Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?


Image courtesy of www.semiahmooacademyofmusic.ca

In the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked about the Grade 5 theory exam, so much so that it has inspired me to write this post. I am talking about the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) theory exam. To those who haven’t yet taken any piano or instrumental tests,  this exam board is the most popular in the UK and the world (according to the ABRSM).

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because according to the ABRSM’s rules once a grade 5 practical (i.e. piano exam) has been achieved it’s not possible to take a further exam (grades, 6,7 or 8) until you have passed the theory test. Many view this as a major drawback to taking ABRSM exams and I know plenty of teachers and students who have purposely switched boards to avoid this. Other boards don’t have a grade 5 theory requirement to take higher exams. Some pupils go to TrinityGuildhall, The London College of Music or Victoria College of Music exam boards instead.

Whilst I can understand the logic here, I can’t help but think this to be a major mistake. Yes, Grade 5 theory is tricky for many, but it has so many benefits for those wanting to go beyond Grade 5 level that it really shouldn’t be ignored. Music theory is bascially learning how to write music down or the ‘study of how music works’. It distils and analyzes the fundamental parameters or elements of music—rhythm, harmony (harmonic function), melody, structure, form, texture, etc.

The exam contains some valuable exercises and for those considering skipping this test here are a few reasons to make you think again:

1. In Grade 5 theory you will need to recognise all 24 keys and learn how to write them down. This will prove extremely valuable when taking higher exams (scales are based on these keys!) and for those going on to study A level music.

2. You will need to recognise intervals (a very important part of the exam) which will prove useful in sight reading development (especially sight singing) and will improve note reading in general. It will also help you grasp melodic movement quickly too.

3. Transposition is another beneficial exercise. That is, transposing music from one key to another. Woodwind and Brass instruments sometimes play in a different key to the rest of the orchestra and it’s useful to be able to ‘move’ or change their parts. Learning Alto and Tenor clefs are important as well.

4. Chord recognition. I think this is possibly the most crucial Grade 5 test. Understanding basic chord structure or harmony and cadential points (musical endings) is vital in writing or analyzing music. Assimilation of this exercise will prepare pupils for higher exams like music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Writing or composing short melodies is great practice for the would-be singer songwriter or those merely wanting to express themselves musically. It also makes students adhere to writing logically in musical patterns.

6. Grade 5 theory also demands analysis of a short piece. This is an excellent exercise. Analyzing music will help you to grasp many musical elements swiftly. You need to know time signatures, rhythmic patterns, ornaments, as well as  dynamic and articulation markings.

There are so many advantageous exercises in this important exam and it really isn’t too difficult when you apply yourself. Do get a good teacher – one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers – this is the key to passing in my opinion. Don’t skip it – what you learn whilst studying for Grade 5 theory is far more important than passing. Good luck!

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About The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog

Classical pianist and writer. I love to Tweet and Blog and I love to play the piano too.
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25 Responses to Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?

  1. There is a really brilliant theory revision book called “Take Five and Pass First Time”. I recommend it to all my students! http://www.musicroom.com/se/id_no/012049/details.html?kbid=3726

  2. I love sites that are pretty much solely put together to help other musicians learn. It really makes it possible for artists to keep growing no matter what they play. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

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  4. Angie Ingman says:

    Hi I passed my grade 5 piano over 40 years ago and have just recently started playing piano again, would I need to take a theory test to continue to grade 8 please?

  5. I agree with all of this, excellent article Mel. The other thing I would add is that, if teaching has been appropriately integrated up to the point of Grade 5, most of the concepts will already be very familiar to the student anyway. There may be some exceptions (e.g. Alto and Tenor clef for pianists) but, in the main, the Theory exam should just be about consolidating existing knowledge.

  6. Theorist says:

    Although (when I was in high school) I have taken almost all the exams in music theory possible here in Scandinavia, never in any of them have there been a composing excercise. And that’s a shame, since I would have excelled! :D Great they are available and required at least somewhere.

  7. Shannon says:

    I agree with you saying that taking Grade five is important. I’m a student from ABRSM for a decade now (I started when I was 4). I was just told that I passed my grade 5 with 86 marks(better than my grade4 exam). I just don’t see why it’s so hard for others…I found it to my surprise, quite easy! :)

  8. Pingback: The Value of Music Theory | The Classical Piano and Music Education Blog

  9. Ethel Leathers says:

    hi enjoy your blogs, although don’t understand a lot about music, I’m an older player taking lessons from [I think is a pretty good teacher, having me learn scales, cadences, and arpeggios] I don’t understand to much about theory. can you explain in a brief sentence or two what theory means without getting to technical, and maybe a theory book that’s simple for me to understand, I’m from the US. Thank You So Much. Ethel

  10. Ethel Leathers says:

    I am going to order ‘Understand Music Theory’ on amazon today Thank you so much

  11. Barry Wilson says:

    I think grade 5 only becomes a stumbling block if the earlier fundamentals have been rushed and not fully understood. I refuse to put any of my students through exams unless they can achieve 90% and then if I am preparing them for the next grade will still want them to revisit previous exam to look at where they lost marks.

  12. Sam says:

    Do you think the other theory grades 1-4 are beneficial my daughter is taking grade 4 flute this year so will need to take grade 5 theory next year should she start at the beginning or just go straight in at grade 5?

  13. I couldn’t agree more! Learning theory opens up a whole new world of understanding – it lets you appreciate the music you are listening to on another level (whether it’s classical, pop or whatever) and is essential for your development as a musician. I find it really hard to understand why so many people think music theory is a chore, unless it’s the way it’s been taught to them. It seems that some students get the message that music theory is a bunch of rules that restrict your creativity, whereas in actual fact, it is the key to a deeper enjoyment and creativity! I also wrote a post about theory a little while, if I may cheekily promote myself :-) http://blog.mymusictheory.com/2011/what-is-music-theory/

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