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.
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
|Parallel motion||Pedal Note||Inversion|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jesus Christ Superstar is another excellent example of a melody that starts with an arpeggio and the exploits both rhythmic repetition 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can read more about the characteristics of Baroque music in this post.
A sequence is when a melody repeats at a higher or lower pitch. Its a type of imitation.
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.
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.
You can also describe a simple Canon as a Round.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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9 thoughts on “Everything you need to know about Compositional Devices in Music”
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
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.
This is so helpful. Thanks so much
Thank you- I’m delighted to hear that you found the post helpful.
Giuseppe loved it. thank you.
Delighted to hear that the post was helpful.
Thanks for throwing more light on this subject matter. We need to analyze and have a better understanding of music before attempting to perform it.
Absolutely, analysing music before you practice it, really helps to avoid unnecessary mistakes. It also helps the brain connect patterns that you may have previously learned.