Music Theory Examinations

I spend little time on music theory in the early stages. Some teachers would argue that theory should be taught straight away but I don’t feel that this is the most effective use of a piano teacher’s time. If anyone has any specific questions, I’m more than happy to answer them (if I can!) and I do have some who want to know why – for example – note stems sometimes point up and sometimes point down, why G major scales needs an F♯, or why quavers are grouped in different ways: I am always happy to explain and will go on to talk about related points if they seem really interested. So, quite often, learners are ‘doing theory’ without even realising it.

However, the idea of spending half the lesson watching a pupil struggling to write notes on a stave does not seem very productive. I could, of course, send my pupil away with a sheet of theory questions to complete at home but – knowing how reluctant some are to practise their piano skills – I can’t imagine them being keen to complete an extra ‘homework’ task.

Of course, the basics are generally absorbed in any case, as a teacher refers to such things as: “time signature, beats in a bar, keys etc.” along with various Italian terms. I also help them complete the written quizzes in the John W. Schaum books.

Very occasionally, a pupil may show some interest in learning to write his own music on manuscript paper and some love practising drawing treble and bass clef signs. However, most would prefer to have their fingers on the keys rather than holding a pen and I don’t want to push them into a form of learning sometimes considered ‘too much like school’.

It is not until my pupils have successfully completed their grade 4 practical that I feel it’s time to discuss with them – and their parents – which route they plan to take next. At this point I send out a letter explaining how the ABRSM examination system works and why – if they wish to continue with higher grade exams – I need to start teaching them theory as soon as possible.

Chance to Opt Out

Although I suggest that they have the option of avoiding theory exams by continuing higher grades with another teacher (either a jazz piano teacher or one who uses a different exam board) – I have not actually lost any pupils this way. In fact two of my pupils even decided to extend their lessons with me to an hour a week so they could spend half an hour on theory without losing any piano-playing time. I have to admit, though, very few of my pupils actually make it to this stage in the first place … but those who I have entered for grade 5 theory have achieved high marks.

Rather than plod through a series of theory books and ask my pupil to complete countless time-consuming exercises, I prefer to give a kind of ‘crash course’ in music theory. This may not be quite so thorough but – as long as it achieves the desired effect (which in most cases is just to obtain ‘permission’ from the ABRSM to move on to grade 6 practical) – I think it is the least ‘painful’ option.

However, for anyone for does not feel confident about teaching music theory in this way (if, for example you haven’t passed an ABRSM theory exam yourself), there are plenty of music theory books available to help you (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 for a very reasonable price at

I generally start theory lessons by explaining how major and minor keys work (unless the pupil has already grasped this idea – maybe by remembering my explanations when teaching scales, or by things he has learned in his school music lessons). Having explained major keys with sharps in the key signature, major keys with flats, relative minors etc. I then show my pupil that I have summarised this information on an ‘information sheet’ which I will give to him when we have covered all aspects of grade 5 theory.

This information sheet has subjects listed under ‘Question 1’, ‘Question 2’ ‘… 3’ etc. 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. However, hopefully, I have covered most – if not all – of the topics likely to arise.

No doubt, many qualified musicians (let alone ABRSM examiners) would be horrified to read my rough summary of grade 5 theory requirements and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the points I’ve made are at best incomplete and at worst slightly inaccurate. However, so far my crash course has proved a success.

Past Papers

Once I have covered most of the topics, theory lessons are spent going over questions on past papers. These – along with the answer sheets (so you don’t necessarily need to know all the right answers yourself!) are also obtainable from I ask my pupils to complete the questions on paper (manuscript if necessary) rather than on the question sheets, which I like to re-use.

As far as the exam procedure itself goes, I would say it’s much like any other written exam. The exams are often carried out in a local school with desks and chairs laid out in lines at a reasonable distance apart and a few officials present to give out papers, tick off names of candidates etc.

Theory exams are taken on one specified day each term around the start of the practical exam period. There are eight grades and all exams start at the same time so a pupil sitting – for example – his grade 1 exam would be asked to leave earlier than one taking his grade 8. Grade 5 theory takes two hours. I advise pupils taking a music theory exam to treat it as they would a written exam in school.

Marks and certificates are given out in the same way as for the ABRSM practical exams, although the marking system is different. The total available marks available in a music theory exam is 100; it’s 66 to pass, 80 for a merit and 90 for a distinction.

Although ABRSM theory examinations go up to grade 8, I have only ever taught grade 5 and very much doubt that I’ll ever receive a request to teach beyond this.

(See also Theory Exam Tips).

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