Clearly and Neatly

In the Trinity Grade One Music Theory exam, you need to be able to write music clearly and neatly. You will lose marks on any answer that the examiner finds difficult to read, has mistakes or is messy.

Although we love Beethoven, we don’t want to write our manuscript like he did:

beethoven's manuscript

Three Tools

You will need: pencils (take plenty of spares to your music theory exam!), an eraser and a ruler. Always write your answers in pencil. Make sure you’ve chosen a pencil which rubs out easily!

Clefs, Key Signatures and Time Signatures

treble clef

The treble clef should curl around the G line. 

bass clef, F below middle C

The bass clef begins on the F line. The two dots are placed on either side of the F line. 

G major key signature

Key signature accidentals must be placed on the correct line/space of the stave.

The top number of the time signature fills the top half of the stave, the bottom number fills the bottom half. 

Remember the order is always Clef – Key Signature – Time Signature (C-K-T)

example key signature

Writing Notes and Barlines

Note heads are not perfectly round – they are egg-shaped and tilt upwards slightly.

Here’s an extra-large crotchet (quarter note) to make it clear! 

large crotchet

Use your ruler to draw note stems. Make the stems the same length – about 1cm is fine.

stem direction

Notes above the middle of the stave usually have stems down, notes below the middle have stems up. Notes on the middle line should follow the general direction of the music.

To draw beamed notes neatly, first draw the stems of the first and last notes in the group. You will usually need to draw them a bit longer than normal.

drawing beams and stems

Then draw the top horizontal beam,

drawing stems and beams

then fill in any other stems or beams as needed.


The first note in each bar should be about one note-head’s width away from the bar line. The other notes in a bar should be placed at relative distances.

note spacing - music theory notation

This means that semiquavers (sixteenth notes) will be very close together, and semibreves (whole notes) will have a lot of space to the right of them. Point your mouse at the image to see how this should be written.

Ledger lines (the small lines on notes like middle C) should be the same distance as the other lines of the staff, and should not stick out too much to the left or right.

ledger lines

Make sure you use the correct note value when you write scales.

Always draw bar lines with a ruler. Make sure they don’t stick out beyond the top or bottom lines of the stave.

Rests should be placed in the centre of the stave. Be very careful about the position of the minim (half) and semibreve (whole) rests.

Copying Music Out Exactly

(Please note, the “copying out” question was removed from the ABRSM Grade 1 exam curriculum on 15th July 2020).

When you copy out music in your music theory exam, make sure you have copied absolutely every detail from the original.

If you are asked to correct a certain number of mistakes, double check that you have found them all.

Don’t forget the dynamics, symbols like staccato or accents, any repeat bars, slurs, ties or bar numbers.

Use your ruler to make the distance between your notes as close as possible to the original.

It’s a good idea to draw the bar lines in first, to make sure you don’t run out of space.

Handwriting Music Exercises

This part of the music theory exam is something which is really easy to practise at home! Find any piece of music, take a piece of manuscript paper, and copy exactly what you see. Choose music which has a lot of performance directions on it – dynamics, foreign terms and symbols, and choose music which has different rhythms, especially with beamed notes. 

Use a well-sharpened pencil and a ruler. 

When you’ve finished, look very carefully at your work for mistakes, or better still, ask somebody else to look at it for you (preferably someone who knows about music theory!)

Keep practising!

Here are a couple of excerpts you can try to copy:


copy the melody 1


copy the melody 2