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When did the exams change?

1 January 2018.

About the changes

Why have you made these changes?

As an awarding organisation, monitored by official regulatory authorities, we take our responsibilities very seriously. These include reviewing and refreshing all our assessments on a regular basis.

We wanted to improve the exam experience for candidates and ensure that we are assessing the essential knowledge and understanding needed at this level. So, we’ve modernised the exam papers and put more focus on the ‘building blocks’ of music theory.

The revised Music Theory exam papers are the result of consultation and research, and reflect best-practice in question design and assessment.

What's in the new exam papers?

Overall there is a greater focus on assessing the basic principles of music theory, with some modernised and updated exam questions.

  • We are introducing multiple choice questions for testing knowledge of musical terms and signs.
  • We are updating some questions. Examples include:
    • Reducing the amount of information on the page for time signature questions (Grades 1 to 3)
    • Simplifying the layout of intervals questions (Grades 4 and 5)
    • Simplifying the layout for Grade 5, Question 7 (chords at cadence points), with candidates asked to describe chords only using roman numerals.
  • We are removing questions involving rhythm-writing, melody-writing and word-setting, and the Grade 5 SATB short/open score question.
  • We’ve refreshed the design of the papers to ensure they are clear and easy to understand. We’ve done this for all grades (1 to 8).

What topics do the revised exam papers cover?

The revised exam papers are based on our existing Music Theory syllabus and continue to assess the same broad areas of music theory to the same standards. However, they do not include rhythm-writing, word-setting, melody-writing or the Grade 5 SATB short/open-score question.

The exams still cover:

  • Knowledge of western music notation, including common terms and signs
  • Understanding of fundamental musical elements, such as intervals, keys, scales and chords

In more detail, this includes:

  • Note and rest values
  • Bars, time signatures, grouping of notes and rests
  • The stave: clefs, pitches and letter names
  • Intervals
  • Scales and scale degrees
  • Keys and key signatures
  • Primary triads: chords, inversions, and basic progressions
  • Cadences
  • Transposition
  • Ornaments terms and signs

So, is the syllabus still the same?

Although we’ve made some small changes to the skills needed in certain parts of the exam, the underlying knowledge you need to cover and understand has stayed the same. Candidates do not need to learn anything new to take their exams.

Do I have to change my teaching to prepare students for the revised papers?

No. We’ve taken care to provide continuity for teachers and students. The underlying knowledge needed to take Theory exams at Grades 1 to 5 is still the same.

Why have you introduced multiple-choice questions for assessing terms and signs?

Following research into best practice in question design, we have modernised the assessment of musical terms and signs by using a clear multiple-choice format. Multiple choice questions are an accessible, effective and reliable way to test this kind of knowledge. They are widely-used in many different types of assessment, including school tests and exams, so are familiar to the majority of candidates.

Why have you removed the rhythm-writing, melody-writing and word-setting questions?

At Grades 1 to 5 our main focus has always been to ensure that students are developing fluency with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of music theory. As a result, these questions were never designed to assess creativity. Our research and analysis suggests that rather than encouraging creativity or inventiveness these questions were often completed in a way which implies a formulaic or space-filling approach.

So, following consultation, we decided to replace these questions with more effective methods of assessment, which focus more clearly on the foundations of music theory. In this way, we’re giving candidates additional opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge while increasing the objectivity and consistency of the assessments.

At Grade 6 to 8, there is a shift towards applying knowledge through creativity and invention. The exams for these grades have not changed and candidates will still be asked to write melodies and harmonies. However, at this level candidates will be developing greater musical fluency, making this kind of question more appropriate.

Whatever level students are at, we would always encourage teachers to build creativity into learning whenever possible so that it becomes a normal part of everyday musical activity.

Why have you removed the SATB short/open-score question at Grade 5?

This question wasn’t a fixed part of the Grade 5 exam, and only appeared in some papers. The marks available for this question are now allocated to other questions. This allows us to focus more on the core knowledge we are encouraging at this level. Candidates also have less copying out to do, reducing the likelihood of copying mistakes.

What has replaced the questions that no longer appear in exam papers?

At Grades 1 to 4, replacement questions are based on existing question-types with a clear focus on specific areas of theory knowledge. They cover familiar topics and teachers and candidates do not have to prepare anything new.

At Grade 5, we have transferred the 15 marks currently available for melody-writing or word-setting to an additional question on the features of a musical extract. In questions like this, candidates need to apply their knowledge in a wider musical context and use the same kind of ‘higher-order’ thinking as the melody-writing question.

Can you explain some of the other changes?

Some musical extracts are shorter and specially written. This reduces the amount of unnecessary information on the page and gives more consistency across papers.

We’ve also simplified the layout of the interval questions at Grades 4 and 5, and the ‘chords at cadence points’ question at Grade 5 (Question 7). For Grade 4, Question 7, we’ve adjusted and improved the way we allocate marks.

Finally, exam papers for all grades, including 6 to 8, uses a font that’s clearer and easier to read.

You have introduced multiple-choice questions and removed rhythm-writing, melody-writing and word-setting. Has this made it easier to pass?

No. None of the changes are about making the exams easier. The level of knowledge and understanding needed has stayed the same.

When multiple-choice questions are well-designed, the likelihood of being able to give correct answers through guesswork is very small. We are continuing to assess a full range of terms and signs, and candidates still need to learn these thoroughly to do well in this section of the exam.

At Grade 5, while we've removed the melody-writing/word-setting question, we are still asking candidates to apply their knowledge in a wider context when they answer questions about musical extracts. This calls for the same ‘higher order’ thinking as the melody-writing question. So the assessment method has changed, but standards are staying the same.

Marking

Have you changed the way you mark the exam papers at Grades 1 to 5?

No. We are still using the same panel of theory experts to mark all our Music Theory papers.

Do the changes affect the consistency of marks between 2017 and 2018?

As a regulated awarding organisation, we routinely monitor our marking statistics for papers as a whole and for individual questions. This helps us ensure consistency between exam papers and continuity of standards across different question-types.

When we decided to make these changes to our Theory exams, we used these statistics to help us design the revised questions. This has allowed us to make improvements to the exams with minimal disruption for candidates and teachers. It also means that we shouldn’t see fluctuations in marks when comparing results from 2017 and 2018.

Whenever candidates take one of our exams, we are confident that the mark they receive will be an accurate reflection of their music theory knowledge and understanding.

Moving up to Grade 6

Is the step up from Grade 5 Music Theory to Grade 6 bigger now?

No. We have been careful to ensure that despite the slight shift in focus at Grades 1 to 5, the step up to Grade 6 has not changed. We have not lowered standards at Grades 1 to 5 and are not expecting any changes to the marks awarded.

Once students have passed Grade 5, with its clear focus on the fundamentals of music theory, they should have the tools they need to start tackling the different requirements of the higher grades.

Practice Papers and other resources

Can I see what the revised papers look like?

Free practice materials to help students with their exam preparation are available on our website. This includes two sets of sample exam papers for Grades 1 to 5. These are free to view, download and print. You can also try our online quiz to practise the new multiple choice questions for terms and signs.

When can I buy Past Papers and Model Answers for the new exams?

In addition to the free material on our website, printed Practice Papers and Model Answers for the revised exams at Grades 1 to 5 are currently available to buy on our website and from music shops.

The new printed Practice Papers are based on questions from the 2017 exams, adjusted to reflect the revised questions that all candidates will answer from 2018 onwards.

We have also changed the name of these papers from Past Papers to Practice Papers as this is a clearer way to describe them.

Can I still use the Music Theory in Practice books at Grades 1 to 5?

Yes. These books still cover all the knowledge and skills you need for our Music Theory exams at these grades. The sections on rhythm-writing, word-setting and melody-writing will not be directly relevant to the exams, but these books continue to provide plenty of valuable teaching and learning material for the exams.

Can I still use Past Papers from previous years?

Yes. You will still be able to buy Past Papers and Model Answers from previous years (2016 and earlier). They continue to provide valuable teaching material, and can be used in addition to the new Practice Papers.

Is anything else changing?

Are you making any changes to Music Theory exams at Grades 6–8?

No. We are not planning any changes to Music Theory at Grades 6–8 at the moment.

Will you be reviewing any other aspects of the Music Theory exam?

We regularly review, refresh and, if necessary, update all our exams and assessments. This helps to ensure that our syllabuses are relevant, that they meet the changing needs of teachers and students, and that we are following best-practice in delivery.

We have designed these small changes to our Music Theory exams to provide immediate improvements to the focus, accessibility and validity of the exams, while maintaining standards and causing minimal disruption to teachers and candidates. We are continuing to work on long-term improvements to Music Theory. Any future changes will be based on research, consultation and feedback, and we will keep teachers and students fully up-to-date with any developments.

The value of Music Theory

Why is music theory important?

As students progress with their playing and singing, music theory knowledge becomes increasingly important. It helps students to perform with sensitivity, insight and confidence.

We have a longstanding benchmark that candidates must pass Grade 5 (or above) in Music Theory, Jazz or Practical Musicianship before they can enter for a practical exam at Grade 6, 7 or 8. This is because we believe that a thorough understanding of the elements of music is essential if musicians are to perform effectively at these higher grades.

How can ABRSM’s Music Theory exams help?

Our Music Theory exams encourage students to develop their understanding of the building blocks of music. This starts with the basics of rhythm and notes, and goes on to cover harmony and counterpoint, composition, and a broad knowledge of western music, including composers and their works, structure, style and period.

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