Mandala (instrumentalists) Creating Music at Home (Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you are going to compose and notate your own 60 second mandala melody inspired by A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo and use the passacaglia musical form. 

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This composing activity is inspired by A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo, a Chinese composer based in New York. A Dust in Time was composed for strings and is a response to the 2020 Covid 19 Lockdown. It was given its online world premiere as part of the Beijing Music Festival in autumn 2020. 

huang ruo

Huang Ruo said this about his piece:

'This special piece is created for the people affected by the pandemic, giving them a piece of music to reflect, to express, to heal, to find internal peace, strength, and hope.'

The piece is inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas. These are circular patterns, sometimes enclosed in a square,  made with coloured sand, created by Tibetan Buddhist monks to aid meditation. The piece is 60 minutes long, symbolising the circle and cycle of the hour. Mandala means circle in Sanskrit.

Watch below to learn about sand mandalas, what their meaning is and how they are created then ritually destroyed

Now Listen to an excerpt from A Dust in Time by Huang Ruo:

A Dust in Time is like a sand mandala in that the music expands (grows) from a central point outward and then contracts (shrinks) and returns back to the centre. This symbolises the life cycle and the journey from nothing (emptiness) to something (fullness) and then back to nothing.

A Dust in Time is also a passacaglia, a musical form in 3/4 time (3 beats in a bar) where a simple melody is continuously varied (changed) by small degrees as the piece progresses. In A Dust in Time this is achieved by gradually adding new notes into the melodic lines over a repeating bass line (a basso continuo) which loops around and around like the circle of the mandala. 

mandala 3

Creating your own mandala:

If you would like to create your own mandala, you can buy kits from herehere or here. You could also create a mandala out of leaves, berries and nuts or just look on the internet for mandala patterns to colour here


In this activity you are going to compose, notate (write down) and perform your own mandala inspired music over the passacaglia chord sequence from A Dust in Time and think about what for you, would symbolise hope and light in music. We will keep our music to 60 seconds not 60 minutes!

Preparation activity - rhythm:

A Dust in Time is a passacaglia which is in 3/4 time i.e. there are 3 beats in a bar. Below are some 3/4 rhythms. The words underneath are there to help you with the rhythm. Practice playing them on one note. You can download the rhythms HERE. Can you make up any different 3/4 rhythms that are not here?  

A dust in time rhythm sheet web version

In the audio track below you will hear the word rhythm followed by the rhythm played on the violin. After this there is two bars for you to practice the rhythm before the next rhythm can be heard:

Preparation activity - pitch:

In A Dust in Time, Huang Ruo uses the D minor scale:

Start by learning this scale on your instrument. If you don't know all of the notes of the scale, you could choose 4 or 5 notes of the scale that you do know. That's all you need for this activity. Play the rhythms above using the different notes of the scale.

A Dust in Time uses a passacaglia chord sequence which circles round and round. We have turned this into a 60 second(ish) backing track for this activity:


For a PRINTABLE version of this resource CLICK HERE

Improvising a melody:

Choose the first note of your melody from the D minor scale - maybe D, F or A. This will also be your final note. Starting and finishing on the same note creates and completes the musical circle

Now improvise 3/4 rhythms on your 1st note - you can play them along with the backing track if you like. Then, do the same again but, this time after a while, add a 2nd note into your 3/4 patterns. Repeat, and, always starting with your 1st sound, gradually add your 3rd, 4th and 5th note.

Listen to Maja doing this on the violin going up to 4 notes:

Composing a notated melody:

The first pitch/note of your melody is the centre of your mandala. As you add notes, as in the activity above, you are expanding away from the centre and when you take away notes, you are returning to the centre. This is like the monks creating the mandala by starting at the centre then moving outwards before sweeping the sand back into the centre. 

It is also a kind of musical palindrome like A Dust in Time.  A palindrome is something which is the same when read forwards and backwards e.g. kayak is a palindromic word and 02/11/20 is a palindromic date.

You are now going to create and notate a 20 bar melody in 3/4 by adding and taking away pitches as in the improvisation activity above. You can use the downloadable sheet HERE (treble clef) and HERE (bass clef) to notate your melody on. When you have finished your melody, you can play it along with the backing track if you would like to. This completes your passacaglia.

Below is a 60 second (20 bars of 3 beats) example melody. Notice how notes are added and then taken away:

60 second passacagliaAnd here is Maja improvising a four pitch melody in a similar way on the violin:

As you compose and notate your melody, think about how you could convey hope and light in your music.  Maybe think about dynamics and articulations. Try to find ways of making small changes to the ideas you have chosen to give the sense of growing out from the centre point and back again instead of inventing new ideas as you add new sounds. 


Another thing that Huang Ruo does in A Dust in Time is to make intervals (the distance between two notes) bigger as we get to the middle of the piece. He also starts with simple rhythms that gradually get more complicated and then returns to more simple rhythms again.  You could try this too.