Mandala (Advanced) Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you will compose new music using the design and pattern of a mandala to organise, group and move around the notes of the D minor scale. Resource created by Ben Markland. 

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A Dust in Time

In this improvising and composing activity, you will take inspiration from A Dust in Time by composer Huang Ruo. 

huang ruo

A Dust in Time was written in response to the global lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic and premiered online as part of the 2020 Beijing Music Festival.

The music is inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of creating mandalas. Using coloured sand, Tibetan Buddhist monks create intricate geometrical patterns, usually within a large circle. This meditative process embraces both the ritual creation and dismantling of the sand mandala.

Taking ideas from the practice of making sand mandalas, we are going to explore techniques for improvising and composing focussing on: patterns, shapes and processes.

Resources you will need for this activity:

Huang Ruo uses a D minor scale for his piece. You will use this scale (or a different scale if you play an Eb, Bb or F instrument) for the activities on this page.

d minor

Below are transpositions of D minor for instruments in different keys. CLICK HERE to download.

Transposing ScaleSome of the activities on this page use this simple circular pattern with the scale spiralling out from the centre. Here it is below with a second image of the spiral divided into 4 segments:

mandala spiral and segments

Below are two backing tracks, both created from the passacaglia chord sequence from A Dust in Time. You will use this in the activities.


A PRINTABLE VERSION will be added soon.

Please send any music you create to 

Your Turn!

Warm-up exercise

Using the spiral diagram, play the scale, moving out from the centre of the spiral. Think carefully about the how you move from one note to another. Start the scale again when you run out of notes. Focus on your breathing, even if you are not playing a wind or brass instrument. Experiment by varying your pace, dynamics, rhythm and articulation. For the example in different transpositions and clefs CLICK HERE. You can do this activity, playing along with the passacaglialoop backing track

Warm up example C

Improvising 1 

Now, starting anywhere on one of the lines/arms of the spiral, improvise a melody that moves back and forth along the line. Once you feel comfortable with the notes under your fingers, focus on the shapes and patterns you are making. Can you repeat elements? Can you make rhythmic or melodic sequences? Again, you can do this activity with the passacaglialoop backing track.

Try another version where you play one phrase, then move to another place on the spiral for the next phrase.  Here, you are developing a process for navigating the spiral. When we talk about process here, we mean the way you use and move around the mandala pattern to create you melodic shapes and ideas

Now, use the image of the spiral divided into 4 segments. This shape provides 4 sets of notes. Decide on a process for improvising a melody using these notes. What else could you do?

  • Repeat and refine the phrases you create
  • Use a different scale, pattern or process
  • Visualise the sand mandala being constructed, then deconstructed. Can you mirror this in your improvisation?  

Improvising 2

This activity takes inspiration from mandala patterns. Choose, draw or find a mandala pattern and arrange the notes of the D minor scale into the shapes within it. Start in the centre and think about the patterns you make as you place your notes almost as if they were colours and you were colouring in the pattern. There are examples below. The third image shows just the notes without the pattern:

mandala with notes 1

mandala with notes 2

Now think of different ways to move around the mandala. Moving from shape to shape and from note to note, create melodic shapes and ideas. Sand mandalas start from the centre and move outwards. Try this. What other processes could you use to move around the mandala? What other patterns can you see in the notes? 

Now try grouping the notes in different ways. Below you can see the same note pattern from above but with new patterns created around them that suggest new melodic ideas

mandala note patterns 2

Below is an example you could try playing - what melodic and rhythmic sequences can you see/hear? Can you add your own dynamics and articulationsFor the example in a different key/clef CLICK HERE

Improvising example C

Working with the passacaglia chords backing track, improvise or compose and notate a longer piece of music based on the patterns and shapes you have made. Consider:

  • Have you decided on a clear process?
  • Do your shapes give you interesting melodic ideas?
  • How could the patterns you maker or processes you use influence your rhythmic ideas?
  • Think about the use of dynamics and articulations
  • Think about silence and rests
  • How could your piece reflect the construction and deconstruction of a sand mandala?