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Jul 09

The AB Guide to Music Theory: Book Review

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The AB (Associated Board) Guide to Music Theory, Part II
Eric Taylor
1991
244 pages

This volume is the ABRSM’s guide to the theory of music aimed at students taking the three last grades – 6, 7 & 8.

A lot of people have asked me how good this book is for students taking the Associated Board’s graded theory exams. It’s not a plump book by any means, but purports to cover everything you need to know for the most difficult grades of music theory, so let’s take a look between the covers and see how well it shapes up for your average music student.

Organisation

The material in the book is arranged by topic rather than by grade. In fact, no mention of the actual exams is made at all, and you won’t be able to see examples of exam-style questions either. No reference is made to the ABRSM syllabus, and there is no way of knowing whether what you’re reading is relevant for grade 6 or grade 8.

At first glance this might seem like a disadvantage – surely if you’re only at grade six level you’re going to be totally bewildered at the grade eight stuff? Well no, not really. Actually this thematic layout works quite well, because it’s much more natural than the somewhat artificial barriers put in place by the grade system.

In fact, studying in this way gives you a look at a much broader picture of music theory – it puts ideas into context with musical examples in abundance. The overall effect should be a much clearer understanding of topics such as harmony, structure of composition and a very good general knowledge of a whole variety of instruments, not only the standard orchestral ones. Imagine trying to understand a picture by looking at each individual pixel on your screen – it would be impossible. Stand back and look at all those billions of pixels at the same time, and your brain assembles a picture. So it is with music theory. Sometimes we can get bogged down with subjects like figured bass, because we’re not thinking about the bigger picture.

Content

The book covers the subject matter tested at grades VI, VII and VIII (ABRSM syllabus). Chapters are:

  • Voices (in a score)
  • Tonal Harmony (including inversions, counterpoint, and modulation)
  • Chromatic Chords (most of these are on the grades 7 & 8 syllabuses)
  • Melody (sequences, motifs, bass-lines)
  • String Instruments (bowing, harmonics, stops etc plus guitar & harp)
  • Woodwind and Brass Instruments (reeds, flue, mutes, tonguing)
  • Percussion and Keyboard Instruments (pitched & unpitched percussion)
  • Instruments in Combination (orchestras, bands, chamber groups etc)
  • Before the Tonal Period (modes)
  • Some Modern Developments (12-note, pentatonic scales, modern notations)

At the back of the book are some useful appendices with instrument names in English, Italian, German and French, Roman numeral chord notation and clefs.

Why you Need this Book

I would heartily recommend this book to any students taking grades 6-8 music theory, as well as students doing GCSE or A level music. It assumes you know the “basics” of music theory – how to construct a scale, how key signatures and time signatures work and so on. Instead, it enriches your musical vocabularly by showing you the bricks and mortar of musical construction, within the realms (mostly) of Western tonal music. Now you know how many flats there are in E flat major, what its relative minor is, how to construct triads from the scale – all this stuff is grade 5 material. From grade 6 upwards you learn how this knowledge has been applied in a practical sense by famous composers from Bach onwards.

Now you get to see WHY music theory exists. You might have heard rumours about “rules” in music theory, like “you shouldn’t use consecutive 5ths” or “A flat is not the same as G sharp” By looking at how music has developed over the centuries, this book reveals why these rules came about, and also lets you know when they can be broken.

The sections on instruments are just the right length – lots of interesting and juicy facts about the construction and use of the most common instruments, without getting too technical or historical. This kind of general knowledge is great not only for music exams, but could well help you out next time you play Trivial Pursuit or pop down to the pub quiz!

Some Drawbacks

What this book doesn’t contain is equally relevant to write about here. There are no exercises, no examples of how to work through a particular kind of question. There is quite a lot to take in at points, especially if you have come fresh from grade 5 to this. If you are a student intending to take music theory exams, I would advise you not to rely on this book alone – it’s fascinating, informative and entertaining, but it doesn’t go deep enough for exam students.

You need a really strong understanding of harmony and composition, which you won’t get simply by reading any book. These are skills which only improve with hands-on practice. Make sure you also get yourself a copy of Music Theory in Practice for the grade you’re studying.

And look out for the Grade Six lessons coming soon to My Music Theory. We’re going to offer step-by-step lessons in harmony, figured bass and composition techniques, as well as extra general material to help you get the best score you possibly can. If you’d like to be informed when the Grade 6 material goes live, just email us with “grade 6 please” as the subject.

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2 comments

  1. James Johnson

    Thank you for the review, this helped me make the decision on buying this book.

    out of curiosity, what is your opinion on: Popular Music Theory, Grades 6 to 8 book by London College of Music Exams?

    Just ordered that one too. (hehe)

    Thanks

    1. Victoria

      Hi James,
      I’m afraid I don’t the know the Pop music book- may be you can review it after you’ve received it and I’ll publish your review on the blog!

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