ABRSM’s Theory rethink: a step in the right direction?

ABRSM surprised the teaching world this week with an email announcement detailing significant changes they plan to make to their Theory of Music Grades 1-5 examinations, from January 2018.

In this post I will explain the changes ABRSM are planning, assess reaction from teachers online, and share my own views, particularly in the context of my previous writings on this topic.

So let’s start by looking at exactly what ABRSM are planning to change.

What Changes are Planned?

ABRSM announce on their site:

“We are introducing modernised questions and assessment methods in some parts of the exam at Grades 1 to 5. We have also updated the design of the papers to ensure they are clear and easy to understand.”

It is important to stress right away that ABRSM have not changed the syllabus – they have only changed the exam paper. I will return to this point soon.

Anyone with an interest in teaching or taking Grades 1-5 Theory should read the full details on the ABRSM website – the link is at the end of this article. In the meantime, headline points are plans to:

  • introduce multiple choice questions for musical terms and signs
  • simplify the layout for Grade 5, Question 7 (chords at cadence points), with candidates asked to describe chords only using roman numerals
  • completely remove the rhythm-writing, melody-writing and word-setting questions, and the Grade 5 SATB short/open score question.

The last point is, structurally at least, the most significant. The questions to be removed from the all-important Grade 5 theory paper from January account for 25% of the marks. Their specific preparation also take up 17 of the 56 pages in ABRSM’s Music Theory in Practice Grade 5 book.

ABRSM tell us:

“The replacement questions are based on existing question-types which focus on specific areas of theory knowledge. They are similar in style and format to questions in the current papers, so will feel familiar to teachers and candidates.”

From July 2017 we will get to see how this looks in practise, because ABRSM will then be making available two sets of practice papers for Grades 1 to 5. These Practice Papers will be free to view, download and print from their website, and there will be an additional free online resource for practising the new multiple choice questions for assessing musical terms and signs.

From January 2018 you will also be able to buy printed Practice Papers and Model Answers for the revised exams at Grades 1 to 5.

Before moving on, let’s also clarify the following points:

  • The new exam will be introduced worldwide from 1 January 2018.
  • There will be no overlap period.
  • Grades 6-8 Theory exam papers will be unchanged.

Syllabus vs. Assessment

ABRSM insist on their website that the revised assessments follow the same syllabus and standards as before:

“The revised exam papers are based on our existing Music Theory syllabus and will continue to assess the same broad areas of music theory to the same standards.”

And yet, their Grade 5 Music Theory syllabus explicitly requires:

“The composition of a simple melody of not more than eight bars, using a given opening and writing for a specific instrument (some choice will be given) or, at the candidate’s choice, the composition of a melody to given words. Appropriate performing directions relating to tempo, dynamics and articulation will be required.”

Offering a syllabus with such clear melody-writing expectations, theory workbooks providing several pages of examples, but exam papers which lack a melody writing component is likely to cause confusion for teachers and students.

Explaining the lack of revision to their best-selling Music Theory in Practice series of books, they tell us:

“The sections on rhythm-writing, word-setting and melody-writing will not be directly relevant to the exams from 2018, but these books continue to provide plenty of valuable teaching and learning material for the exams.”

By way of contrast, they say that their ’Melody Writer’ app, designed around their Grade 5 Theory syllabus, is to be scrapped in December:

“We designed Melody Writer to support students as they prepared for the melody-writing question at Grade 5. However, from January 2018 the revised exam papers will not include this question. As a result, we are discontinuing the Melody Writer app at the end of 2017.”

Taken as a whole these changes appear to somewhat lack consistency or cohesion, which is perplexing given the huge respect that I and so many others have for ABRSM. The notion of publishing a syllabus, learning resources and assessments that aren’t aligned seems fundamentally flawed.

Initial Responses Online

Pleasing everyone is impossible, but on the basis of initial reactions ABRSM seem to have pleased few with this announcement.

I am not surprised that there are many who have already characterised these changes as “dumbing down”, while others wish that ABRSM had addressed the more fundamental issue of properly updating the syllabus for the 21st century.

Ultimately, if the changes succeed in making the assessments more accessible, clearly understandable and fair, then that in itself is progress.

It seems highly probable that the new papers will indeed be easier for students, and given that ABRSM’s theory requirements undoubtedly present a roadblock to some musicians’ progress, efforts to lighten any negative impact are to be welcomed.

But like many others, I am not convinced that the changes make educational sense.

I am certainly sympathetic to the point raised by colleagues on the ABRSM teacher forum and in the Piano Network UK group that ABRSM are essentially removing the more creative aspects of theory from the paper.

As one teacher put it:

I think the composition question was the thing my students found the hardest, but equally the most valuable.”

And as another teacher wrote:

“Why do they do this? I support ABRSM over other boards. But to take away the composition parts and to insert multiple choice questions…. what on earth can they have been thinking of?”

Further reducing the creative aspect of music theory and replacing it with fact-based analysis does I believe rather diminish the power and relevance of music theory, while also setting up an even wider gulf between the revised Grade 5 paper and the unchanged Grade 6 one.

Again, quoting another teacher from the Piano Network UK forum:

“I really don’t like losing the composition element – that was one of the few questions in every exam that was both really useful for students, and of equal relevance to non-pianists.
Not to mention that now the composition/harmony element will be suddenly sprung on people at Grade 6, and there is already quite a gulf from 5 to 6 now.”

This gulf has been widely commented on, and is certainly problematic.

Creative Education

ABRSM admit in the FAQ page of their announcement:

“We are continuing to assess music theory through a more creative approach at Grades 6 to 8. At this level candidates will be developing greater musical fluency, making assessment of the inventive application of music theory more appropriate.

Candidates at any level who are aiming for these higher grades will still find it useful to work on writing melodies and rhythms as well as other composition activities.”

Experienced teachers are understandably concerned by the extent to which this is out of step with current educational practice. Would the Board similarly recommend that creativity should be left out of learning to play an instrument until after Grade 5? We must hope not!

Nor will teachers be impressed by the suggestion that ‘writing melodies and rhythms as well as other composition activities’ are only suitable for those ‘who are aiming for these higher grades.

Creativity is an essential element of ALL music making at ALL levels, and I have to confess that like many other teachers, I am disappointed by ABRSM’s approach here.

Subtraction – but no Addition

I would personally favour a more modular approach to music theory assessment that would allow musicians to choose learning options to reflect their interests and give instrument-specific relevance, particularly at the early levels.

Although ABRSM claim that their Theory syllabus covers a ‘knowledge of western music notation, including common signs’ and ‘terms and understanding of fundamental musical elements, such as intervals, keys, scales and chords’, I note the absence from the syllabus of:

  • Natural minor scales, even though included in practical grade exams;
  • Modal, Pentatonic, Blues and Jazz scales – so often used by classical composers as well as in contemporary genres;
  • Popular “jazz” chord symbols, with common extensions;
  • Guitar and drum tab notations;
  • Graphic notation.

A theory syllabus that included these as options, and genuinely reflected trends in music notation in the 21st century, would have the additional benefits of supporting the musical literacy of those taking GCSE and A’Level music, where students encounter scores that go far beyond the rather narrow scope of the ABRSM Theory grades.

Essentially then, the problems with ABRSM’s Music Theory offer are perhaps not so much to do with what should be removed as they are what might be added, and the flexibility that must be offered to ensure ongoing musical relevance.

Some Conclusions

Were it ABRSM’s aim to make Grade 5 Theory easier to pass – and easier to mark – they have perhaps succeeded in doing so with their new proposal. But with glaring discrepancies between syllabus and assessment, and with the element of creativity significantly diminished prior to Grade 6, it seems to me very difficult to portray these changes as a progressive move.

What seems certain at this point is that there is a concerted shift towards exam questions that can be marked by computer and don’t require the intervention of a human marker with expert knowledge.

But are they at least a step in the right direction? Unfortunately it seems to me a case of taking one step forward but two steps back.

But hopefully this won’t be the final step. Asked about music theory in an interview here on Pianodao just two weeks ago, ABRSM’s Chief Executive Michael Elliott said:

“This is another area of active review and we will be evaluating and developing our approach to Music Theory. Further information about what this will involve will be available later this year so watch this space!”

[Read the full interview here]

And speaking to Music Teacher magazine in February 2017, ABRSM Chief Examiner John Holmes spoke of a revised theory offer which he described as:

“… more relevant and accessible … and which would enable schools to deliver musicianship skills, simultaneously with the craft and study side of the subject, and all integrated at each grade.”

This is clearly not that!

So while perplexed by this week’s announcement, I remain optimistic that ABRSM will, before too long, offer a brand new Music Theory syllabus – one that is not only fit for purpose in the 21st century, but which will again confirm their standing as the world’s leading music board.

ABRSM are an outstanding organisation, and I use their products and services daily with students. Where they are sometimes criticised, it is because they are a much-loved part of so many musicians’ lives, and their decisions have such wide consequences for music education worldwide.

I very much hope that they will continue to respond positively to the feedback from their many friends in the teaching profession.

Full Details of the Changes: The ABRSM announcement.

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

7 thoughts on “ABRSM’s Theory rethink: a step in the right direction?”

  1. I totally agree with your assessments of the effects of this, exactly what I had concluded prior to reading this article, it is removing the creative elements of the exam and making it possible to mark by machine rather than employing human beings with knowledge. Seems like cost cutting is prioroty not educational need.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this well considered and balanced assessment, which is representative of the responses of many of us in NZ. Removing the creative process is shutting off a significant and vital section of music development. I shall be looking elsewhere, as this is not the first “reduction” in a syllabus – the Grade 6-8 singing syllabus has been reduced, and is not as challenging as it should be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I understand why the composition questions have been removed. They’re supposed to be a demonstration of all the knowledge of the syllabus, with all the tools coming together in a practical exercise. But many candidates (and teachers) misunderstand the questions and think they’re asking for a demonstration of compositional skill and ideas, so many capable candidates lose a lot of marks trying to be creative in what is a question for techniques, not creativity.

    Those complaining about the removal of the opportunity for creativity are the reason the question was removed. It was never meant as such.

    That said I am disappointed that the books haven’t been updated accordingly.


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! An interesting theory, if you’ll pardon the pun (!), but not the reason ABRSM actually gave at the time.

      Creativity is at its best when expressed within clearly defined parameters. The melody writing question was always the one which most clearly revealed whether the candidate could apply technical skills and music theory understanding in a real context, and the model answers published by ABRSM were always outstanding examples of creativity, rather than merely technical responses.

      In any case, this is an old article which predates the far more blunt public letter by Julian Lloyd Webber who, I think, spoke for so many within the music profession by condemning ABRSM for deskilling musicians, which is of course a major concern for professional practitioners and academics alike.


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