In this unit of work you will examine how Mike Oldfield built the opening of his seminal progressive rock work Tubular Bells. By following each step as instructed below, you will rebuild the work yourself, remix it, and then compose a new piece based on the original. Simply follow the process outlined as follows.

  1. Listening
    1. Your listening task:
  2. Recreating in garageband
    1. Your Task
  3. Recreating with Sibelius and your own composition
    1. Your own composition
    2. Extension


Learn how the opening is put together by layering in ostinati (repeated patterns) in different instruments. Complete your own structural analysis.

Playback the first 4 minutes of Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. You will notice that he uses a compositional device called layering. He introduces different ostinati and layers each one on top of the other.

The first layer is the piano. He introduces it solo, with an anacrusis (not heard below, but seen in the score) from E (the last note of the pattern):

The second and third layers are the glockenspiel and electric clavichord. These instruments simply double the piano, the glockenspiel an octave higher. They repeat 7 times, making 8 complete repeats of this ostinato (repeated pattern) before the bass and second piano part enter.

The fourth layer is the second piano part. It is very similar to the first piano part, being transposed down an octave but with the top voice a third higher. This creates simple parallel harmony.

Together, the two piano parts sound like this:

The fifth layer is added at the same time as the second piano part, and is the first bass part. It is quite loose, but here is an approximate transcription and recording:

After two repetitions of these five parts in combination, a single “hit” is added on a synthesiser in the first bar of the 5 bar pattern. There, after another 6 repetitions with this combination (the “hit” is played every second repetition) there is a change in texture as the bass 1 part changes to bass 2 to fit with another added layer, the third piano part, which plays syncopated chords:

Note that this is the first pattern which is longer than just 5 bars. The new bass pattern is also 20 bars long.

Your listening task:

Using graph paper, draw a structural map showing which bar each instrument enters and for how many bars it keeps repeating. The above will give you enough information for the first 2 minutes of the recording: complete the first 4 minutes. Use the above recordings to help you identify the entries.

Recreating in garageband

Using the structural graph you have made of the first 4 minutes of Tubular Bells, you will now recreate it in GarageBand. To help you do this, loops of the first 8 ostinati (patterns) can be downloaded here:

Next, download this template file to get you started:

Now follow this video to begin recreating Tubular Bells:

Your Task

To complete the whole of the first 4 minutes of Tubular Bells, you’re going to need to work out the extra parts. Have a go at doing this. If you find it too difficult, add two more software instruments and create your own additional parts that fit with the existing material.

When you’ve finished, give the completed GarageBand file to your teacher. 

Recreating with Sibelius and your own composition

Using your structural graph and the experience of creating the GarageBand file, you’ll now be able to recreate the composition once more, but this time with music notation using Sibelius. First download the file below:

All of the instructions to complete this task are included on the first page of the file itself. Remember that you can highlight any number of bars and type R to repeat them, which is useful in layered pattern-based music. If you are finding it difficult to get started, a video follows which demonstrates the process. Once you have completed this task, scroll down for instructions on beginning your own composition.

Your own composition

Now it’s time to really get creative. Your final composition task is to create your own composition based on Mike Oldfield’s. Remember that we have learned that:

  1. Oldfield introduced one or at the most two instruments at a time
  2. He layers each entry over the existing ones, usually leaving all other parts going
  3. Some new layers are the exact same material copied into other intstruments
  4. The second piano layer is nearly identical to the first with some notes moved a third to create harmony
  5. Some layers are very simple, such as the “hits”
  6. A mix of busy, complicated patterns and simple, sparse patterns works well
  7. A mix of high and low pitches/instruments works well
  8. Patterns do not all have to be the same length

You should try to use as many of these compositional techniques as possible. Create one pattern (ostinato) and then build on that. You can work in either Sibelius or GarageBand. If working in GarageBand you can play Software Instruments or record yourself playing real instruments, but do not use existing loops.


Pattern based music soon becomes dull if it does not include moments of contrast or surprise. While this individual section does not create any moments of great contrast, in addition to the subtle changes found above, consider Oldfield’s original material. It consists of 4 bars of 7/8 and one bar of 2/4. Multiple time signatures are not supported in GarageBand so the uneven 5 bar pattern was written out as three bars of 5/4 (technically incorrect).

Because the pulse is continually changing this ostinato does not become dull even though Oldfield repeats it many times and does not create any moments of great contrast. It is subtle but very clever.

As an extension to this composition topic, consider creating your ostinato in more than one metre, or in 5/8, 7/8, 11/8 or 13/8. Subdivide the bar any way you like.

Submit your final score or GarageBand file to your teacher.

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