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What's the point of the ABRSM's teaching of theory?


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#1 Gordon Shumway

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Posted 16 July 2019 - 12:19

Like all of you, I had to do grade 5 theory, but I don't believe it benefited my piano playing one iota.

Why bother? Or at least why make it compulsory?

Is it just the case that, when people get to music college, theory is compulsory, and they don't want to have to start any students from scratch? It's hardly worth it, as university first year courses have to do a lot of consolidating anyway.


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#2 Latin pianist

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Posted 16 July 2019 - 12:23

I think understanding the principles of transposition was useful to me but of course now you can do all that with software.
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#3 sbhoa

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Posted 16 July 2019 - 12:50

Theory up to grade five is just the nuts and bolts of music notation.

Knowing notes values, time signatures, key signatures and scales,arpeggios/basic chords is pretty useful.

These are things you come across as you learn to play and they are also useful when playing with others as they are part of the basic language of music notation.


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#4 Gordon Shumway

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Posted 16 July 2019 - 13:24

Theory up to grade five is just the nuts and bolts of music notation.

Knowing notes values, time signatures, key signatures and scales,arpeggios/basic chords is pretty useful.

These are things you come across as you learn to play and they are also useful when playing with others as they are part of the basic language of music notation.

All very true, but doing grade 5 theory after a few years of practical seems a bit like stable doors and horses to me.


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#5 Kai-Lei

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 16:20

I've thought about this a lot and it seems to be more about examining boards and money. I doubt anyone would pass Grade 8 instrumental better for having passed Grade 5 theory. It's become an industry in its own right these days.

As a composer I reckon some basic theory is - well, not essential but it does get you to where you want to be a lot quicker. And things like if you wanted to use a particular sound that you can hear as a Neapolitan 6th or an augmented 6th, the possibilities are usually there waiting. 


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#6 Hildegard

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 16:48

I've thought about this a lot and it seems to be more about examining boards and money.

 

Although being charities and having no shareholders, the boards are very limited on what they can spend any surplus. I do agree, though, that the theory exams are odd, not least because they are nothing to do with any "theory" of music. They are exams in notation (up to Grade 5) and in harmony, with a smattering of very rudimentary analysis, thereafter.

 

Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that you hear no music in these examinations. They are like art exams in which you don't paint or draw, or dance exams in which you stay rooted at a desk.


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#7 corenfa

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Posted 17 July 2019 - 17:59

I took grade 5 theory as a child so it was all part of "stuff I had to learn" similar to the 12 times table and so on. I found that knowing the basic building blocks of music was interesting because then I could see how music was put together. I remember trying to analyse songs I heard, hymns in church, etc.
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#8 Aquarelle

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Posted 05 August 2019 - 14:16

I think the teaching of theory up to around Grade 5 is very important for the understanding of notation and how music is put together; I do some theory in virtually every lesson. However I am not in agreement with the compulsory requirement to pass Grade 5 theory before being able to take Grade 6, 7 or 8  practical. 

 

I find this requirement out-dated and unfair. It has excluded several of my pupils from the higher practical grades. I know my situation of being in France, of not having any ABRSM supporting theory materials in French and of not having the opportunity to turn to another examining board for the higher grades is perhaps exceptional but I am pretty sure a lot of would be Grade 6 plus candidates are put off by this requirement. As I have said before i think the idea that "you can't do this because you haven't done that" is educationally very unsound. 

 

If it is just a money collecting exercise then I think it's time the AB acknowledged this - or kept the requirement for the Far East only. Unfair? No more unfair than the present situation - just unfair to a different group. Granted this is not really a viable solution but I'm always very fed up when a keen teenager says they want to do the  Grade 6 exam but I know that in the time left (they are usually in their last or second to last year at school with heavy work loads, and some are weekly boarders) they are not going to manage it. Most of them at this stage are around Grade 4 theory.


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#9 elemimele

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Posted 05 August 2019 - 18:47

It's also a bit of a fossil. It's really "notation-and-terminology as appropriate for the classical and romantic eras of Western art music". It completely ignores early music (modes, anyone? Trills that start on the upper note?). It doesn't admit the existence of non-12-tone scales even though they've got quite a following (and there are some very weird electric guitars out there to prove it). It asks questions about enharmonic notes, a concept which would make no sense to anyone up to the mid 18th C (who would be pained at the idea of B-flat and A-sharp being the same note). And although it teaches intervals, it doesn't ask the question why certain intervals sound good, and others bad - something which lies very close to the heart of music.

 

One gets the feeling that the exam exactly fitted the bill at the time when ABRSM first came into existence, a time when all the weird modern stuff hadn't yet happened, and the historically-informed-performance movement hadn't got off the ground, so basically, from a London perspective, music was what had happened North of the southern tip of Italy, between 1750 and 1900.

 

(small print: I don't know if ABRSM should get involved in what I'd consider truly theory of music. I get the feeling that the purely theoretical side of music comes and goes in waves. In some eras, theorists have flourished like stinging nettles, and life has become hideously complicated. After a while, practical performers lose patience with the whole caboodle, and usher in an era where we don't really care why it works, we just do it because it works. Then another bunch of people turn up wondering what it is that makes music sound good, and whether fifths should be pure, or what a scale is, or whatever, and strange electric guitars get built, or harpsichords with split keys, and off we go again... The majority of people, most of the time, can probably live quite happily without all this stuff, and those who need it, will bump into it quite readily anyway).


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#10 fsharpminor

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Posted 05 August 2019 - 19:20

I completely agree that all piano students reaching beyond Grade 5 should be made to do the theory exam, and if they feel it doesnt benefit them then something is seriously wrong. Theory exams above Grade 5 should also be considered, it at least will help with understanding more about harmony , melody construction and modulation.  


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#11 elemimele

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Posted 05 August 2019 - 21:30

Yes, harmony, melody and modulation are all jolly good things. What irritates me about grade 5 theory is that it barely scratches the surface of the interesting and important stuff, all of which seems to have been shoved into grade 6 and beyond, presumably because grade 5 has to be "dumbed down" sufficiently that it doesn't unduly discourage instrumentalists from progressing to higher grades. Of course there's nothing to stop the genuine and intrepid student from going beyond grade 5... 

I think grade 5 is unbalanced. It contains not enough of the stuff that's any use, and too much other stuff that's of limited relevance. And it desperately distorts the progression of the grades; in the theory syllabus, the increments between grades from 1 to 5 are really quite small, and then there are huge leaps thereafter.


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#12 jpiano

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Posted 05 August 2019 - 22:03

I agree with elemimele's post. Understanding the building blocks of how pieces are put together, harmony, how scales work and relate to what we play, all of that is vital. But I much prefer to cover these elements as I go along, in a practical way. I'm not keen on the increased amount of rather obscure musical terms in the new syllabus which are more of a memory test than a musical exercise. The other problem with too many theory grades I've found is the tendency for learning to become compartmentalized, with little connect between the question paper and the playing of music. I doubt ABRSM will drop the theory requirement somehow- it would mean a large loss in revenue- unless of course they start losing too many higher grade entrants to other boards- but as I've mentioned before, I would like to see the practical musicianship alternative given a higher profile and better and more appealing materials. 


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#13 Aquarelle

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Posted 07 August 2019 - 10:55

I completely agree that all piano students reaching beyond Grade 5 should be made to do the theory exam, and if they feel it doesnt benefit them then something is seriously wrong. Theory exams above Grade 5 should also be considered, it at least will help with understanding more about harmony , melody construction and modulation.  

But that means that you agree that all students who have not, for no fault of their own, the possibility to sit this exam, should be excluded from taking the higher grades.  I don't often disagree with you F#minor but I would like to see you in my position having to explain to a keen seventeen year old who really wants to do the practical but simply cannot fit in the theory  exam before  or even concurrent with the practical, that, tough luck, you can't do Grade 6.

 

I am afraid that in this day and age when students have much less control over their academic routes than we had, this  sort of restriction is very  harmful. Most of my would be Grade Sixers have an adequate knowledge of theory for them - around grade 4 mostly. They have worked very hard to get as far as they have with their practical and then  they are told  that it's too bad, they can now get off the wagon! Of course they will go on playing and advancing but they feel very let down by the very system that encouraged them to work so hard to get their practical where it is. If you think hard about it, surely you can't endorse this sort of situation for young musicians?


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#14 Latin pianist

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Posted 07 August 2019 - 13:26

At the prep school I teach at, one of the peris does a lunch time group theory lesson each week for her students. She then doesn't have to use much of her students' lessons time on theory. Could that be an option for you, Aquarelle?
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#15 Aquarelle

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Posted 07 August 2019 - 21:44

I'm afraid not. I am a private teacher and teach after school hours and my pupils come form eight different schools. I do have a room in the school where i also do some class teaching but only 2 of my younger pupils are at this school and the room in any case wouldn't be available at lunchtime as it's used for the after lunch nap for the nursery children. Several of my older pupils are weekly boarders and  so only available on Saturdays.

 

I do cover theory in lessons and I do consider it to be important. But the timing for my higher grade students is impossible. I have decided to start the younger ones on Practical Musicianship in an attempt to see if this will  work better as they reach their teenage years. But the present system is a guillotine for my would be higher Grade exam candidates. I don't have many but the ones I do are keen - and disappointed.


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