Review: ABRSM Discovering Music Theory

I should preface this post by saying this is not a review of the online theory exam or the changes to the ABRSM Theory Syllabus that were necessary in order to facilitate that. Rather, this is a review of the new ABRSM Discovering Music Theory books which have been published to support this.

ABRSM Discovering Music Theory, Grades 1-5

ABRSM state that:

‘Developed with experts in the field, Discovering Music Theory includes five graded workbooks and corresponding answer books. These full-colour books are full of engaging and accessible exercises, tips, challenges and quizzes designed to build knowledge and understanding, step by step.’

If, like me, you were brought up on the old Music Theory in Practice series, then these new books may come as a bit of a shock. For starters, they are printed in colour!

ABRSM Discovering Music Theory workbooks for Grades 1-5

Anyone familiar with the Trinity Theory Workbooks will see many similarities. In fact, they are strikingly similar in their layout and design. They also use a font palette which perhaps only further highlights such similarities.

Overall, the new books from ABRSM are attractive and colourful. Helpfully, they give the revised syllabus in the front of each book and there is a sample exam paper at the end. It is worth noting that the exams will take place online, so the actual format may be different to this. To my knowledge, ABRSM haven’t yet made available any online sample materials.

On first glance, I thought there had been some welcome re-ordering of the material, but I note on closer inspection that accidentals are still introduced in advance of tones and semitones, something which has always puzzled me. I feel slightly disappointed at this because despite the jazziness of the design, there seems to me to be very little change to the material inside.

Clearer explanations preface the exercises in the new workbooks

One very welcome addition, however, is that exercises are now prefaced by much clearer explanations of the concepts as they are introduced. For example, the concept of pulse is introduced before rhythm and note values (although the section is titled ‘Rhythm’). Some pages contain a box labelled ‘Music in sound’ which links the theory to practical musical skills.

I went through all the books pondering why the Circle of 5ths had been omitted. I wondered if perhaps this is a new ‘Line of 5ths’ we should learn?

A line of 5ths?

I did eventually find the Circle of 5ths introduced at the end of the final section relating to keys and key signatures at Grade 5. I think that the concept of the Circle of 5ths could have been introduced much earlier and would have made a considerably stronger connection through the books. Another opportunity missed.

I don’t want to labour the comparison with the Trinity books, but I note that just as with these, ABRSM now have boxes labelled ‘Did you know? and ‘Smart tip’ (Trinity refer to the latter as ‘Handy tip!’)


My overall impression is that whilst these books are visually more appealing, the content inside isn’t very different to Music Theory in Practice. The addition of clearer explanations is very welcome; however, this is at the expense of plenty of practical exercises.

As noted, they are strikingly similar to the Trinity books, and ABRSM must surely be aware that many teachers and students are decamping in that direction.

Comparison of Trinity and ABRSM Theory workbooks
Left: ABRSM; Right: Trinity

Whilst they are an improvement on the previous series, and believe me, the covers certainly invoke images of ‘jazz hands’, they are not groundbreaking. They do a job, and for that job, they adequately serve their purpose.

For me, the books only go to further highlight the disconnect between music theory and practical music-making. They are still, just as with the syllabus itself, rooted in music of the Western Classical Tradition. ABRSM have already made a commitment to diversifying their practical syllabuses, and I wholeheartedly believe that Theory should be part of that.

Discovering Music Theory by Simon Rushby, is published by ABRSM in five volumes for each of Grades 1-5. More details here.

I was sent a review copy of these books free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher and musician. You can find my Reviews Policy here.

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