanied.
  • Ensure your composition is comparable in both technical and musical demand to the pieces listed for the grade you are studying.
  • A typeset or handwritten copy of the composition must be given to the examiner at the start of your exam.
  • At Initial to Grade 5, own compositions may be notated in any coherent form including graphic score or lead-sheet.
  • Marks will be deducted if notation is incomplete or inaccurate, or if the performance varies significantly from the notation.
  • Own compositions should largely be the candidates’ own unaided work, although teachers may offer guidance as necessary.

Compositional techniques

Here is a quick summary of techniques that you can apply at Grade 1, with unique requirements highlighted for particular instruments.

Grade Duration (mins) Examples of composition techniques 
Grade 1 approx. 1 • Dynamic contrast
• Simple syncopation or other rhythmic feature
• Use of keys stipulated for technical work at this grade

All Brass Syllabuses

Grade Duration (mins) Examples of composition techniques 
Grade 1 1.5-2.5 • A piece containing sudden dynamic contrast

Drum Kit and Snare Drum

Grade Duration (mins) Examples of composition techniques 
Grade 1 approx. 1

• Dynamic contrast
• Simple fills
• Use of rudiments featured in the technical work at this grade (single strokes, double strokes and single paradiddle) 


Grade Duration (mins) Examples of composition techniques 
Grade 1 approx. 1 • Dynamic contrast
• Simple syncopation
• Use of 2 drums 


Rock & Pop Exams
As outlined in our previous post: How to choose the right pieces for your Grade 1 exam, when doing a Rock & Pop exam your second song can be ANY song you choose, including one of your own.

Remember though, if it is not taken from the exam song book you’re going to need to ensure it demonstrates the technical skills relevant to the grade you are studying. 

Useful links
Support pages for Own Composition including videos and hints and tips from the pros.
Download the latest syllabus for your instrument from the Trinity website.
Download the Rock & Pop syllabus (PDF).


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