Top 10 Tips for Acing Your Music Theory Exam
Whatever music theory exam grade you’re taking, use these top ten tips to maximise your marks on the big day!
10. Look After Yourself
You won’t perform at your best if you are tired or hungry, so don’t stay up late the night before your exam cramming obscure Italian terms – get to bed early and make sure you eat a hearty breakfast on the morning of your exam.
It’s also vital not to get dehydrated, as feeling thirsty can really affect your concentration and powers of recall – your body will be focused on quenching your thirst, rather than writing out a scale or chord.
Most exam venues will let you take a water bottle into the exam room (do use a refillable one though of course!) If you’re taking your exam at home, get yourself a drink of water before you start (you won’t be allowed to leave the room to get one once you’ve started).
9. Arm Yourself Properly (Paper-based Exams)
Unlike most other exams you might have taken, in a music theory exam you are expected to write your answers in pencil, not pen. It’s essential that you use a pencil for writing music, because with one small slip you can make your notation unreadable. You can also use a pencil for written word answers on the exam paper, and it’s a good idea to do so because it’s so much easier to correct any accidental mistakes!
Be prepared – find a model of pencil well before exam day which you find comfortable, dark enough and easy enough to rub out. Then buy a packet of ten and take them all with you into the exam room, pre-sharpened. You don’t want to have to waste time sharpening a pencil if your lead breaks, or it rolls under the floor and under the seat of the boy in front! Take a couple of erasers too, and make sure the eraser/pencil combo is not one of those that smears black splodges across the page.
My favourite pencil for music theory exams is the Staedtler Noris HB:
8. Use Mnenomics
Mnenomics (nɪˈmɒnɪks) are methods to help you remember things. There are lots of different tactics, and it’s a good idea to use several different types.
A good method for learning foreign terms is to associate an image in your mind with a particular word – for example “cantabile“(in a singing style) might conjure up the image of a singer warbling out the word can-taaaaaaa-bile!
If you have any knowledge of French, Italian or German, this can also help you to find the likely meanings of many musical terms.
One of the most common types of mnenomic is the “word mnenomic”, for example “Every Good Bat Deserves Fangs” (modern version of the older, less-PC “Every Good Boy Deserves Football”) which helps you to remember the notes on the lines of the treble clef stave. Some other musical mnenomics are:
- Rejoice Heartily Your Teacher Has Mumps (spelling of the word RHYTHM) (change to Maltesers if your teacher is nice).
- 4 is higher than 2 (position of the semibreve/whole rest on the stave in relation to the minim/half rest)
- The C that you SEE is the note it must be (working out transpositions, e.g. if you “see” the note C written for a clarinet in A, then then concert pitch note is A).
- Figured bass 7ths chords in order: 7, 6/5, 4/3, 4/2 (the numbers count down from 7-6-5-4-3 for the first three figures).
- C-K-T (alphabetical order) is the order on the stave of the Clef, Key signature and Time signature
7. Do Lots of Past Papers
It’s great to do practice exercises from books, PDFs or things your teacher gives you, but nothing beats doing actual past papers for a proper preparation for your music theory exam.
The ABRSM and Trinity both publish booklets of past exam papers which were used in the real exam sessions the year before. The ABRSM booklets contain four exams and the Trinity booklets contain two. Both are available from your local music seller, Amazon, and direct from the publisher. Model answers booklets are available separately.
Going through past papers is essential, especially at the later grades, to give you a good idea of what to expect on the day. For best results, do them under “exam conditions”, which means in a quiet room with no distractions, a clock, and no cheating!
When you’ve done a past exam paper and had it marked, don’t just file it away in the bin – make a note of where you went wrong. If you made any silly slips, write them down, so that you can avoid doing the same thing again next time (e.g. not noticing the bass clef…).
If you found a question where you really struggled, look it up on here and spend some time trying to understand the topic, before you attempt another past paper. If you’re still stuck, get in touch!
Keep a list of your own top 10 personal mistakes, and try to eliminate more of them with each practice paper you do.
6. Highlight Keywords and Symbols
As we saw above, “not noticing the bass clef” is a silly slip but it’s one of the most frequent mistakes that music theory exam candidates make. Students for earlier grades often seem to catch “bass-clef-itis” – a condition where all music appears to be in the treble clef.
Get into the habit of checking the clef, key signature, time signature and accidentals each time you look at printed music on the page. Rather than relying on your eyes alone, grab your pencil and draw a circle around those elements each time, if you are prone to forgetting they are there.
When you are given instructions in a question, for example to write a scale or chord, draw a circle around the keywords in the question that are easy to overlook: things like ascending/descending, without a key signature or from bar 10 onwards.
5. Double Check, then Check Again
Everyone makes mistakes (especially me!) Even if you are super-confident that you know your alto from your bratsche, there’s still a good chance that the exam gremlins will creep into your exam room and make you do something ridiculous. You will never know, unless you check!
For written exams, make sure you allow enough time at the end for checking. In most exam venues you can leave the room as soon as you’ve finished, but you should never walk out until you are 100% certain you’ve handed in the very best answers you can manage.
The first thing to check is that you have actually answered all the questions. Don’t leave anything blank (and if in doubt, write your best guess).
Next re-read each question again, especially focusing on those vital keywords we mentioned above.
Finally, go back and look specifically your own personal top 10 mistakes (see point 7!) and look at those things really critically.
4. Study Little but Often
The absolute best way to learn anything is to do it frequently and to enjoy it. If you leave all your studying to the last minute and find yourself faced with a mountain of work to get through and very little time to do it in, you’re likely to end up feeling tired, resentful and demotivated. If you can commit yourself to 20-30 minutes a day for a few weeks you will see much better progress than if you try to cram in hours of study in the few days before your test.
What time of day are you most alert? Lots of people find that studying first thing in the morning is a lot more efficient than spending the same amount of time in the late afternoon or evening. It might be that dragging yourself out of bed half an hour earlier gets you better results than staying up late to do the same. Try it and see!
Each time you sit down to study, spend the first couple of minutes trying to recall what you did the day before – this will help to strengthen the memories in your brain and increase the chances of you recalling something in the future. End each study session by trying to summarise what you just learned. You can either write it down or just say it out loud – either way it will help the memory process.
If you’d like to read up on how the brain stores memories for skills we are trying to learn, I heartily recommend “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.
3. Teach Someone Else
Each time you learn a new concept, find a willing partner and try to explain it to them. Any gaps in your understanding will rapidly be uncovered as you try to put what you “think” you know into your own words.
The process of trying to “summarise, explain and demonstrate” also uses a different part of your brain from the “remembering and practising” activities you do, and by activating your brain in different ways around the same topic area you will reinforce what you do know.
Get your partner to ask tricky questions, draw them diagrams to help get your point across, or give them your notebook and ask them to test you.
Added bonus: you might recruit another convert over to the challenge of music theory exams!
2. Practise What You Don’t Know, Not What You Do
Human nature to stick to the activities that give us pleasure and confidence, but there is little point in going over endless major scales questions if you know your major scales backwards (and forwards). It’s lovely to get that wonderful warm feeling of success and you may feel tempted to always begin by doing a few of the “easy ones” first, when you sit down to study. But the hard truth is that you are wasting your time!
You need to discover your weak areas (perhaps intervals fry your mind, or writing out ornaments is like sitting a PhD in maths to you) and then focus on them.
Try to pinpoint what it is you find difficult. Is there a particular type of interval that confuses you every time, or is it the trills on dotted notes that are impossible to decipher? Break down the problem into smaller steps, and solve them one-by-one. Keep practising until you can’t get it wrong.
Don’t avoid the easy questions completely of course – you’ll still need to practise doing complete past papers against the clock, to make sure you’re not forgetting the easy stuff. The point is that you need to use your time wisely.
1. Find Real World Examples
The best activity you can do to help you learn, remember and, most importantly, enjoy music theory is to apply what you’re learning to the real world.
Many students learn music theory in isolation, out of a dry text book and without listening to anything – but music theory is a way to explain what we can hear, so studying without listening will only get you so far.
Have you ever met a person that doesn’t enjoy any music? Nor me! Have you ever met a person who claims to hate music theory? You should see my inbox! But this is a strange situation, because music theory just gives us the tools to talk about music with other people, as well as helping us to interpretate the music we’re trying to play or to finder a deeper meaning in the music we love to listen to.
If you play an instrument or sing, when you are learning about a topic in music theory, take a closer look at what you’re playing, and see if you can work out how that topic fits in with your piece.
Let’s say you are studying the difference between harmonic and melodic minor scales. Find a piece in a minor key and play/sing through the melody line looking for segments which are plucked out of those scales. Which version of the scale was used? What happens if you substitute the notes from the other scale – how does the sound change? Try taking a major key piece and change around the accidentals to make it minor – play around with both versions of the minor scale to see how it sounds.
If you play the piano, you can of course take a good hard look at the harmony (chords) used as well.
You can also widen your theory skills, as well as your knowledge of music in terms of repertoire, by listening to as much music as you can. Tune your radio to Classic FM, for example, and start listening actively instead of passively. Depending on your skill level, you could ask yourself questions like:
- What instruments are playing – what size of group does it sound like?
- Is it fast or slow? What tempo marking or time signature might you see?
- What’s happening with the dynamics?
- Is it in a major or minor key? Does it change key?
- Can you name a likely era/composer?
- Can you recognise any chords or cadences?
- What sort of mood does the music have, and how does the composer achieve that?
- Can you name the piece?
Is there any kind of music you really don’t enjoy listening to? Can you use your music theory skills to explain why?
If you are grade 5 or above, use the amazing resources at www.imslp.org which is a treasure trove of copyright-free classical music scores. You can find performances on Youtube and try to follow the score as you listen.
If you have a music theory exam coming up, I wish you the very best of luck!
Studying music theory doesn’t have to be boring – it opens the door to a broader and deeper understanding of music which in turn increases your enjoyment of playing, listening and composing your own.
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