Why is Grade 5 Theory so important?

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.

The Grade 5 theory exam is significant to pupils because, if taking an ABRSM exam, once a grade 5 practical (that is, the piano exam) has been achieved it’s not possible to take a further graded instrumental exams until you have passed the theory test. However, you can also sit one of the following: Grade 5 (or above), from a variety of other music examination boards, in Practical Musicianship, or Practice Grades solo Jazz Subject. 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 exam boards don’t have a Grade 5 theory requirement to take higher exams. Some pupils go to Trinity College London, The London College of Music, or Victoria College of Music exam boards instead, for example.

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, such as music A level or practical music exams (piano, violin etc).

5. Grade 5 theory 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. Aim to find a good teacher; one who is able to patiently explain everything and do make sure you complete all available past papers, as 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!


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

33 Comments Add yours

  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

    1. Thanks for that Lorraine – a great tip and excellent advice 🙂

      1. Particularly good for students around age 10 who haven’t done ANY theory but suddenly need to pass G5 for the music scholarships!

  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.

  3. 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?

    1. Hi Angie, If you are taking the ABRSM exams, then yes you would need to pass Grade 5 theory. If you are studying for Trinity Grade 8 then I believe you don’t need to take any theory exams. So the answer is it depends on the exam board. Hope that is some help and good luck.

      1. Angie Ingman says:

        Thanks, my original exams were with the London School of Music, so I will check with them.

      2. Think you will find they don’t exist anymore Angie, so you may need to consider other boards.

  4. 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.

    1. Hi Rebecca, So glad you like the article…and you are absolutely right of course, theory should definitely be included from the beginning and then it’s not a shock or panic when a pupil takes Grade 5 theory.

  5. 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! 😀 Great they are available and required at least somewhere.

  6. 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! 🙂

    1. Hi Shannon, Many congratulations on passing your theory exam. Not everyone is as quick or able as you are and sadly many theory students have been taught incorrectly – this is probably why they struggle. Very good luck with your music 🙂

  7. 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

    1. Hi Ethel,
      Have a look at the ABRSM Theory books…..here’s the link;
      Here’s another interesting book too;
      Theory is the way music is written down and constructed so it’s important and it will help you understand the music you are playing.
      Hope this is some help 🙂

  8. Ethel Leathers says:

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

  9. 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.

    1. Hi Barry,
      That sounds like a great plan. Many thanks for your comments.

  10. 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?

    1. Hi Sam, Your daughter shouldn’t go straight to Grade 5….it’s a much better plan to start at the beginning. It shouldn’t take her too long though…….. Melanie

  11. 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/

    1. Thanks Victoria! Glad you liked my post. Great website by the way 🙂

  12. Eliza says:

    One of the reasons why students shy away from theory, is because of the way it is taught. As a separate subject, totally unrelated to piano playing. I learned this way and did not enjoy theory. I’m trying to make it more relevant to my students, by pointing out theory concepts in the pieces they play, and explaining the theory, while teaching pieces, as far as is possible.

    I’m finding also theory helping a lot with children who have problems focusing and have moved away from theory method books, as i find them too limited – I’m doing a lot more theory, and it’s helping.

    I really really liked your post. Theory and being able to analyse a piece is so important to the development of a pianist.

    1. Thank you Eliza. You are so right about the way theory is sometimes taught – I think this applies to many aspects of studying music too. I was taught away from the instrument and I remember finding it dull and uninspiring, which is sad, because it can be a fascinating topic.

  13. Eliza says:

    Reblogged this on eliza says and commented:
    Theory is very important to the development of a pianist and it needs to be taught. It also needs to be taught in a relevant way, so that students are able to make a connection between the piano piece they play and the theory written work they do. Here’s an post by Melanie Spanswick, a classical pianist and writer that explains the importance of theory.

  14. Gina says:

    Hi Melanie,My son is 8,he has done grade 3 piano exam and has achieved distinction. Now he is moving onto grade 4. He has only taken grade 1 theory so far. I just wonder, is it necessary that he has to take all the theory exams one by one? Is it okay that he continues to learn his theory but do not take any exams until he has reached grade 5. I mean can he skip grade 2 to 4 theory exams then straight to grade 5 theory. He likes learning theory and very good at it,but dislike the pressure of doing the exam. As he is still quite young, i don’t want to put pressure on him. What is your opinion? thanks.

    1. Hi Gina, Congratulations to your son on achieving Grade 3 Distinction! He is obviously enjoying playing the piano. It’s a good idea to learn theory alongside playing the piano (or any instrument) but you don’t need to take all the exams. Grade 5 Theory is important, but perhaps your son can work through the various suggested theory exam tutor books (or even learn away from any syllabus altogether), so he understands the fundamentals of musical language and counterpoint & harmony etc. Good luck with all future musical endeavours! Melanie

  15. Rosi Petrov says:

    I think it is wrong for Grade 5 Theory to be the threshold in order to sit higher grades Practical exams and that Grades 6, 7 and 8 in Theory should be made compulsory if you want to sit Grades 6,7, and 8 Practical. Grade 5 is pretty easy and, by no means, gives you the real opportunity to come across the beauty of writing melodies, analyzing orchestra pieces, and basically be exposed to the depths of Music. I don’t agree with LCM and Trinity for removing Grade 5 as a requirement to sit higher Practical Grades; I find it ridiculous. 8 months ago a teenage girl came to me and asked me to teach her Theory since her Singing teacher had not been teaching her any Theory. Within 2 months I got her ready for grade 5 Theory (she got a Distinction) and she is now ready to sit Grade 8 in Theory in less than a month’s time. I am positive that many teachers do not teach Theory because they are just not good at it and by not teaching Theory, the examinees’ number gets smaller and smaller, which of course is NOT what ABRSM, LCM and Trinity would want (let’s face it: it’s a business) and subsequently instead of making, let’s say, Grade 6 Theory compulsory in order to sit Grade 6 Practical (same goes for Grade 7 and Grade 8) the Boards choose to lower the hurdle in order to secure more Practical entries – and we know what that means: money. Stricter rules equals less entries! I used to like LCM Theory exams more than the ABRSM ones and I thought that LCM had a bigger weight with the material in their exam papers; but after they abolished the Grade 5 requirement – I lost my huge respect for that Board. ABRSM considers itself THE leader in its degree of recognition – or is it really one?

    I hope one day, Melanie, you would write an article titled ‘Why is Grade 8 Theory so important?’ 🙂

    1. Hi Rosi, Thank you for your message. We all know that Grade 5 theory is simply a basic requirement – and that’s about it. It’s not a benchmark for high standards. I think for many, Grade 5 theory is quite a demanding exam and Grade 8 would be very challenging indeed. Probably few take Grade 8 theory because music A level takes over (for those serious about music). Other students simply don’t have the time or inclination to work at this level (and as you say, if exam boards were to enforce this, many wouldn’t take exams at the higher levels). I have had students who’ve asked to take Grade 8 theory, but it’s very rare. For me, exams are merely ‘markers’ or goals to attain quickly and move on. For the majority of students, taking an instrumental exam is enough. It’s interesting that you comment about most teachers not being able to teach theory to a high level – well, you can multiply this by ten when it comes to piano teaching! Thank you for your interest in my blog 🙂

  16. Pim says:

    Well I already take the exam I got 72 thanks for your post it helps me to get distinction thanks!

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