Grade 5 Theory: Reimagined

Following on from my previous post about Grade 5 Theory, now I want to consider what a modern theory curriculum and assessment syllabus might look like if we started from scratch…

In his introduction to the “AB Guide to Music Theory” (ABRSM, London, 1989), which remains the core textbook for students preparing for that examination board’s Grade 5 Theory examinations, Eric Taylor wrote the following:

The dissemination of music through manuscript or printed copies, and the increasing complexity made possible by notation, produced over many centuries what might be called a shared European musical language. The European musical language passed to America and then spread to many other parts of the world, so that it has become cosmopolitan. Thus it is the common language not only of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven but also of many other composers of different nationalities and periods. It is also the common language of the Hollywood musical, jazz, rock and pop as well as of the piped music which has become inescapable in shops, offices, factories, hotels and other public places.

In the decades since these words were written a great amount has changed, not least socially; the casual reader might regard Eric Taylor’s words as hailing from a slightly different era.

Back in 1989, of course, music notation was almost exclusively written with pencil and paper. Written clarity and grammatical accuracy were paramount to approximating musical ‘sound’ on paper. These days few composers work that way, and notation is more likely to be produced electronically (if at all) and distributed online. This does not of course negate the important need for musicians to understand both the reading and writing of notation, but it does require us to rethink how we teach our students to produce notation.

These days we also benefit from a somewhat revised outlook on music history, less influenced by the remnants of the old cultural imperialism. We now recognise and happily admit that, while jazz and popular music use many of the same instruments, and are based around the same 12 semitone divisions of the octave, they are decisively NOT built around the same music theory rules that dominated western classical composition from around the mid seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, and which remain the basic focus of the ABRSM music theory syllabus.

Many school children today will have heard of and used pentatonic and blues scales, and ABRSM have themselves contributed to this clearer understanding through their outstanding Jazz syllabi. If there is indeed a common linguistic root to the many styles of music enjoyed in the modern world, then it is in the old modal scales that are ignored within the ABRSM Grade 5 theory syllabus. In other words, what we presently have is predicated on too narrow, and to some extent an inaccurate reading of music history.

Further, in schools throughout the UK many pupils will learn to play the electronic keyboard, drum kit or guitar, following ‘jazz’ chord notations, drum and guitar tabs that the ABRSM music theory syllabus similarly avoids. While it is true that the ABRSM do not offer graded exams in all those instruments and musical styles, it is equally true that they do not offer grade exams for parish choirs, and yet transcribing four-part hymns from “short” to “long score” remains a compulsory requirement of Grade 5 theory.

It is difficult to find a common logic in this, and it is no surprise that some teachers and students feel that there is a serious disconnect between a very aged theory syllabus and our daily musical experiences, between ABRSM and the rest of the music educational world, and reflected not just in content but also in underlying cultural attitudes and academic expectations.

What else has changed?

Here’s a summary of some other quite key changes in the worlds of music and education since 1989:

  • Popular, Jazz and ‘World’ music are now a standard part of a child’s learning in school;
  • Serialism, electronic composition and Minimalism are widely accepted and regarded as important areas of study;
  • The historical performance practice movement has become mainstream, challenging many classical musicians’ attitude towards music notation and our (often too literal) interpretation of it;
  • Schools have moved away from the teaching styles that were the norm in the 1980s, such as sitting in rows, filling in dull workbooks, etc. Group activities and interaction, the use of ICT and a close link between theoretical and practical have become the norm in contemporary education
  • Our understanding of child development, educational psychology and individual learning styles has grown immeasurably.
  • The concept of “sound before symbol”, so eloquently explained and popularised in George Odam’s seminal book “The Sounding Symbol” (London, 1995) has changed the way music education in general, and the application of music theory in particular, is understood around the world.

It would of course be absurd to suggest that ABRSM have remained oblivious to all these fundamental changes, even though their Music Theory syllabus remains largely unchanged. To start with, and as I pointed out in my previous article, they have introduced the alternatives of Practical Musicianship and their excellent Jazz Piano syllabus. Other projects, such as their highly innovative Music Medals, represent a ground breaking response to the changing educational landscape. And the ‘Spectrum’ books have given a unique boost to the cause of contemporary classical music.

Most recently of all, ABRSM introduced Natural Minor scales in their practical examination syllabi for all instruments. Explaining this quite significant change, ABRSM Syllabus Principal Nigel Scaife points out on their website :

“For some time now we’ve been debating the role of the natural minor scale in teaching and learning, something that was sparked by the idea of introducing this scale for string players at Grade 1. The reasoning is that through having the easiest minor within the scales at the earliest grades, a student’s understanding of the minor mode, very much linked to its relative major, can begin to be encouraged both aurally and theoretically.”

It is interesting to observe that while recognising this important point about the theoretical benefits of learning the natural minors, and the importance of connected learning, the ABRSM syllabus for theory yet remains unchanged.


My previous article stimulated considerable debate on teacher forums, much of it very helpful. In particular, the point was made that the syllabus provided by any examination board should and need not dictate what or how we teach. While I certainly agree with this, and personally teach in a way that regularly diverts away from any exam syllabus, I find myself under the same pressures as other teachers from parents eager for their children to “progress through the grades” as quickly as possible.

ABRSM have themselves stated their mission is in “supporting high-quality music-making and learning around the world”, but the reality is that many teachers here in the UK and elsewhere value this support to the extent that they simply “teach-to-the-test” and “hope-for-the-best”. As my friend Elissa Milne (the well known writer and educationalist) so perfectly explains it:

“Teachers who teach to the test will only teach the content that is tested. “The Test” in such a teaching context thus assumes a scaffolding/sequencing role (as curriculum) that teachers do not perceive as being either optional or violable. I would suggest that when exam boards perceive their assessments creating such an educational hegemony they need to consider their responsibility in delineating and delimiting the possible learning experiences a young musician may have, should they find themselves working with such a teaching-to-the-test teacher.”

This hegemony is testament to the fact that ABRSM have an exceptional record for promoting excellent standards, produce superb resources, and deliver professional services which have won the respect of musicians and teachers for several generations. But along with hegemony comes responsibility, as Elissa points out:

“Educational hegemony occurs when it is taken for granted that the assessment board will be used for assessments, not just once, but throughout the learner’s learning, and that the assessment board is always right. In many parts of the world there is no doubt that the ABRSM (whether they like it or not, and I suspect they don’t, in fact) exerts profound hegemony in music education in terms of theory and piano.”

Returning briefly to Nigel Scaife’s introduction to the Natural Minor scale, he also touches on this point, recognising ABRSM’s hegemony by stating:

“For many the whole idea of ‘natural minor’ will be completely new, because these words have not been used in ABRSM theory materials.”

This is hopefully an indication that the music theory materials and syllabus will themselves soon be updated. And this brings me neatly to the crux of this article. I promised before that I would set out some ideas of how a Music Theory syllabus might look, were we to start from scratch based on contemporary values and educational models.

The Blank Sheet

So let’s step into the realms of fantasy for a few moments and consider what a modern theory curriculum and assessment syllabus might look like. Many educators would I am sure be able to propose their own dream solution, and I certainly don’t claim mine to be the best, or right way forward. There will be a million and one points I have overlooked, and many better suggestions. If what follows promotes some positive discussion however, it will have served a useful purpose.

And I previously identified three particular issues, which I now hope to address:

  • Diversity of musical interests and educational needs
  • Relevance of music theory to instrumental playing
  • Misplaced expectations of child development

The last of these issues – that of child development – can only really be resolved if ABRSM are willing to decouple their practical and music theory requirements, allowing players to progress as musicians through the practical grades at their own speed, without reference to their academic attainment.

An unspoken assumption seems to be that were this to happen, few would continue to teach music theory. I think this distrust of teachers is misplaced, however. If the other two issues – those of diversity and relevance – are properly addressed by ABRSM then I believe that music theory would be widely and enthusiastically embraced.

To put it bluntly, if the syllabus were more relevant, interesting, realistic and useful, then people would not need any coercion to promote and use it wholeheartedly.

But this requires a considerable rethink of the current syllabus content, approach and delivery. A comprehensive and modern approach to music theory surely needs to address in its content:

  • All the aspects of western classical music theory included in the old syllabus – but specifically the tools to apply understanding rather than regurgitate knowledge
  • Modal scales, folk music, natural minors, “early music” precursors to tonality, polyphony
  • 20th Century classical styles, including serialism, poly-tonality, modality, minimalist techniques
  • Performance practice and interpretation (i.e. what important information is actually missing from the score)
  • Blues and Jazz scales, harmony, chord notations
  • Popular music notations including standard chord symbols, guitar and drum tabs
  • Functional harmony removed from classical rules (for example many guitar based popular songs use the mixolydian rather than major for their harmonic patterns)
  • Recognition, understanding and interpretation of MIDI sequencing information as a form of musical communication
  • Awareness of the World of music that exists beyond the European 12-semitone octave

Music theory needs to move beyond its present narrow focus to embrace all aspects of how people transmit their musical intentions, whether on paper or online.

Let me again stress that ALL of the above need to be placed firmly into their historical and cultural context in order to have genuine meaning. And most important of all, they need to be placed into a practical musical context in order to promote integrated learning in accordance with modern educational methodology. This presents huge additional challenges, both to ABRSM and to teachers, but the practical examination sylabbi are already well ahead in promoting greater musical diversity, and there is no reason to doubt that this process of cultural and artistic inclusion will continue to develop and improve in the coming years.

An Interactive and Modular Approach

One concern with introducing more breadth to the theory syllabus is that it would make it yet harder to reach the important “Grade 5” hurdle, but this need not be the case (and should in my view be irrelevant anyway, as explained above).

For some students the existing offer may perfectly reflect their musical interests and needs. However, to ensure relevance and diversity, a modular approach would allow teachers and students to choose from a selection of ‘Units of Work’ covering a wider base of knowledge and skills.

This would of course need to be very carefully structured. But if done well, it would be possible for the beginner student to limit their initial music theory learning to reading and writing music specifically for the instrument(s) they play, before broadening their scope between Grade 3-5. Some of the current aspects of Grade 2-3 Theory might be postponed, but in turn students might be encouraged to write melodies for their own instrument at a far earlier stage.

A more instrument specific approach during the early stages would establish a learning foundation in which music theory is a properly integrated and creative aspect of musicianship.

Given our technological sophistication and advanced educational understanding, it should not be such a difficulty to ensure that a viola player taking grade one theory works exclusively in the alto clef should they wish to. Each subsequent grade could offer a variety of ‘Units’ that promote both breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding, with a clear system for monitoring candidate progress through the scheme, ensuring they don’t duplicate modules from one Grade to the next.

While optional ‘Units’ could exist within the old-fashioned workbook and exam context, how much better the whole approach becomes if delivered interactively and imaginatively via a bespoke website.

The student could pay a modest annual subscription instead of buying a workbook, and nominate multiple music teachers who could access their personal space in the cloud. Work could progress at home, at an instrumental teachers studio, or at school, depending only on access to the internet. This would enable teachers to work as a team, with instrumental and academic teachers together monitoring and overseeing the student’s development. Such teamwork has the potential for far better-connected music education to emerge, bringing together professionals who would otherwise not share their insights and interest in each musician’s progress.

While the bulk of the coursework and assessment of theory could thus be done interactively and online, I see value in workbooks as an alternative for those who prefer to use pencil and paper; these could be submitted to ABRSM once a Unit of Work is completed. Assessment could also still be offered in the form of a written examination alongside the online Units of Work.

I would hope that any workbook would include a CD, recognising the important principal of “sound before symbol” – a concept that Eric Taylor might not have encountered, but which now underpins good music teaching worldwide. The interactive online offer would of course also include audio material alongside the “written”. In all cases this would be progressively organised across the grades to facilitate the development of the inner ear, that ability to hear the music internally simply from reading the notation.

Before leaving my fantasy behind, let me say that I don’t believe this is completely a pie-in-the-sky dream. In the last couple of years ABRSM have already launched a “Melody Writer” app on their website that is aimed at giving students an interactive melody writing experience in preparation for their Grade 5 Theory test. Is it too much to hope that this is a pilot scheme for a far more radical and pioneering effort?

What might be lost?

The question remains: If the Music Theory offer is broadened as described above, wouldn’t some aspects of the current Grade 5 Theory be lost, or at least postponed until later grades / Units of Work?

The answer to this is that for some students, yes, some aspects of the current syllabus would be replaced by more relevant music theory content. And that would probably be a very good thing.

For example, in the “AB Guide to Music Theory” there is a glossary of more than 300 Italian, French and German words that candidates are expected to learn. I am really not convinced that this is a particularly useful endeavour. Most musicians don’t remember all these words, and when in doubt, we quickly look them up on our smart phones. A working knowledge of the most commonly used words is already assessed anyway, within the practical “sight-reading” tests.

Adapting parts for transposing instruments (which in the real world is usually done by arrangers using software applications), understanding classical orchestration, and arranging music for church choir are all areas of study that some students might not develop a genuine interest in until the higher grades, at which point they might feature as optional ‘Units if Work’ alongside more advanced jazz harmony, serialism, Renaissance polyphony, classical Indian scales, and MIDI language, all of which would appeal to some (but not all) students as volitional alternatives.

How far the graded exams should reach, and what aspects are better left for a University music course remains a topic for further thought. But why would some of these more advanced elements of music theory (such as orchestral transpositions) continue to be given such priority over others at a time where the old cultural imperialism is largely a thing of the past?

Music theory must from the start throw open windows of opportunity and understanding, rather than confining young musicians to a closed cultural viewpoint whose shelf life has surely already passed.

I think that this element of CHOICE is what would ultimately ensure that teachers and students alike start to THINK more carefully about musical aspiration and relevance. It is these choices that will not only bring to music theory the diversity that is presently missing, but will also help musicians everywhere to fall back in love with developing a musical understanding to underpin their practical development.

So – in conclusion – my vision for music theory is an exciting one, in which it becomes a rich, relevant and rewarding aspect of musical learning. As I said near the start of my first article, discovering the blues scale in my late twenties changed my musical life. May the music theory we teach today have a similarly dynamic impact on the lives of our students for a very long time to come!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

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