Everything you need to know about Compositional Devices in Music

Music is often composed using patterns and melodic devices. Understanding compositional devices in music will help you identify patterns in the music that you practice and accelerate the learning process. 

Analysing your music before you begin learning a new piece, is one of my best practice tips.

You can get 9 more ways to boost your practice skills in this video.

An image showing sheet music with coloured boxes that identify Compositional devices in music

Composers have been using music compositional devices throughout the centuries, along with various musical forms and textures.

You can read more about textures in music here.

There are lots of melodic devices that composers use when writing phrases and melodies; if you can identify them before you start learning a piece or when sight-reading, it puts you ahead of the game.

In this article, I’m going to walk you through recognising compositional techniques and patterns in music.

If you study your sheet music before practising and mark on these music devices, it is a game-changer. If you’ve read my post on effective practice methods, you’ll know all about the benefits of analysing music before you practice.

Below is a list of Compositional Devices- Music

List of Musical Devices

repetitionCanonOrnamentation
Contrary motionOstinatoAugmentation
Parallel motionPedal NoteInversion
imitationGround BassRetrograde
SequenceBass Riff

What are compositional devices in music?

Compositional shapes, patterns and devices are techniques that composers use to develop and embellish their musical ideas.

A composer will use compositional devices to build a motif or musical idea into a section or throughout the course of an entire piece.

There are devices for music that composers use to form accompanying bass lines, elongate and embellish melodies and repeat ideas creatively.

A Guide to Compositional Techniques- Music

Let’s take a closer look at some of the techniques that composer’s use, so that you can recognise them in your music practice.

Repetition

Most melodies usually use repetition either in full or in part by exploiting motifs. 

What is a Motif?

A motif is a short musical idea which can be either a melodic fragment, an interval or a rhythmic pattern that dominates and therefore characterises the piece. 

The opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony is arguably the most famous motif of all. You could describe it as three repeated quavers followed by a held note.

An image of the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony showing melodic devices in music.

When you first look at a piece of music, it’s always worth seeing if there are any repeats. Here are a few well-known tunes to highlight this.

An image of the music for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star with coloured boxes showing the repeated sections.

You can see that in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (the piece above) bars 1 and 2 and the same as bars 9 and 10. You can also see that the bars highlighted with the red and green boxes are the same as each other.

In Fréres Jacques, each bar repeats; if you can identify this, you cut your workload in half as you only need to practice x bars.

An image of the sheet music for Fréres Jacques with coloured boxes showing how each bar repeats.

Rhythmic Repetition

Sometimes in a melody, the pitches might change, but the rhythm is repeated. In London Bridge is Falling Down you can see that there’s a lot of rhythmic repetition.

An image of the sheet music for London's Burning

What’s the difference between repetition and imitation?

A repeat means that something is precisely the same when played again, both in terms of pitch and rhythm. Whereas imitation implies that it is the same, but written at a different interval, or in inversion.

We’ll discuss imitation further down this article.

Recognising scale patterns

While scale patterns are not a compositional device as such, it is invaluable to recognise them in the music that you are playing. Scale patterns form the base of most western music and composers such as Mozart used them prolifically in their melodies.

Notes that move in step or thirds are usually part of a scale pattern, arpeggio or chord. Depending upon your level of music theory knowledge you might not know what the name of that pattern is. However, you should be able to recognise them by intervals.

In other words, you should be able to identify when a melody moves by step or 3rds.

Thirds and fifths are easier to recognise if you visually think of them. A tune that goes up or down in thirds moves up/down either by the spaces or the lines.

Morning has Broken is an excellent example of a melody that is derived from arpeggios and scales.

An image of the sheet music for Morning has Broken with coloured boxes showing the arpeggio patterns.

Jesus Christ Superstar is another excellent example of a melody that starts with an arpeggio and the exploits both rhythmic repetition and melodic repetition.

An image of the opening bars of Jesus Christ Superstar showing the rhythmic and melodic repetition.

Identifying musical patterns in your music before you start learning a piece, is a fantastic way to get ahead. If you would like further practice tips, I have a free video just for you. Check it out here.

Parallel Similar or Contrary Motion

These terms relate to the direction that a melody is travelling. They are mostly useful for instruments that read from two staves of music. However, it is helpful for single line instruments to recognise the shape of the melody.

Similar motion

In Similar motion, the parts move in the same direction, but the notes can be at different intervals. You could also describe parts that move in a similar motion as imitating one another.

An image of music notes moving in similar motion

Parallel motion

Parallel motion is motion means that the parts move in the same direction, and the interval is the same between the notes. In the Gavotte below the parts in the blue boxes move in the same direction a 10th (compound 3rd) apart.

An image of sheet music for a Gavotte by Handel showing parallel motion between the parts.

Contrary Motion

Contrary motion is when the parts move in opposite directions. You can also describe this as inversion which I’ll come to later in this post. In the example below, you can see that the treble part moves upwards while the bass part descends in the opposite direction.

An image of the opening bars of Scarlatti's Sonata in B minor showing contrary motion between the parts.

Imitation

As I mentioned near the start of this post, Imitation is often confused with repetition as the two devices are similar.

Imitation is when the melody appears in another part shortly after you first hear it. Unlike in a Canon, the tune can be varied by other devices such as retrograde, modulation, augmentation or played at a different pitch.

This device is used in polyphonic textures and was a favourite of Baroque composers. A fugue is an excellent example of this.

An image showing the imitation in Bach's Fuga I

You can read more about the characteristics of Baroque music in this post.

Sequence

A sequence is when a melody repeats at a higher or lower pitch. Its a type of imitation.

An image of the sequence in Angles in the Realms of Glory- one of the compositional devices in music

Melodic devices in music, such as sequences, were commonly used in the classical and romantic era. You can also find sequential passages in lots of Christmas carols as you can see in the image above. Each bar is almost the same however, the notes step down on every repeat.

Canon

A canon is when two or more voices play the same tune starting at different times. Children often sing songs such as Frère Jacques or London’s burning in canon. It’s a musical form rather than a compositional device, but it’s worth mentioning in this post.

An image of the music for London's Burning showing how the parts work in Canon.

You can also describe a simple Canon as a Round.

Ostinato

An Ostinato is a short melody or pattern that is repeated continuously. It’s usually in the same part and at the same pitch although composers can use it in any voice as can be seen below in an extract from Ravel’s Bolero.

An image showing the Ostinato pattern in Ravel's Bolero - popular compositional devices in music
The Ostinato pattern is highlighted in pink

Pedal note

A pedal note repeats throughout an entire phrase section or piece.  The composer sustains the note while the chords change in harmony.  More often than not you’ll find pedal notes in the bass part. 

An image showing the pedal note in Bach's Fugue in C Major

Ground Bass

A Ground Bass is a short recurring melodic pattern written in the bass line of the music. It is an ostinato pattern that occurs in the lowest part.

Composers often use rhythmic variations of the ground bass to create textural interest throughout the piece.  The most famous example is probably Pachelbel’s Canon.

An image showing the Ground Bass (compositional devices in music) in the opening bars of Pachelbel's Canon

Riff

A riff can be a number of things ranging from a melodic idea in a song to a simple repeated unique rhythm on one note.  Most musicians use the term to describe any musical idea that exists within a Piece.  Guitarists and the rhythm sections of bands often use riffs in rock, jazz and Latin music.

A bass riff in many ways is similar to an ostinato pattern.  The bass line in Peter Gunn is an excellent example of a bass riff.

Ornamentation

Ornaments are used to decorate the melody in all periods of musical history. They were frequently used in the Baroque period to embellish a piece and highlight the cadences and suspensions.

Ornaments in the Baroque period were usually improvised and left to the performer’s discretion, whereas towards the end of the classical period they became much more specific.  

Composers often use ornamentation on the repeat of a melody to create interest.

Augmentation

When a composer augments a melody, they make the note values longer than their original length. Rhythmic devices in music are a creative way of using the notes of a motif or phrase.

Composers often use augmentation in canonic forms. For example, in Josquin’sJosquin’s canon, both voices start at the same time, but the upper voice moves at half the speed of the lower. The lower part completes the canon in bar 10 and continues more freely from there to the end.

An image of Augmentation in a 16th century Canon by Josquin des Prez
Canon by Josquin des Prez

Inversion

Inverting a melody is a compositional device that turns the tune upside down. An inverted part does not have to begin on the original note but the pattern of the intervals has to be the same, albeit upside down like a mirror image.

An image showing an inverted phrase in Bach's Goldberg Variations. No 12.

In the quote above from Bach’s Goldberg Variation number 12, the motif in the pink box is an inversion of the same motif highlighted in the blue box.

Retrograde

When composers write a melody in reverse, it is called retrograde. In the two-part canon shown below, from ”The Musical Offering” by Bach, the lower part is an exact retrograde of the upper part. 

An image of two part passage from Bach's "The Musical Offering" showing retrograde in music.

Now you understand more about music compositional techniques that composers employ, see how many you can find in the music that you are currently practising.

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6 thoughts on “Everything you need to know about Compositional Devices in Music”

  1. very interesting…stuff one kind of intuits when learning but good to make explicit for practice. Inversions etc…how do those guys brains work? Good to analyse before playing too

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing. Much of the music we play in the western world is based on patterns or compositional devices. This post gives a general overview. Music of the Baroque era and styles such as serial music are really interesting and definitely worth analysing before you attempt to play. The more you understand the music, the better your interpretation of that piece will be.

      Reply
  2. This is so helpful. Thanks so much

    Reply

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