ABRSM Grade 5 Theory: a Debate?

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking people whether ABRSM should remove the requirement for candidates to have passed Grade 5 Theory before progressing to Grade 6 practical and above. 63.6% voted that the prerequisite should be retained; 36.4% voted it should be removed. I should add a few caveats in that candidates can substitute other qualifications such as Grade 5 Practical Musicianship, Grade 5 Jazz and Grade 5 Theory from another exam board. This wasn’t a scientific poll or formal research study, but the results and subsequent discussion were interesting.

ABRSM Grade 5 Theory: a Debate?

Like many, I passed Grade 5 practical when I was at school. I wanted to progress to Grade 6, but hadn’t done any theory. I had picked up a certain amount of theoretical knowledge along the way, and I was hastily entered for the Grade 5 Theory exam, which I passed. Let’s be clear, I was entered for the exam because I needed it to take Grade 6, not because I wanted or needed to do a theory exam. As a teacher of nearly 22 years, I’ve been, at various times, both in favour and against retaining this prerequisite. Now I’ll admit that after all this time, I no longer feel that the Grade 5 Theory exam serves its purpose, particularly in its online format. Neither Trinity nor LCM have this prerequisite, and I know of many students who simply switch exam boards after Grade 5.

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As is inevitably the case with such discussions, they quickly become polarised; however, responses fell broadly into three categories:

  1. Grade 5 Theory should be retained as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical
  2. Grade 5 Theory should be retained as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical, but should be reviewed
  3. Grade 5 Theory should be removed as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical

I’d like to address each of these in turn.

1. Grade 5 Theory should be retained as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical

Some felt that as Grade 5 Theory required only the bare minimum of theoretical knowledge, it should be retained. There was a recognition that particularly in higher education, the study and teaching of music theory is already facing difficulties due to the reduction in requirements of exams prior to university entry. Similarly, there were those who felt the ABRSM Grade 5 Theory exam had already been ‘dumbed down’, and therefore removing the prerequisite would only compound that problem. There were those who saw no reason for the requirement to be removed, and were strong and forthright in their defence of the exam, albeit not always giving a reason. Some even felt that the requirements should be expanded to include more in-depth questions related to harmony and analysis.

First Steps in Music Theory

2. Grade 5 Theory should be retained as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical, but should be reviewed

There was a recognition that whilst it was desirable to retain the prerequisite, the content should be reviewed, and steps should be taken to make the content more relevant. For example, more genre- and/or instrument-specific examples could aid this. Some felt it should be retained if ABRSM could justify that it is ‘essential’ to a musician’s development at this level. Indeed, some said that other exam boards not requiring it wasn’t a good enough reason for ABRSM to remove it.

3. Grade 5 Theory should be removed as a prerequisite for ABRSM Grade 6 and above practical

Despite the poll results, the majority of comments focussed on the reasons for removing the Grade 5 Theory prerequisite. The fact that the exam is now only available online, and no longer requires any writing of actual music (something I’ve blogged about here), some felt it no longer had any value, even if they’d supported it in the past. There was a general feeling that its contents didn’t support musical development, and much wasn’t relevant to playing repertoire at Grade 6 level and above.

There was a recognition that requiring the exam to be passed prior to taking Grade 6, ABRSM was increasing its revenue, and this created a barrier to musicians who wanted to progress, but who could not afford the additional tuition and exam fees (a theme which we explored in our BJME article Time for change? Recurrent barriers to music education). Some felt there were no longer the resources available to support teaching the online version of the exam, and therefore, the prerequisite should be removed. Some teachers suggested that rather than support and develop theoretical knowledge, the prerequisite to have passed Grade 5 Theory simply drove students to other exam boards. Overall, there was a sense that by retaining this prerequisite, it dictated a very prescriptive pathway of musical development, particularly when the vast majority of students don’t want to and won’t be professional musicians (a theme of my PhD).

ABRSM Grade 5 Theory: a Debate? Take Five and Pass First Time

Of course, the arguments are far more nuanced than this. There was an overwhelming feeling that ultimately, theoretical skills should be taught as part of and alongside practical study, something which I don’t think any of us would disagree with. Some argued that theory is a waste of time if it’s not connected and relevant to practical study; in particular, it should be taught via aural and improvisation too. Many liked the idea of ABRSM’s Practical Musicianship syllabus as an alternative, but recognised there were very limited resources to teach it and again, there was an additional cost associated with this. Similarly, some felt that theoretical knowledge could be examined within practical exams, such as with LCM’s ‘discussion’ and Trinity’s ‘musical knowledge’ elements.

Some personal thoughts…

I felt, perhaps unfairly, that quite a few responses were more about ABRSM than about the Grade 5 Theory itself. I sensed that some felt that retaining the Grade 5 Theory prerequisite was part of a need to retain, maybe even bolster, ABRSM’s ‘gold standard’ status. This is a status which many have challenged in the past few years. Many of the comments related to teaching music theory, rather than theory exams. Theory can most certainly be taught without it needing to be examined; however, I fully understand the arguments put forward that it won’t be taught if it isn’t needed in an exam. This is an argument put forward previously about ABRSM’s reduction in piano scale requirements.

The fact that the exam had moved online was a big issue for teachers, and in some cases, it was this alone which had swayed their opinion. I sensed that many of the respondents weren’t aware of this change, and did not realise that all elements of music writing and similar had been removed. I wonder if this would have swayed their opinions?

Whatever I’ve written here, it seems there is no appetite to remove the Grade 5 Theory prerequisite at ABRSM, and I’m not aware of any move to do so. I would like to see a thorough evidence-led and -based review of the prerequisite to see whether it really has the impact on musical development ABRSM believe it has. If it exists purely to maintain what some see as ABRSM’s ‘gold standard’ status, is that a good enough reason when it comes to the development of musical skills and knowledge? Ultimately, who does the exam service? In its current format, and against the broader landscape of music education, I remain unconvinced that it exists to serve those required to take it.

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