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Grade 5 Music Theory: Strategies for Effective Teaching and Learning

Composer, teacher, and author of Grade 5 Music Theory Practice Papers Ben Andrew addresses the challenges of Grade 5 theory and offers solutions for instrumental teachers whose pupils are sitting the examinations.

Ben, it’s fair to say that the majority of pupils don’t relish taking Grade 5 music theory examinations. How can teachers help to enthuse students who often see theory as divorced from their primary musical experiences?

That is a correct assumption and I think the answer to addressing this issue lies in us as teachers exercising a degree of self-reflection when it comes to motivating our pupils to study the theory of music. How many times do we really ask ourselves questions such as, “Why do we teach theory?” and, “Is the theory I am teaching relevant?” and, ‘Is the theory I teach helping my students develop skills that will enhance their understanding of music?” Doing so can be a means towards bringing out the best in our pupils. Music theory can be a bit like pots of paint sitting on a dusty shelf. Left alone, they serve little purpose. However, when used creatively, the most wonderful, awe-inspiring art can be brought to life. It is so easy to make music theory dull and lifeless. But when explored creatively, it has the potential to help our students convey the deepest of emotions, which cannot be expressed by any other means. The answer to gleaning an enthusiasm for music theory lies in helping our pupils to develop an appreciation of its potential as a creative tool and to use our skills as teachers to integrate it into their other musical experiences.

Towards this end, what are the most effective teaching and learning strategies to enable comprehension, retention, and enthusiasm for those working on Grade 5 theory?

In my own teaching practice, I have found that the more practical the application of theory, the more likely my pupils are to retain the information. Asking questions like, “What is that harmony created by the arpeggio in this bar of your repertoire?” or, “Is it inverted–if so, which inversion is it in?” can be good places to start. This could then be followed by asking a pupil to transpose a small section of their music into a different key as a quick mid-lesson challenge or by setting an improvisation task where they can only use notes from a given scale. If the learner can make music whilst understanding how the music is being made, it blurs the lines between theoretical and practical musicianship and makes theory a much more relevant and useful experience for them. Composition is a wonderful tool by which to explore the creative possibilities of music. Working within certain parameters (e.g., diatonic melodic composition, exploring phrase lengths, or specifying use of certain intervals) can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing, whilst combining the theoretical and expressive elements of music.

Many young musicians have an island experience of music-theory, studying it formally for the first time at Grade 5 and then not again afterwards. How can instrumental teachers help to make music theory a journey that pupils begin earlier and want to continue beyond Grade 5?

Make it relevant to them! Incorporating theory into every lesson in some form is a great way to help pupils learn theory without them even knowing it. Formal assessments should simply be a way of recognising work that has been regularly incorporated into practical lessons. I find that asking pupils lots of questions goes a long way towards helping them gain a solid grasp of the nuts and bolts of music, particularly when related to repertoire they learn or music they listen to. Music theory should be more about the “why” than the “what.” If we can ask questions and discuss, as opposed to just telling them facts, we can help to instil a sense of musical curiosity, whereby they understand the creative purpose and effect of a particular musical device. Cultivating curiosity is the name of the game and the best way to teach theory, in my humble opinion. As teachers, we will get the best from our students if we enable them to actually apply these theoretical tools. Otherwise, all we have are dots on a page or paint on a shelf. If we don’t see music theory as a bolt-on or as something that exists only to satisfy the requirements of an examination, then neither will our students.

There are a number of publications for Grade 5 theory that address both learning and assessment. Why are the two volumes of your Grade 5 Theory Practice Papers of worth to music teachers and their pupils?

The questions in these two substantial volumes are devised in order to spark musical curiosity at grade 5 level. They are fully compatible with both Trinity and ABRSM and are ideal for those studying A-level music as a means to enhance an overall understanding of the architecture of music. I have sought to bridge the gap between academic and practical music-making. They are ideal for those working towards a formal examination or as a way to augment existing study. Each publication features six test papers, with each paper divided into six important areas of musical theory: rhythm and pitch, keys and scales, intervals and transposition, chords and cadences, musical nuts and bolts, and music theory in action.
A unique feature of these publications is that an online answer booklet for each paper is included. This encourages the pupil to reflect on their progress, whilst simultaneously highlighting any areas of weakness. Finally, given that each volume is 80 pages in length, the value for money this represents is outstanding compared to other publications. The positive reviews of the first volume of papers have encouraged me that these are resources that are of real practical value to teachers and pupils.


Grade 5 Music Theory Practice Papers by Ben Andrew

Hal Leonard’s Grade 5 Music Theory Practice Papers are essential resources for candidates preparing for music theory exams. Appropriate for the latest syllabi of all major examination boards, including ABRSM and Trinity College London, they are also invaluable assessment tools for students taking GCSE music, preparing for A Level, or advancing in their instrumental studies. This book includes six theory papers and downloadable answer booklets.

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