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Why I like the ABRSM Grade 6 Theory exam

Updated: Mar 1




I never took a music theory exam until I went to university. When I moved to the UK, one of the first things I noticed was the exam culture that infused musical study at every level. I remember meeting someone for the first time, and the first thing out of her mouth after learning that I played the piano was "So did you get your grade 8?". I didn't know how to answer. I'd never heard of "grade 8", and in my head, I was thinking - yes, I went through the eighth grade (junior high school in the US).


I've now taught piano and music theory in the UK for 18 years, and this exam culture is familiar to me. I'm not always a fan, especially with some aspects of the practical exams (like sight reading) and how exam culture can easily dictate what happens in piano lessons. Two years ago, I started offering online courses on grade 6 theory, and I have to admit that I really like the ABRSM Grade 6 Music Theory exam!


Grade 6 Overview - Style Study


The grade 6 exam is structured as part style study, part score analysis. Usually when you think of music theory, you think of the rudiments (scales, chords, fifth relations, etc.) as well as the follow-on skills, including the ability to analyse a piece of music and understand how it is put together. All of that is fairly straightforward. It's like learning a language - vocabulary, grammar, and then you start putting those things together to interpret a passage. But of course, the ultimate test of learning a language is - how well do you speak it? This is where I think the grade 6 exam is superb!


The first three questions are composition based, and the skill sets you acquire to answer one question helps you to build the skill sets for the next question.


Question 1 - Harmonising a Melody - A toe-dip in the pond


In some ways, this question is the most obvious. You're given a melody to harmonise. You're even given the harmonic rhythm by way of asterisks under the melody to indicate where there is a chord change. Each asterisk requires either a new chord or a new inversion of the chord before it. This is pretty brilliant, because if you're choosing inversions, you are actually writing a bass line. I think this is the right emphasis.


Outer parts are most important. I learned this most vividly in piano lessons actually. My university teaher would often have me learn just the outer parts of a piece to start with, and in doing so, the structure and resonance of the piece was literally in my fingers and in my ears. I could hear it, easily and without complication, and therefore I could project it.


This is quite fun to do, actually, and I recommend it to all pianists. A composer like Schumann comes to mind. Pick up one of the pieces from Scenes from Childhood (I recommend Träumerei or Of Strange Lands and People), and just read through the outer parts. You come to realise how delicious all those squiggly inner parts are, but you also have absolute clarity about what is going on structurally in the piece. Go an extra step and try singing along with the bass. Then put all the parts in, and notice how your experience of the piece has changed. And you can bet that your projection of that piece will also have changed, and for the better!


In my opinion, question 1 is a brilliant bit of exam-writing, because students must confront the relationship of bass to melody.


In order to write a successful chord progression, students must also understand, inside and out, diatonic functional harmony. It would be easy enough to choose chords that go with a certain melody if you were sitting at your instrument and could hunt around to find them, but doing this away from your instrument (i.e. in an exam setting) requires a bit of inner hearing and a lot of know-how in terms of how harmony works and how it developed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.


So this first question is the perfect subtle bit of style study to start the exam, but it's a mere toe-dip in the pond. There is then...


Question 2 - Four Part Writing - The deep dive


I teach this exam in order (questions 1-3), because once you've really tackled and understood how diatonic harmony works, you're ready to deep dive into its inner workings. Four part writing requires you to understand voice-leading principles that make the diatonic clock tick, and in doing so, you learn about the nature of dissonance in music, how it resolves, and all within a very tight stylistic framework.


There is much to be gained from this, even if you are a composer of a contemporary style. I can remember being a graduate student in composition and thinking that style study was a bit off-piste! I went to a school that had a pretty conservative approch in which style study was a prominent part of the curriculum. In my first semester at Penn, we had to write a Classical style sonata. Other courses followed, where I was asked to write imitations of Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Chopin - whoever we were studying at the time. We also had contemporary studies, so it wasn't all so old-fashioned. But I remember being annoyed, along with my compadres, at the style study. Little did I know at the time the value of it to my own development as a composer. It put me through a discipline of writing and a systematic approach to harmony. It taught me that certain technical decisions lead to certain stylistic outcomes. This is the nitty-gritty of composing, and I wrote about Nadia Boulanger's own conservative approach and the fantastic number of very different composers who benefitted from this type of training HERE.


Over the course of weeks, I have seen students gradually learn to do four part writing, and not just by following a long list of rules and guidelines. This is the impression everyone has of this study - that you have to follow a long list of guidelines. The best way I have found to teach this, though, is to give guidelines a bit at a time and let a complete picture emerge. Keep referring back to the reasons these rules exist. Yes there are a lot of rules for good part writing in this style, but they all stem from just a few concepts.


So in my view, question 2 goes into the microscopic detail of the inner workings of diatonic harmony - how and why it works the way it does (which we learn in question 1).


Question 3 - Melody Writing - The ultimate test of freedom


From there, students are given their wings. A bit of freedom. In question 3, students are given a fragment of a melody and are asked to complete an 8-10 bar phrase (really two phrases) that modulates to a closely-related key. This could be the key of the dominant, the subdominant or the relative major or minor.


So we go from tightly controlled responses in harmonisation and part writing to some freedom of continuing a melodic line. Students have already been put through their paces and have absorbed much of the classical style, and they can now wield their new language with a bit of freedom. Although, of course, this melody must conform to a stylistic framework.


Conclusion


The first 3 questions of the grade 6 exam form a good little piece of style study. If you can confidently pass these 3 questions, you can confidently "speak" classical music! Questions 4 and 5 are score-reading and analysis questions.


The ABRSM Grade 6 Theory exam is a pre-requisite for the ABRSM diploma in teaching, and I think this is very good! Anyone who takes the exam and passes will have a deep understanding of the core of classical style, and they will be able to teach important aspects of any piece from the classical canon that comes their way.


It has been my delight and pleasure to prepare musicians to take the grade 6 theory exam, and I am (right now!) holding a free workshop to get you started on grade 6. So if that's you, make sure to sign up HERE and join us this week! It's going to be great fun, and you will walk away with a deeper understanding of how the music you love really works.

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