Theory Exam Top Tips

With the ABRSM (and other boards’) theory exams only weeks away, I thought now would be a good time to offer up some of my top tips for revising for the exam, and then for what to do in the exam room.

What to do BEFORE the exam

Too many books!Revision is a word which strikes fear into the heart of anyone who has ever sat a written exam, but thankfully music theory exams are not revision heavy. If you’ve worked carefully through whichever materials your teacher has given you to use, you should know all the information and have a good idea how to attempt the questions which will be on the paper by this stage (three weeks before the exam). In the last few weeks, here are my top suggestions:

  • Practice taking the exam – Complete at least one exam paper under the same conditions you would have in the exam. Find some space away from distractions and go for it. Going through the paper like this will show up anywhere you have serious problems, and help you get an idea of which questions you’re confident on, and which you’re not.
  • Work on learning the vocabulary – While the list of terms for ABRSM is so extensive that no one remembers all of them, even a small amount of time spent working on the terms tested means a) you have a better chance you’ll know the answer to that question, b) you’ll have more choices for the “compose a melody” question and c) you’ll know more terms when you come across them in music. Click here to access my Quizlet page for ABRSM exam vocabulary (I hope to get a Trinity one up soon).
  • Get familiar with symbols – Make sure you know what all the symbols which might be used up to Grade 5 mean. You need to be ok with naming ornaments, phrasing and articulation marks and a selection of other things. Mymusictheory.com has some great flash quizzes to help with revision.
  • Practice drawing a piano – it’s really useful to be able to map out a piano keyboard on the top of your working paper in the exam. Click here for a visual guide.
  • Make sure you are sure about cadences and chords – not only will this make the chord identification question guaranteed marks, but it will help you with the underpinning of your “compose a melody”. Practice working out what the triads are for I, IV and V in any key. Practice creating melodies over these chords. I hope to put up some information about this in the future, but you can get some great advice over at mymusictheory.com in the meantime.
  • Know your orchestra – just like with the chords and cadances, knowing the vital statistics (range, phrase markings, clef, family) for standard orchestral instruments means both marks on the question direcly testing this, and more marks on the “compose a melody” question. Again, mymusictheory.com has some great information. In future, you can also check out my resources pages for more revision tools.
  • Decide if you’re doing the “compose a melody” for instrument or voice – it might seem like a good idea to wait and see what’s there, but, in reality, it’s much better to pick one and put all the effort into that question rather than dividing your energy over the two.

Revision is best done little by little, so carve out ten minutes a day in the weeks leading up to the exam to revise. If you can rope in a friend or family member, they can test you on vocabulary, ornaments and the instruments of the orchestra. Don’t forget on the day to make sure you have a couple of pencils, a sharpener, a ruler and a good quality rubber/eraser with you. Leave anything with musical images at home.

What to do IN the exam

2B or Not 2B PencilsI always advise my candidates to tackle the exam in this order:

  1. Read the whole paper cover to cover. Make a note of anything that looks tricker than expected, or super easy.
  2. Turn next to the compose a melody question. It’s the part most candidates are most worried about, so tackling it first gets it out of the way while you’re fresh. Decide which one you’re doing in advance, to take off some of the pressure on the day. Do the question using the method you’ve practiced at home.
  3. Go back to the rest of the paper. You can tackle the questions in any order, though I usually then go for the score reading question as a break from the technical work and then do the rest in the order it’s printed.
  4. Attempt every question. A blank space cannot be awarded any marks, but if you make an educated guess there’s a chance you’ll have the right one.
  5. Once you’ve written an answer for everything on the paper, go back to the compose a melody. Hum it through in your head, try to imagine how it sounds. If there’s anything that sounds awkward, you can change it. Only do this if you are really sure, though. Make sure you’ve put in appropriate tempo markings, volume markings, phrasing, articulation and ornaments. Check you’ve written everything neatly and there’s no ambiguity as to what note you’re writing.
  6. Go back to the front cover of your paper. Read through every answer you’ve given and check you’re happy with it. Take a final look at your compose a melody as part of this.
  7. If you feel content you’ve given the best answers you can under the circumstances, it’s time to hand in your paper and head out of the room.

This shouldn’t take you more than the time allowed (it’s very generous), but if you are finding you’re taking almost all the time, make sure that when you see there’s 20 minutes left, you stop writing and move on to the checking stages. Give yourself around 10 minutes for stage 5 and 10 for stage 6.

What to do AFTER the exam

  • Piano hands

    Image from Robert Couse-Baker on flickr

    Do something nice for yourself. Get coffee, or cake, or just chill out at home.

  • Try not to worry about what you wrote – it’s ok to look up the answers to questions when you get home if that will help you to let go, but don’t do it if you’ll just be more worried.
  • Remember why you’re doing this – it’s because you love music, and want to play your instrument well. Treat yourself to some fun practice time, playing the music you love.

Good luck, everyone. I know you can do it! If you have any more tips, why not comment below, and I’ll add the best ones into the post.

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