Anyone who is involved in any way with  ABRSM  (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) music exams will know that in order to undertake any exam beyond Grade 5, you need to have passed the Grade 5 theory exam.

Some may 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.    That said, there are alternative options to Grade 5 Theory.  As explained on the ABRSM website:

Candidates for Practical Grades 6, 7 and 8 must already have passed one of the following qualifications:

Accepted substitutes:

  • Trinity College London/Trinity Guildhall: Grade 5 (or above) in Theory of Music
  • London College of Music: Grade 5 (or above) in Theory of Music (nb: Popular Music Theory is not accepted)
  • Australian Music Examination Board: Grade 5 (or above) in Theory of Music
  • University of South Africa: Grade 5 (or above) in Theory of Music

As a teacher, where appropriate, I confess I do tend to follow the ABRSM scheme for exams which naturally then will include grade 5 theory.   I believe this is an incredibly important exam and possibly this explains why it has been a longstanding ABRSM benchmark that Grade 5 theory must be passed in order to take the higher grades.  Surprisingly a lot of pupils who present themselves to do Grade 5 theory are unaware that in fact the ABRSM offer theory at all grades from 1 through to 8. The biggest challenge this presents is that the learning is cumulative. So in other words, Grade 5 theory is not entirely standalone.  If you look at the syllabus for Grade 5 theory, it generally details the areas to be covered in addition to the work already done in the earlier grades.

For example, Grade 5 theory introduces the concept of the Tenor clef, which for many pupils is quite a strange sight if they have thus far spent their entire musical life to date working with just the treble and bass clef.  However, it’s important to remember that in Grade 4 theory, the alto clef was introduced. So, therefore just reading through the syllabus for Grade 5 will not be enough to understand the full complexity of the exam.   As a result therefore, when I am faced with any pupil wanting to “do Grade 5 theory” I often find myself having to teach them a lot of the basics which should technically have been covered in earlier theory exams.

It’s the same story with key signatures. The “new” signatures for Grade 5 are those with 6 sharps or flats: i.e. F# major, Gb major, D# minor and Eb Minor.  But of course, students are expected to know about and understand all the other key signatures and the difference between a Harmonic Minor and a Melodic Minor scale.  Consequently for any new Theory pupil usually one of the first things I show them is this simple diagram.

Circle of Fifths
Circle of Fifths

I do not propose to go through the rest of the syllabus for grade 5 theory in this post. Suffice to say the exam has been well structured to give pupils a good grounding in the theory of music which, to my mind, is essential when undertaking the higher grades on an instrument or voice and also developing your skills as a professional musician.

Jules Addison teaches piano, organ and theory of music throughout Wiltshire, Bath and North East Somerset. To find out more please visit the teaching pages or call 07855 275353

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