Grade 5 Music Theory

Below is the ‘information sheet’ which I give to pupils when we have covered all aspects of grade 5 theory. The subjects are listed under ‘Question 1’, ‘Question 2’ ‘… 3’ etc. as a means of dividing up the information. However, these question numbers correspond only very loosely to those on the theory exam paper as the ABRSM tends to swap the questions around each time.

This Information Sheet is designed to support theory lessons and to help a piano student pass his all-important grade 5 theory exam. However, it is definitely not intended to be used on its own: it’s more of a summary to remind pupils who have already learned and understood all the subjects covered.

There are also plenty of music theory books available to help both teachers and learners (for example, at I would particularly recommend The AB Guide to Music Theory Part I and Part II if you want to brush up on your own theory knowledge. To make things even easier, you can buy ABRSM past theory exam papers. These – along with the answer sheets (so you don’t necessarily need to know all the right answers yourself!) are also obtainable from or from Amazon UK/Amazon US.

(See also Theory Exams).

                                                 Information Sheet
Time signatures

In 6/8, 9/8 time etc., quavers are grouped in threes to make a dotted crotchet. When notes make a dotted crotchet this is compound time. 6/8 is compound duple – i.e. two dotted crotchets in a bar. If converting from compound to simple you may have to use triplets.
Remember, there are other forms of ‘tuplets’ apart from triplets (e.g. If you see a number 5 above a group of notes this means 5 equal beats at a speed which would fit the timing of the beat you’d expect to hear at that point).
The word ‘anacrusis’ means a piece doesn’t begin on the first beat of the bar.
A ‘breve’ (worth eight crotchets) is written like a semibreve but with small vertical line either side.
Metronome speed – e.g. quaver = 80 means 80 quavers per minute (i.e. 40 crotchets per minute).
1) When you work out chords include the note in the bass clef.
2) What three notes do you have starting from the bottom up? (ignoring any repeated notes).
3) Do these notes make a triad? – i.e. can they be played with finger numbers 1,3,5? (If so, the chord is in root position) If not, rearrange them so they can.
4) Try to find the chord number by counting from the name of key on your fingers up to the bottom note of the rearranged (if you had to rearrange it) triad.
5) When you have the chord number, decide if it’s a, b or c. When the bass note is the bottom note of chord, the chord is in root position e.g. Ia, or IIa or IVa or Va If the bass note is the 2nd note of the triad, it’s in first inversion e.g. Ib etc. If the bass note is the 3rd note of triad, it’s in second inversion e.g. Ic etc.
To Work out Keys
For major keys with sharps count five on your fingers (including the first and last finger in your count). e.g. G major has one sharp, so count five for the next major key which is D major with two sharps etc.
The order of sharps in the sharp keys is: F, C ,G ,D, A, E (Fat Cats Get Down About Everything). Alternatively, work out the next sharp by counting 5.
For major keys with flats count four on your fingers. e.g. F major has one sharp, so count 4 for next major key which is B♭ major wth two flats. etc. etc. Remember, apart from F major all flat majors have the word flat in their title.
The order of flats in the flat keys is B, E  A, D, G (i.e start with the word “bead”). Again, you can work out the next flat by counting 4.
To work out key signature for minor keys count ON three semitones as this will give you the relative major which shares the same key signature, e.g. The relative major of F minor is A♭ major therefore, like A♭ major it has four flats. (When relating major and minor keys think of ‘major’ as being more important so you climb up to it and ‘minor’ as less significant so go down to it). Then, (not in the key signature, but in the scale or piece of music) you raise the 7th note a semitone as an accidental for minor keys. e.g. in F minor E♭ would become E♮.
Remember in melodic minors you raise the 6th and 7th notes on the way up and neither on the way down.
If a piece of music changes key it’s quite likely to change to the relative major or minor.
Enharmonic equivalents
For example, the enharmonic of F♯ could be G♭.
Alto clef/tenor clef
Practise drawing these clefs. With the alto clef the middle of the sign points to the middle line of stave. With the tenor clef the middle points to one line higher. Whichever line the middle of the sign points to is your middle C.
Accents/stress marks/repeat signs
Make sure you know how to draw all these.

Rewriting a passage in short/open score
If changing to open score, use the bass clef sign for bass singers only. For sopranos, altos and tenors use the treble clef sign but for tenors put a little ‘8’ under the sign as they sing eight notes lower than written. Be careful that your stems are going the appropriate way – up or down (i.e. up if below the middle line of the stave and down if below it. Notes on the middle line should fit in with adjacent notes).
In short score the stems are different from in ‘normal’ music writing: the stems for soprano and tenor staves go up, while alto and bass go down.
Melodic intervals
Major 2nd (semitone lower is minor, tone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Major 3rd (semitone lower is minor, tone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Perfect 4th (semitone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Perfect 5th (semitone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Major 6th (semitone lower is minor, tone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Major 7th (semitone lower is minor, tone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented)
Perfect 8th (semitone lower is diminished, semitone higher is augmented) Count the interval on your fingers (always starting with the LOWER note even if it comes AFTER the higher note in the piece of music) and write it down. Now check your key signature to check if either note in interval is a sharp or flat. The lower note is the name of the major key. Is the higher note the one you’d expect for this number note in the major key? If so it’s a major interval (or, in some cases perfect). If lower it’s a minor interval (in some cases diminished) or if much lower a diminished interval (in some cases diminished diminished!) If higher, it’s an augmented interval.
If the base note is G♯ treat it as A♭ major but be careful with counting!! (e.g. If you have interval of G♯ to B, this is a 3rd, so write down ‘3rd’. Then say “what would I expect for 3rd note of G♯ major – i.e. A flat major? I’d expect ‘C’. So, as we haven’t got a C we’ve got a B instead, it’s a semitone lower than expected so it’s a diminished 3rd) Remember if it’s more than and octave it’s a compound interval e.g. Compound major 3rd (AKA major 10th). Beware if you’re referring to intervals as a 12th, for example, this is a perfect 12th.

1) Always treat the original key as a MAJOR key. Work out the key from the key signature, ignoring any accidentals.
2) Read the question carefully to see if they want you to use key signature in the transposition. e.g. If key signature has B♭ you’re in F major so to transpose up a major 2nd remember to use G major key signature i.e. F♯. Take time working out new key. For minor 3rd down, you need go down 3 semitones.
3) To transpose down a minor third, for example: Firstly, transpose all the notes down correct number e.g. for ‘down a third’ E would become C
4) Now go through each note making sure you have a MINOR interval. e.g. C would have to be C♯ to make it a minor third below E.
5) Finally, don’t forget to add in all the other markings – dynamics, staccatos, etc.
Alternative method (you may find this quicker)
1) Follow steps 1) and 2) above.
2) Work out what degree of the scale your first note is (e.g. if the original is in F major and the first note is an A, this is the third degree of the scale).
3) Begin on the same degree of the scale as your new key (i.e. in this case if your new key is G major, begin on B as that’s the third degree of the scale).
4) Then follow the intervals between each note in the original and go up or down by the same number of semitones in the new version.

Italian/French terms
Revise them!!! Here are some fairly common ones but – as you know – there are tons more!: LENTO, LARGO, ADAGIO: all these mean slow (in German LANGSAM) ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO: fast but not too much PRESTO: fast (faster than allegro) ALLEGRO ASSAI: very fast VIVACE/VIVO: lively/quick SCHNELL: fast (German) CON/COL: with BEN: well SENZA: without ETTO: a little bit ISSIMO: a lot MENO: less MOLTO: very much PIU: more POCO: a little MEZZO: half CANTABILE: in a singing style ALLARGANDO: getting a bit slower and probably bit louder DOLCE: sweet/soft fp: loud then immediately soft MAESTOSO: majestic GRACIOSO: gracefully SIMILE: the same MOSSO/MOTO: movement TENUTO: held AMORE: love COMODO: convenient/comfortable LEGGIERO: light/nimble LEGATO: smoothly MESTO/TRISTE: sad PESANTE: heavy RITMICO: rhythmically SCHERZO/SCHERZANDO: playful/joking RUBATO: with some freedom of time SEMPRE: always STRINGENDO: gradually getting faster SUBITO: suddenly PRIMA VOLTA: first time SECONDA VOLTA: second time MORENDO/PERDENDOSI/CALANDO/SMORZANDO: dying away SOPRA: above SOTTO: below
Phrase markings
Phrases often begin/end with similar rhythmic bits and tend to begin on same beat of bar. Sometimes humming the tune in your head will help you decide where to put the phrase marks.
Degrees of the scale (may also be referred to as ‘technical names’)
Tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading note, tonic
1) Acciaccatura (crushed note) is a little note with a line through it (unless there are a few of them in which case no line) Play it/them BEFORE the beat.
2) Appoggiatura (leaning note) is a similar little note but no line through it and you play it ON the beat.
3) Mordent = note, note above, note written bit like a ‘w’ Inverted mordent = note, note below, note
4) Trill tr usually starts on the note above
5) Turn = note above, note itself, note below, note itself IF written above the note (but different when in between notes) Written as an ‘S’ on its side.
Instruments – (Concert pitch/transposing etc.)
Celesta – Transposing (sounds an 8ve higher than written)
Piano – Concert Pitch
Harpsichord, Organ, Synthesizer
STRING (highest pitch at top, then first four in descending pitch order)
Violin – Concert Pitch
Viola – Concert Pitch but uses alto clef
Cello – Concert Pitch – uses tenor and bass clefs
Double Bass – Transposing (written in bass clef and sounds 8ve lower)
Guitar – Transposing (written in treble clef and sounds an 8ve lower)
WOODWIND (highest pitch at top)
Piccolo – Transposing (sounds an 8ve higher than written)
Flute – Concert Pitch Oboe – DOUBLE REED
Alto Saxophone – Transposing E (i.e. When they play C it sounds like E)
Clarinet – Transposing Bb Bassoon – Concert Pitch but uses tenor and bass clefs – DOUBLE REED
Baritone sax Tenor sax and soprano sax – Transposing B
BRASS (highest pitch at top)
Trumpet – Transposing Bb – DOUBLE REED
Trombone – Concert Pitch but uses tenor clef French horn – Transposing F
English horn (aka Cor anglais) – Transposing F – DOUBLE REED
Tuba – Concert Pitch PERCUSSION
Drums – e.g. Side drum – INDEFINITE PITCH
Timpani, Xylophone – definite pitch
VOICE (highest pitch first, then in descending pitch order)
Soprano, (Contr)Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass
Remember a sax is ‘in E♭’ because when you play C on a sax it comes out as a piano’s E♭.

Writing out a diatonic (ordinary!) and/or chromatic scale
You should be able to get full marks for this question – easily – but you MUST read the question VERY carefully and RE-READ it several times. e.g. Do they want ascending or descending? Harmonic or melodic minor? Is it in treble or bass clef? Do they want key signature or accidentals? Do they want notes written as semibreves – or maybe crotchets? One octave or two? Don’t make silly mistakes!

Composing a melody
There is a choice of two (one with words and one without) but decide NOW to do the one without words (probably easier) so you don’t waste time deciding in the exam. Tips for melody writing:
1) You will be asked to choose to write for one instrument (choice of two) Choose an instrument you are comfortable with. Remember if it’s a string instrument you will need to write bowing markings or the word ‘pizzicato’ (plucked). Make sure you know the range of the instrument you’ve chosen, including for example, its lowest note.
2) Use imitation or repetition. For example you can repeat the first notes but raise them up a third. Or repeat most of the rhythm but change the ending. Or invert the rhythm or pitch of notes. Or you could write the same melody but back to front.
3) You will get more marks if you include a key change. (e.g. If you are in G major, half way through you could change to the dominant – in this case D major – by including a C♯ somewhere – followed by a D. Then, always make sure you include a C♮ later so it goes back to the tonic key. Or, your modulation (key change) could be to the relative minor – in this case E minor so you would include a D♯).
4) Make sure you have the correct number of bars (if there’s an anacrusis add beginning and end together to make one bar). Create a clear phrase structure.
5) Add A FEW carefully chosen dynamics/articulation marks.
6) Make sure your melody ends on a relatively long note (and generally the tonic) and add a double barline at the end.
7) Sing it through in your head.

Cadences and chords
1) Look at your key signature and work out which key you’re in. (always major for this question).
2) You will only be asked to choose from chords I, II, IV or V
3) Cadences are: PERFECT CADENCE: V – I PLAGAL CADENCE:- IV – I (known as the ‘Amen’ cadence) IMPERFECT CADENCE: any chord – V (INTERRUPTED CADENCE: V- VI – you won’t get this but it may come up in aural – certainly at grade 7 or 8)
4) Remember, a very common chord progression is II, V, I so if they ask you to name 3 chords this is quite likely. The last cadence is likely to be perfect or plagal.
5) Work out what notes you’ve got to decide on your chord number
6) Don’t be confused if the chord includes a ‘dominant 7th’ (e.g. chord V in C major could include Gs Bs Ds and/or surprisingly F – as this is the dominant 7th.
7) Also, don’t be put off by ‘passing notes’ (usually quavers – and don’t worry if only two of the three notes from the chord are there – it’s easy enough to ‘guess’ the chord using the information I’ve given here.

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