Decoding Music Theory

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Of the various “innovations” ABRSM have made of late, the replacement of their popular written theory grades with online multiple-choice exams has perhaps been the most controversial, and seems already to be leading to an emphasis on logic-driven trick questions in place of the more creative elements which were a feature of the previous syllabus.

Happily, fact-based learning can still be fun-filled. Proving the point, Melodic Decoder founders Shona Newey and Alison Wood have recently self-published four slim books billed as, “interactive detective stories for children learning ABRSM music theory”.

These colourful and genuinely enjoyable story-puzzle books could be just the ticket for enthusing younger musicians with music theory, so let’s don a deerstalker and investigate…


The Game is afoot…

Newey & Wood’s four books align with ABRSM Grades 1-4 music theory respectively, and were written specifically for the new format 2020 syllabus. I am told that there are presently no plans for a Grade 5 book.


The journey through these four book is presented as “decoding musical mysteries”, and the authors invite children to:

“Join Amadeus Wolfgang, the Master Melodic Decoder, as he teaches you all you need to know about music theory to decode puzzles, complete missions and solve mysteries…”

  • Each book is an exciting interactive detective story, keeping students engaged throughout the syllabus.
  • Creative puzzles test the students understanding of the topics at each stage of the story.
  • Each section of the syllabus is explained in an accessible and concise fashion, using colourful graphics.
  • The “quiz time” page at the end of each book allows for revision of the entire syllabus, through online quizzes.
  • The series of books takes students through from “Apprentice Melodic Decoder” all the way through to “Expert”.
  • Each book bought from the authors’ website comes with a reward sticker for added motivation.

But the series comprises more than just the books. The website features the following additional elements, which I will leave you to explore for yourself following the links:

  • A set of activity sheets (currently grade 1 level only), each focusing on a particular area of music theory. Complete all the activities on the page to complete the mission.
  • Printable board games (currently grades 1 and 2 levels), as a fun alternative way to embed your music theory knowledge or revise for your music theory exam.
  • A growing library of free “Amadeus Explains” videos, each explaining a music theory concept in under a minute.

Elementary, my dear students…

The detective mystery narrative of each book is set in a different city (and the publisher’s website includes a set of ‘City Fun Facts’ to accompany each, maximising engagement and integrated cross-subject learning).

The four book titles (and locations) are:

  • Search for the Stolen Harp (London) – grade 1
  • Search for the Real Chopin (Paris) – grade 2
  • Search for the Lost Octave (Rome) – grade 3
  • Search for the Stolen Sound (New York) – grade 4

Within the narrative of each book, the reader assumes the role of super-sleuth Amadeus’s apprentice. While the series follows an obvious progression each book is complete within itself, meaning that the student can dip in wherever they chose.

‘Amadeus Explains…’ sections introduce each topic and outline the core teaching of the syllabus, presented as “everything you need to know to break the codes”.

Explanations are generally written in a chatty and accessible style, and seem to me suitable for children in the Key Stage 2-3 age group (8-13). They are clear, and seem to thoroughly include all the content needed for each grade.

As promised, the Puzzles themselves creatively and carefully test the reader’s understanding of each new concept. Educationally, the puzzles often comprise similar content to more traditional music theory courses, but delivered in a more stimulating and engaging way. They perhaps provide less opportunity for consolidation than some, although the online content comes to the rescue here.

The puzzles also serve to deliver the core ongoing narrative of the detective mystery itself. The stories are engaging and imaginatively written in a pithy style, dropping the reader directly into the action in the present tense.

The books themselves are superbly presented for self-published titles, each slimline paperback volume the size of a handbook, and containing around 40 full-colour pages. The layouts are eye-catching with vivid illustrations, diagrams and colourful puzzles popping on every page.

The covers need some persuasion to stay flat when open on a table, but they are well glued: the review copies were impressively robust and certainly fit for purpose as books that will likely be mildly abused by children in this age group!

Having eliminated the impossible…

The Melodic Decoder books seem to me a brilliant antidote to the dry-as-dust workbooks that exam boards (and their imitators) tend to produce.

As engagingly written as they are cunningly conceived, these stunningly presented resources succeed simultaneously on two important fronts.

Firstly, they provide a very thorough and easily understandable introduction to the elementary music theory syllabus; secondly, they are perfectly placed to draw in and absorb children in this subject in a far more enjoyable way. As such I suspect they will also make each topic more memorable, which is of course the ultimate goal.

Why has nobody previously produced such enticingly written music theory books for this age group? Well now, there’s a mystery…



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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.