Why Take a Music Theory Exam?


Why Music Theory Exams?

[important] The Grade Five Music Theory Exam is the only one which it is compulsory to do before attempting the higher grades. Why is this? What is so special about this music theory exam? Why don’t the other music exam boards (e.g. Trinity) ask for it? Why don’t many people take the other music theory grades?[/important]

exam roomEvery year across the world, tens of thousands of students knuckle down and take their Grade Five Music Theory Exam. The music exams run by the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) are by far the most popular, and for anyone who wants to take an exam in one of the higher grades (grade six and above), getting a pass in the Grade Five Music Theory Exam is necessary* beforehand.

So, when we ask the average music student “Why are you doing a music theory exam?” they will most likely answer “Because I have to!” This is a strange situation, because if you asked them “why are you doing this oboe exam?” (for example), they would probably come up with a variety of reasons including:

  • moving through the practical music exam grades gives me a sense of achievement
  • having tangible goals is motivating and rewarding
  • getting qualifications will make my CV look better
  • I want to know how good I really am
  • I want to show off to my friends and family
  • My parent/teacher says I have to

Some people are against exams in principle, and they have a lot of valid arguments. They say that children are put under unnecessary stress, the exams only reflect how you play on one particular day, some teachers only teach the exam pieces and don’t offer a broad spectrum of music to their pupils and so on.

However, I tend to disagree with these arguments. I personally think that in most cases, putting a child through an exam is something which will usually strengthen their character, not weaken it. Children learn that hard work pays off, they learn how to deal with their nerves and they broaden their experience of life.

It’s true that a music exam only reflects what you can do on one day – but the same can be said of all exams and tests. Should we do away with the driving test because it only shows how you can drive for half an hour? And as for teachers who only teach exam pieces, well there will always be bad teachers I guess! I don’t think anyone should be forced into doing a music exam they don’t want to do, but I feel very strongly that it is a very good thing that music exams exist and I believe they are very useful, motivating and can even be fun!

So this brings us to the music theory exam. The Grade Five Music Theory Exam is the only one which it is compulsory to do before attempting the higher grades. Why is this? What is so special about this music theory exam? Why don’t the other music exam boards (e.g. Trinity) ask for it? Why don’t many people take the other music theory grades?

I believe the ABRSM makes Grade Five Theory compulsory, because if you want to become a fully-rounded musician you need to know about theory. It is, of course, possible to be a great performer without knowing how to construct a dominant triad in the key of Ab major. But if you CAN construct a dominant triad in Ab major and and can also recognise them in the music you are playing, you will have a deeper understanding of what you are playing – you will be an even better performer! Knowing about music theory also helps you to understand the structure behind a piece of music, to place it in a historical context, and even to learn it by heart.

If you want to go on to study music at university or conservatoire, you’ll need to be able to talk about a piece of music in analytical terms – music theory gives you the basic vocabulary you need in order to do that.

The things you learn when you study for a music theory exam are mostly very logical. When you train to be a performer, you learn how to be expressive. Having both a logical and an expressive side to your playing can only be an advantage. It is also excellent training for your brain, just like doing crosswords or sudoku!

I don’t know why there isn’t also a compulsory exam over at the Trinity Board. I would guess that it might be a commercial decision – there will always be music students who, for whatever reason, don’t do a music theory exam but want to take grade six or above in their practical subject. Those students will often transfer to Trinity. However, the result is that many music teachers look at the ABRSM as a more demanding, and thus prestigious, exam board.

Why don’t many people do the earlier grades in music theory? I think there are several reasons. Lots of teachers and students don’t see the necessity – they only take grade five music theory because they have to. Cost can be an issue of course. Many students don’t even begin to think about theory until they’ve passed their grade five practical and want to move on. But if you’ve passed your grade five music theory exam, why not study for grade six? All the reasons I listed at the beginning of this post also apply to music theory. Once you’ve gained the basics at grade five, why not build on your knowledge and carry on with learning about music theory? Why not set yourself the challenge, gain the qualification, improve your all-round skills as a musician? For those of you who will be applying to university, it’s worth knowing that at grade six and above, music theory exams can count in your UCAS points! If you want to find out what’s in the grade 6 exam, watch this quick video!



Some people sneak a peak at the grade six syllabus but are put off by the content.

I’ve read blog posts written by people who think that learning about figured bass and harmonising a melody is an antiquated and useless task. Although I agree that figured bass is perhaps too much of a minority subject to be given so much weight at grade six, I think it’s probably in the syllabus because historically it was something always taught to music students. However, the harmonising a melody, composition and general music questions at grade six are all completely relevant to today’s musicians. Many of my students tackle figured bass with enthusiasm however, and like the logical aspect to it. It’s also useful because it teaches a lot of the basic principles and rules of tonal harmony.

So why take a music theory exam? Here’s a summary of the good points!

  • Improve your brain
  • Improve your CV and therefore prospects in life
  • Motivation and reward
  • Discipline in study
  • Improve your all-round musicianship
  • Broaden your general knowledge



* Some alternative exams can be taken in place of grade 5 theory: see http://us.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/information-and-regulations/prerequisite-for-grades-6-8/#



Why Take a Music Theory Exam? — 15 Comments

  1. Question: On the subject of 6 vs. 2 as the number of beats in 6/8 time. Most piano books say 6/8 has 6 beats without later saying it has 2. Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory first says 6/8 has 6 beats but then says that it can have 2 if the tempo is fast. Your site says it is always 2. Which is most correct??

    • 6/8 is usually considered to be “duple” time i.e. with two main beats per bar. If the music is particularly slow, the effect can be that there are actually six beats per bar. I guess the correct answer to your question is “BOTH!”. According to the Dolmetsch website, which is very thorough indeed, 6/8 is “six beats in the bar, the beat is a quaver (eighth note)” and further down the same page they say “music in 6/8 is taken at a faster speed than music in 6/4 and is most commonly felt as two beats to the bar”. http://www.dolmetsch.com/musictheory4.htm

    • 6/8 time is said to be in Compound Duple time and consists of 2 dotted crotchet beats in a bar. In Compound Time, the term ‘pulse’ is used for each individual time division, hence there are 6 quaver pulses in a bar of 6/8 time. I hope this helps to clarify things for you.

    • Hi Jerry! Comments don’t appear immediately because I have a lot of problem with spam comments. I am quite busy at the moment but answering/moderating comments when I can!

  2. Interesting article with many valid points, and this whole notion of the pro’s and cons of music exams have recently intrigued me. Being a music school owner and educator, and seeing a vast majority of non exam students progress and love their instrument more than the average exam student has changed my mind on this whole issue. I have my reservations about putting all students through exams as all students come with different personalities, and for many of them the exam system just can’t inspire them to learn and be creative with their learning. We must not forget that music is a creative outlet, and once we put constraints on what can be learnt, and what must be taught… the whole notion of music being creative is lost, and becomes akin to mathematics. Many parents in particular think it is the only correct method to learn and progress with an instrument and get too caught up with the piece of paper, rather than learning musicianship. There are many drawbacks such as learning for exams rather than musicianship, and I have written a recent blog about this. Please feel free to check it out at http://jumbonote.com.au/why-taking-music-exams-is-not-always-the-best-option/

    • As a classically trained violinist and pianist who finds luste in oil painting and is a mathematician and chartered accountant I find I never use the whole of my brain . . I hope someone else does. The world is a very uninspiring place without art; sometimes maths can put an order in its being, sometimes not. Most believe the latter. It’s because they’ve followed the leaders xxx

  3. . If a student can sit for his/her chemistry exam to qualify to become a doctor, I don’t see any difference here with the students or teachers debating about the music exam.
    Taking music exam is a process of evaluating and monitor the performance and success of the students learning, especially with music theory.
    Being ‘CREATIVE’ is one part of the equation to becoming a musician, students also need to be knowledgeable with music theory in order to utilize their creativity and becoming all rounded musicians.
    Music is not just a pass time work, where students can just pick up their instruments and play their favourite lullabies or folk tunes.
    When we perceive the importance of ARTS (music ) in our institution, then there is passion in it, and we therefore greatly value it to make it become par as other major examinations in the schools or institutions.

    • Hi Elijah – thanks for the comment! I suppose the main difference here is that these music exams are not vocational, whereas a medical qualification is. Most people learning an instrument will not go on to be a professional musician – for most people it is indeed just a pastime. I completely agree with you though that the arts need to be valued more within our education systems!

  4. Nice moment to you Victoria,
    Seating for ABRSM theory of music

    grade 5 exam really interest me, but i need to get a comprehensive study material on theory of music to equip myself for the exam.

    I know you advertised a comprehensive study material on your website, I need detailed information on how to pay for the study material and get it to me in Nigeria

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