Notes on Grade 5 Theory (ABRSM)

AKA that thing what you need to do for grade 6+ instruments
Keep in mind I basically knew as much theory as is needed to write twinkle twinkle little star on manuscript paper (not that much) until a couple of days ago, so here's what I crammed and what was actually useful. (Graphics courtesy of MuseScore)

The Basic Stuff (You probably know this from reading music)

This is all the stuff that you would've picked up from reading scores. If you didn't, don't feel too bad.
  • At most basic - where Middle C is on each of the 4 clefs (treble, tenor, alto, bass). On that note, also where and how to draw each clef.
    • Treble C is one ledger line below the bottom, Alto and Tenor have the middle C in the middle of the clef, and Bass C is one ledger line above the bottom.
  • Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor patterns, both ascending and descending since there's always a question about this.
  • Sharps, flats, double sharps/flats, naturals. If you think you're pretty sharp at this you should be natural by now, otherwise I'm sad you say your marks might fall flat in the exam. Hah.
  • Some basic grasp of the music words and signs for various tempos, dynamics, articulations and other little markings. Things you probably know:
    • Tempos like presto, allegro, andante, largo.
    • Dynamics like pianissimo, mezzoforte, sforzando, cresc.
    • Articulations symbols like staccato (·), legato (-) and accent (>).
    • Direction markings like DC al Capo, ritardando, tremelo, glissandos and more.
    • You may have also encountered specific things like bowing directions for strings, breath marks for woodwind, and open notes for brass. Obviously some of these are also shared between instruments, like slurs/ties.

  Important Stuff (If you didn't know this, you need to know this)

These are things you may not have encountered (especially if you don't play the piano or generally never looked at theory before) that pretty much consist of most of the exam as either direct questions or simply needing to know them to work out other things. There's quite a bit of it unfortunately
  • What a keyboard looks like. In the exam you'll definitely find it useful to draw one, as well as add the letters for each key.
  • The magic circle of fifths, which also helps to draw one in the exam. Here's Wikipedia's version. This is used to workout what key something is in, how many flat/sharps it has, and what its relative minor/major is. Very useful stuff. Additionally, some helpful ways to remember the order of flats/sharps, which can be used to work out the rest of the circle (since they all follow the same letter pattern):
    • Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle / Battle Ends And Down Goes Charles' Father. (My personal favourite, since its a palindrome).
    • Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket / Blanket Exploded And Dad Got Cold Feet.
    • There are tonnes more out there if you search for them.
  • Intervals. Specifically how to identify and describe to an examiner. You need to know them all for Grade 5 since they form a basis for pretty much everything. Missing out on them is the music equivalent of trying to direct someone on a map without using giving them directions or distances (landmarks are tots fair game though, that's like using letters for notes).
    • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. up to 8ve (ve for octave). Things after 8 can be referred to as a compound (insert thing) 2nd and onwards, eg. major 10th = compound major 3rd.
    • Major, minor, perfect, diminished and augmented intervals. By default 4th, 5th and 8ve are perfect, the rest are major. There's a handy diagram in Take Five that demonstrates the relation between these things, but basically the way intervals change goes something like this (sharps go up, flats go down):
        |    |
      Major  |
        |  Perfect
      Minor  |
        |    |
  • Relative major/minors. A relative minor in the same key as a major key is 3 semitones down, and the relative major is by inverse 3 semitones up. If in doubt, always use the C Major and A Minor as a comparison for any other keys.
  • Chords, of which the ones you need to know are I, II, IV, V and the inversions a, b and c.
    • I is the most basic. In C Major, I is a C Major chord. A first inversion would start the chord on an E, and a second inversion would be on the G
    • II starts on the second interval. IV is the fourth and V is the fifth. It also helps to know these for cadences later on.
  • Time signatures in simple and compound time, and how they affect things like the groupings of notes (for quavers and smaller), and the beats in a bar. You need to know quite a few and how they work.This would be under the basic stuff, if not for the fact that actually understanding it isn't explained just by reading it.
    • The top number represents the number of beats in the bar.
    • The bottom number represents the value of the beat - in a way these are the natural accented notes. Its 4 divided by the number, meaning 2 would be a minim to a beat, whereas 8 would mean each beat is a quaver.
    • In simple time the beats are grouped up in a simple 1 group equals 2 beats fashion (except things like 3/4 where that wouldn't work, so that's 1 to 1). In compound time (when the top number is something like 6, 9 or 12) the beats are in fact grouped into 3s. One grouped note is made up of 3 beats. This means that a compound time signature of 9/8 would be grouped in a set of 3 dotted crotchets.
    • This is important since it actually changes the way quavers and such are notated and therefore the way in which a musician is meant to read it.
In the last line you can think of it as Da da Da da Da da vs Da da da Da da da, or grouped in 2 vs grouped in 3.

The Other Stuff (These also come up, but are often section specific)

These are also important to know since a question will likely come up regarding these specifically (or in some cases, guaranteed) and therefore you need to know them for good marks. However unlike the above, knowledge of these doesn't necessarily apply to any questions outside of the one asked, but they might. Plus is generally helps to know these if you are actually planning on doing legit music theory.
  • Where the flats and sharps go on each clef. Notice that for all of them (except sharps in Tenor Clef) the pattern is exactly the same, and that they read across in the same order that the flats/sharps appear in on the circle of fifths.

  • Know what these are called and what they mean. Check the internet or a grade 5 theory book.
  • Degrees - like intervals but used to describe what position in the scale you are in.
    • 1st = Tonic (very important, since its the root position)
    • 2nd = Supertonic (this one is easy enough to figure out)
    • 3rd = Mediant (In an ideal world you only need to know the 4 triads but this came up and I lost a mark)
    • 4th = Subdominant (this one is also easy enough to figure out)
    • 5th = Dominant (second most important since its the fifth)
    • You don't really need to know the rest (actually you probably do) but it helps I guess. They are Submediant and Leading Note for 6 and 7 respectively.
  • Cadences, aka whaever the chords are doing at the end.
    • Perfect cadence is V - I. Nice finish to a phrase.
    • Plagal cadence is IV - I. Named after the fact that its overused in church music.
    • Anything else ending is x - V for grade 5 is an imperfect cadence (unless its V - V but that shouldn't happen anyway).
  • Full/Short Score (SATB) is pretty simply doing this (to and from). 
  • Italian (and some german) definitions for words. There are only two short question-parts specifically about this for 4 marks, made up of one easy and one uncommon word. Learn the basic ones and you can generally get the first bit right.
    • Allegro must include "walking" in its definition if asked about it.
    • I'm not going through a whole list of words you should try to cram because in all honestly, the marks you get for this bit is not worth the effort of learning a page of italian/english. Just practise exam papers instead and look-up/ask-a-teacher for definitions of words in your music if you don't understand.
  • Composition - you're not expected to write a piece, just an 8 bar phrase (generally). Really you should read up about this (the standard ABRSM book and Take Five really help) and practise composing to improve, but advice for marks includes:
    • Make sure to include things like time signature, tempo markings and such if not done so already.
    • Add articulation for totally rad bonus style points (and extra marks).
    • Keep it simple. You just want to pass the exam and get it over and done with, so don't waste too much time on this - there are 6 other questions in the paper.
That's all I can think of. If you are reading this, you are probably taking a Grade 5 exam soonish and looking for easy ways to cram everything like me. As you might be able to tell, I heavily suggest quickly going through these books. And lastly to you I say, good luck!