Apr 25

15 Top Tips for your Grade 5 Music Theory Exam

15 Top Tips for your Grade 5 Music Theory Exam (ABRSM)

music-examsAre you confident that you’ll pass your grade 5 theory exam? How about bagging yourself a merit or distinction? The pass mark for the ABRSM music theory exams is 66%. To get a merit you need 80%, and a distinction is awarded for a result of 90% or more.

On this page you’ll find a list of some of the most common grade 5 facts that students tend to forget – take a look through and you might increase your score by quite a few points on the big day!

Don’t forget that over on the main website, MyMusicTheory.com has a completely free online course for grade 5 music theory candidates, covering the entire syllabus, including exercises and a practice test, plus lots of revision materials such as score-reading questions and quizzes. We also have a subscription only Revision Course, Composition Course, and marking services for past papers etc.  Finally, why not subscribe to our new YouTube channel, featuring short, step-by-step tutorials on all the most important music theory topics!

1. Learn how to write a BREVE (double whole note)


A breve (or “double whole note” in US terminology) is worth the same as two semibreves (whole notes). Draw an oval with two short vertical lines on each side of it. [Read more on notation…]


2. The time signatures 3/2 and 6/4 are NOT the same. Neither are 3/4 and 6/8.

Although 3/2 and 6/4 have the same overall number of notes per bar, they are stressed (and therefore written) in a different way. 3/2 and 3/4 have three main beats per bar, but 6/4 and 6/8 have two main beats per bar.

32-and-64 34-and-68

[Watch our videos on Time Signatures, or read more…]

3. The alto and tenor clefs are “C” clefs: they show you where MIDDLE C is, not “any old C”!


[Read more about clefs…]


4. The pattern of key signatures is the same for each clef except the TENOR SHARPS.

The pattern for flats is the same in all clefs. For sharps, the tenor sharp clefs start LOW on the lowest F# on the stave. Memorise the coloured patterns (there are only 2!):


[Watch a video about key signatures…]


5. A chord’s position (inversion: a, b or c) is determined by the BASS NOTE ONLY.

Find the absolute lowest note on the stave (there may be more than one stave!) If the lowest note is the root, it’s an “a” chord. If the lowest note is the third of the triad, it’s a “b” chord (first inversion), if it’s the 5th of the triad, it’s a “c” chord (second inversion).

first-inversion-chordFor example, this chord is in first inversion (b).

Write out the notes so that you make a triad – they should be stacked in thirds: A-C-Eb.

Next, identify which note is the lowest – C.

This is the third of the triad, so it’s a first inversion chord.

[Read more about chords…]


6. All cadences end on either chord I or V.

You will usually have to write chords for two cadences. Each cadence will need two or three chords to complete the progression.

[For a step-by-step tutorial, see our Youtube video here http://youtu.be/vtAwpynolz8 or read more on cadences here…]


7. A 6-4 (Ic-Va) progression always has two IDENTICAL bass notes.

If you have to find a Ic-Va progression, you need to look for two chords with the same bass note, then make sure they are chords I(c) and V(a). For example, the two lowest notes of the chord could both be C’s, but watch out – they could be an octave apart!


In the key of C major, chord Ic has a G as the lowest note, and so does chord Va.


8. You will get a minimum of 5/15 just for writing a COMPLETE composition, no matter how awful it is smiley-laughing014

If there is an upbeat (anacrusis/incomplete first bar) then the last bar needs to MAKE UP THE DIFFERENCE.

Make sure the piece is exactly 8 BARS LONG in total. With an upbeat, you will have 7 complete bars, an incomplete bar at the start, and an incomplete bar at the end.


Bar 1 is always the first complete bar.


9. Always end your composition on the TONIC.

Look at the key signature and make sure you know what key you are writing in before you start. End the composition with a tonic note which falls on a strong beat. [See also “How to work out the key“].



Write a tempo word in Italian above the first note. Choose something “normal”! Moderato is always a safe choice.

Also add a starting dynamic under the first note (or above it, for a vocal composition).

Add slurs to quick notes (for instruments), and put them in the same way all through the piece. Follow the main beat if you are not sure of another plan!


The beginning of a composition should always look something like this:

A tempo above the first note.

A starting dynamic under the first note.

Slurs over quick notes, broken across the main beats.

[For more help, take a look at our Grade 5 Theory Composition Course]


11. The only double reed instruments are the OBOE and BASSOON.

You are tested on your knowledge of the standard orchestral instruments. The cor Anglais also uses a double reed, but is not a standard instrument. The clarinet uses a single reed (as does the saxophone, which is also not a standard orchestral instrument).


A Double Reed

[More on instruments here…]


12. Learn the Tenor Voice Clefs

tenor-voice-middle-cThe tenor voice uses either the bass clef (short score) or OCTAVE TREBLE CLEF (open score).

The little “8” under the treble clef (see the image left) means that MIDDLE C is the one high on the stave in a space – the note in the image is middle C!

[More on writing for SATB here…]


13. When writing SATB parts, make sure the note STEMS are written the right way up.

satb-stemsIn open score (4 staves) the stems point up or down depending on their position on the stave.

In a short score (on 2 staves) the stems point up or down depending on the part.

The circled notes here show where the stems need to have their positions changed when you rewrite the music.


14. Transpose a key signature in the SAME WAY that you transpose a note.

There is nothing special about transposing a key signature, but many candidates struggle with this task! Key signatures are transposed in the same way as notes.

transpose-key-signaturesThe original key is G major. Let’s say you have to transpose up a perfect 5th. The note a perfect 5th above G is D, so the new key signature is D major.

It doesn’t matter whether the piece is major or minor, the result will be the same. If we assume this is actually E minor, then a 5th above E will produce B minor, which also has two sharps.

[More on transposition here…]


 15. If in doubt, guess!

You won’t lose any marks for trying! No questions are marked with a negative point system. Attempt every question and make sure you double check all your answers before you hand in your paper!

Good luck!

Image credits

Oboe reed: By Flavio05 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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