Tag Archives: abrsm

ABRSM Grade 6+ Theory Resources

the_hand_writes_musical_notes_a_featherMany a theory student has reached the dizzy heights of passing ABRSM Grade 5 theory and thought ‘I’m enjoying this, why not do more?’, only to fall at the first hurdle by buying the wrong materials to learn with.

If you, or someone you know, would like to take ABRSM Grade 6 theory, here are my tips and book recommendations:


  • The exam format changes dramatically from grade 5 to grade 6, and many say it’s the largest leap. Have a browse through a past paper at a music shop to familiarise yourself with where you’re going.
  • Allow plenty of time to study for it – I would recommend at least a year.
  • Start with more general workbooks on harmony before trying to tackle the exams. This is not an exam which is simply regurgitating facts any more!
  • Listen to plenty of music, and get to know more about styles and composers as this will help with the score-reading questions.
  • Make time for learning musical terms and instrumental names throughout your studies.
  • If in doubt, find a teacher. You are best to look for someone who specialises in theory at advanced level, so use a resource like ISM’s musican directory to ensure you’re going to someone who knows their stuff.


  • Harmony is Fun (Maureen Cox & Claire Liddel) is your best starting point. Although these books don’t look like much, they review all the core harmony content from Grade 1-5, and then introduce more advanced building blocks with fun illustrations which will help you remember Mother chord, and Father chord for many years to come. Link is to the Boosey & Hawkes shop listing for the first book.
  • Harmony in Practice (Anna Butterworth) is a mighty tome, and can appear both dense and dull on first reading. It is kinda both. However, you will never forget how to write out all the chords you might ever need since there are extensive practice exercises. Answer book is sold separately. Link is to Amazon listing.
  • Practice in Music Theory (Josephine Koh) provides the best ‘graded’ introduction to the skills required to pass the exam itself. These books work through the new harmonic vocabulary and key concepts before seamlessly moving onto tasks which echo the exam questions. There is one book for each grade, and the link here is to Grade 6 on Musicroom.
  • My Music Theory.com isn’t a book, although you can buy their lessons as a pdf, which sort of counts. They do, however, provide a careful introduction through the theoretical concepts leading towards the exam questions int he same way as Practice in Music Theory. Well worth using, though there’s nothing for 7 and 8 yet. Link is direct to the grade 6 page.
  • Theory Workbook (ABRSM) gives a more exam-direct approach with each question as encountered on the exam itself being broken down into manageable steps. The authors work the questions slowly and methodically from start to finish, with working shown at each stage and then a selection of examples to practice. Again, there is one book for each level and the link is to Musicroom.

Reference Books

  • AB Guide to Music Theory (Part I & Part II) (Eric Taylor) are recommended reading for all theory exams. The information contained in Part I covers up to grade 5, and is recommended as a reference book from the start. Part II goes on to cover useful information like the names of instruments in multiple languages, which is required at grade 6 and above.

Hopefully, I will add to this list over time, but if you have any suggestions of things you’ve used and found helpful, please let me know!

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.

Preparing for an ABRSM Singing Exam – A New Blog Post Series

ABRSM Mark SheetsABRSM classical singing exams are the most rigorous exams I prepare candidates for. Not only are students required to sing a song in a range of styles from a variety of periods, but they are also required to sing unaccompanied and pass supporting tests. Although the other boards do offer classical singing exams, ABRSM continues to have a better reputation, and the other syllabi do not offer anything that I think is substantially better than ABRSM. I have also taken the ABRSM exams myself, which makes it much easier to support my students through the process.

ABRSM Prep Test BookABRSM does not specify any minimum entry requirements for Grades 1-5, although I would be reluctant to put any child under late primary school in for formal singing exams. For young singers, ABRSM offers an unmarked Prep test, and a marked alternative is Trinity’s Initial grade.

To enter for Grades 6 to 8, candidates must have a Grade 5 theory qualification. Although this might seem arduous, it is vital that singers come to grips with the theory of music covered in this syllabus as it can be all too easy to miss out otherwise. As I have worked on my theoretical studies, I have found that it has made it easier to understand the music I am studying, which in turn has sped up the learning process. Rather than try to crash through theory after Grade 5, I include theory right from the very beginning so students can pass with confidence with the time comes.

Preparing for practical exams should be both a long, slow process and a fast, focused one. Singers have the privilege of the longest exam repertoire lists of any instrument, which means there is a huge range of songs to choose from. In fact, it’s quite hard to find repertoire for students that doesn’t appear on an exam list for ABRSM or one of the other boards! In this way, exam preparation is a long, slow process of singing different songs and exploring lots of repertoire before making the final decision on the exam content. Sight-reading and aural activities also form part of this long preparation period.

The fast, focused part of the process is the time spent during the exam session. I always try to have decided on the repertoire we (the Candidate and I) are presenting, by the closing date for submitting applications for the exams. Then we use the next six weeks to focus on these pieces and practicing sight-reading and aural tests in the exact form a candidate will meet them in the exam.   I don’t like to spend months and months, or even a year on exam pieces. It’s too easy to get bored, and it results in students becoming performing monkeys who can pass exams, but do nothing else. Being more focused for a shorter period of time is also much more like the real-life process of preparing for concerts, shows, or auditions which might only come with a few weeks’ notice!


ABRSM Exam Certificates

Of course, the most important question is: is it worth it? My answer is a resounding “yes!”. Exams make wonderful targets to work towards, and it’s really useful to get feedback from an independent person about how you’re doing.  It’s really nice to have a certificate which declares to all the world what you can achieve too.

The rest of this series will take you through the process of preparing the exam from choosing your repertoire, to those last minute tips to help you on the day of the exam. If you haven’t already got one, having a copy of the syllabus to hand will be useful as we explore preparing for these exams. The syllabus can be downloaded from the ABRSM website here.

Check back next week for part two of this series.

–>  Next post “Choosing Repertoire 1: Know Your Voice”