ABRSM Theory Exams: the End of an Era?

Over the past few years, a number of changes have been made to ABRSM Theory Exams. A syllabus change was quickly followed by the moving of the lower grades online. Change is inevitable. ABRSM Theory Exams have remained the same for many, many years. In my 21 years of teaching, I’ve mainly been using the same materials I used when I took the exam nearly 25 years ago. Until recently, both syllabus and practice materials have remained broadly the same. But with the recent changes, where are we left as teachers, and more importantly, where does it leave our students who wish to work towards and sit ABRSM Theory Exams?

Have we reached the end of an era when it comes to ABRSM Theory Exams?

For me, ABRSM Grade 5 Theory came as a bit of a shock. Like many students, it wasn’t until I was ready to sit my Grade 6 Flute exam that I was told I needed to sit the Grade 5 Theory. Up until that point, I had received no formal theory instruction, and had no knowledge of ABRSM Theory Exams. I was hastily entered and pumped with enough knowledge to scrape a pass. It wasn’t that I hadn’t gained sufficient theoretical knowledge to play the pieces I was learning, I just hadn’t received it as formal instruction.

ABRSM Theory Exams 2006

Despite the changes with ABRSM Theory Exams, they have retained the need for candidates to have passed Grade 5 Theory before sitting Grade 6 practical exams and higher, even with the new ABRSM Performance Grades. This formal requirement has either been dropped or has never been a feature of other exam boards’ syllabuses. Whether this prerequisite should be retained is a debate for another post.

First came the syllabus change and accompanying new books, ABRSM Discovering Music Theory. This largely converted ABRSM Theory Exams at Grades 1-5 to a multiple choice ‘quiz’. This, of course, has its pluses and minuses, but the most notable change over the past few years has been removing the need for candidates to write actual music. At its basic level, ABRSM Theory Exam candidates no longer have to take pencil to paper and craft actual musical notation. Whilst some have welcomed this change, others have referred to these changes as ‘dumbing down’.

AB Guide to Music Theory

ABRSM Theory Exams have not been without criticism in the past. Many teachers have long said that much of the theory studied is irrelevant to the instrument being learnt. For example, does a flautist need to know how to read alto clef, and does a pianist need to be able to compose a short melody to a given text? Some of the recent syllabus changes have responded to those concerns, though much of the material required, even at Grade 5, remains.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, ABRSM took steps to make Grades 1-5 Theory available as online exams. This format did, of course, favour the multiple choice quiz-type vibe of the revised syllabus. It wasn’t long before teachers, parents and candidates discovered what they’d be up against when it came to the technology. Software from an American-based company had to be downloaded and webcams used to scan the room to ensure no regulation infringements were being made. This was a whole new ball game to turning up, often to a school classroom, sitting down, and being given a paper to complete. Of course, the price has remained the same.

We perhaps naively assumed that when pandemic restrictions were lifted, the old-format paper-based ABRSM Theory Exams would restart. But, like so many things, organisations have sought to use the pandemic as a mechanism for retaining online platforms. To my knowledge, there are currently no plans to reintroduce paper-based ABRSM Theory Exams at Grades 1-5.

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Of course, there are benefits to an online platform. After various changes to the setup, candidates can now access ABRSM Theory Exams at Grades 1-5, online, at any time to suit them. There are no more booking periods and no more set exam dates. Admittedly, teachers, parents and candidates are understandably miffed that with an exam which is now available anytime and which is marked by the computer, presumably in real-time, results take the same length of time, usually four weeks.

Whilst there are wider debates to be had about the place of music theory teaching, music theory exams and indeed, the physical writing of musical notation, the change to an online platform has raised other concerns in regards to accessibility. Not everyone has access to the required computer setup. The ABRSM Theory Exams cannot be completed using, for example, an iPad or other tablet device. Not everyone has a desktop or laptop computer anymore. Are teachers expected to provide this? I think not. Yes, there are occasions, particularly when candidates have lessons in school, when a school can provide access to this, but not always, and nor should it be expected. Candidates also need access to a sufficiently strong internet connection; this again tends to favour those in urban areas and cities.

In a recent article which appeared in the British Journal of Music Education, Prof Jennie Henley and myself wrote about barriers to music education. Whilst moving the ABRSM Theory Exams online removes one barrier, notably candidates’ ability to access physical venues close to them, it creates others.

My ABRSM Grade 5 Theory mark sheet

What happens to the candidates who do not have access to the necessary computer equipment to complete the exam online? There is no longer a paper-based alternative, so this in itself has created a barrier. Inevitably, this is likely to disproportionately affect students for whom access to music education is already a challenge. Once again, those with the greatest financial resources are going to be able to access the Theory Exams with far greater ease.

But there’s another issue too. What if a candidate doesn’t come from a home situation in which completing an exam without distraction, on a dedicated computer isn’t possible? Where does it leave them? The whole concept of having online ABRSM Theory Exams requires a good deal of technical know-how, whatever the age of the candidate, parent or teacher. Adults are affected too. The list or requirements, is extensive; here are a few:

  • A quiet and well-lit room free from distraction.
  • A room free of books with any piano being covered.
  • A clear desk.
  • A laptop or desktop computer (there are 11 sub-requirements to this).

Perhaps the greatest issue is that with ABRSM retaining the Grade 5 Theory prerequisite, those who cannot access, for whatever reason, the online Theory Exam are prevented from progressing to the higher Grades 6 and above. That for me, is a far greater concern. Those students for whom access is already an issue are up against another barrier.

Despite this, I’ll add some caveats:

  • Trinity and LCM have retained paper-based theory exams, and in theory, a Grade 5 pass with either of those will be accepted by ABRSM in lieu of their own Grade 5 Theory.
  • Trinity and LCM both require candidates to take pen to paper and craft actual musical notation.
  • ABRSM do offer an alternative to Grade 5 Theory, Grade 5 Practical Musicianship which is not an online exam.
  • There are some benefits to the ABRSM Theory Exams being made available online, as outlined above, so it’s not all bad news.

Even taking those caveats into account, many teachers remain, in my view, justifiably concerned about both the general erosion of emphasis placed on music theory, and the barriers created by moving the ABRSM Theory Exams online.

ABRSM Theory Exams

Perhaps in an ideal world, music theory would be taught alongside practical in a way which was relevant to each individual student and their instrument. It’s not just about classical theory and classical notation. Music theory can, and should encompass a lot more than that. LCM’s Popular Music Theory exams are severely under-utilised. Many have suggested that one reason ABRSM have retained their Grade 5 Theory prerequisite is that without it, a proportion of teachers won’t teach theory at all. I can see this, and yes, it can be a temptation.

We need the best of both worlds, but ultimately, if we are to continue offering theory exams, these should be, without doubt, accessible to all. That is no longer the case when it comes to ABRSM, and with the retention of the Grade 5 prerequisite, the problem is compounded. Like so many things post-pandemic, it feels like the end of an era, and that’s not always a good thing. Perhaps there are things we’re keen to leave behind, but one thing’s for sure, we shouldn’t be leaving people behind. The new era if we are forced to enter it must remain accessible.

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