You cannot be serious!!!

ABRSM’s recent announcement about online grade 5 theory pilot exams in August has created a great deal of uncertainty and more than a few concerns throughout the music teaching community. There has already been a great deal of discussion on this topic and on Wednesday 29 July (19.45-20.45) Epta Uk is presenting a special webinar with a panel of experts to discuss the Issue in detail. Questions welcome. Registration details to follow on Monday 27 July.

Meanwhile here is Dorothy Dingle, piano teacher and widely respected writer on theory, with her own personal views and thoughts on the subject:

"You cannot be serious!!!"

This phrase, immortalised by tennis champion John McEnroe back in the 80s, seems to sum up the reaction of the music-teaching community to recent changes introduced by ABRSM to both the syllabus and the mode of assessment of Grades 1 - 5 theory exams. 

Multiple aspects to this situation are fuelling the fury.

On the positive side, it is laudable that by providing an online assessment in these exceptional times ABRSM are enabling candidates to access higher practical grades for which the Grade 5 theory qualification is a prerequisite. 

However, the manner in which ABRSM is managing this entire situation is causing considerable concern.

The initial guidelines gave very little detail, leaving many matters unclear. Categorical statements made in that initial document, which I downloaded at the time, have since been changed, others clarified. Check this link regularly as there still appear to be daily changes, apparently in response to customer concerns. Therefore candidates are required to enter without certainty as to the final conditions.

Trust in the efficiency and integrity of ABRSM is being undermined.

This was compounded by last-minute changes to the syllabus just 6 weeks before the exam and 2 weeks before the entry deadline. Changes at Grade 5 are:

  1. The need to recognise and identify cadential 6-4 progressions has been removed.
    • This removes something which would prepare students should they move on to G6-8 theory exams, but realistically is not usually encountered by many players in their own playing even up to G8 practical in the normal course of events.
  2. Candidates are required to name cadences.
    • This is relatively straightforward for most, requiring only memorising the chord progressions in the three examinable cadences. My own music theory publications (see below) already include a short section on this, with exercises very similar to those in the online paper. If candidates don’t have access to that, judiciously selected hymn tunes in 4-part harmony could be used.

3.Candidates need to be familiar with both methods of describing intervals greater than an octave (e.g. compound perfect 8ve/perfect 15th).

  • This is not explicit in the new syllabus online but is inferred from the appearance on the pdf sample paper of multiple-choice questions using a mixture of both methods of description, with only one option correct for each interval. This is a significant change and could be a challenge to master in just 6 weeks. Previously, it has been acceptable in the exam to use either method. 

4.The number of terms and signs required has been reduced.

  • Arguably this is long overdue as many previously required were rarely if ever encountered.

Lack of access to preparatory material is a major concern.

Currently there is one pdf sample paper, available to all on ABRSM’s website. Only candidates, not their teachers, will be able to access sample questions online, along with a sample of the online interface, but not until after they’ve paid their fee. therefore teachers are unable to prepare candidates adequately for how to apply their hard-won knowledge to a given question.

Initially there was little specific information about provision for neurodiverse candidates for the online exam.

Full updated details can now be found at

There is much that is good here. However, the BDA, who were not consulted in advance of the initial announcement, have approached ABRSM with further concerns. Many of their points are still not covered explicitly in the accessibility guidelines. Of particular significance are:

  1. The use of webcam may be very distressing for some neurodiverse individuals.
  2. The use of multiple choice questions seriously disadvantages many individuals, both neurodiverse and neurotypical, because they
    1. Increase the reading burden
    2. May create problems with visual tracking
    3. Put pressure on working memory
    4. Can be confusing because of the dyslexic propensity for finding a large variety of options within any one question/statement.

ABRSM state that they are “keen to support all learners throughout this pilot and therefore encourage [entrants] to contact us so that we can make the most suitable arrangements to support the needs of individual candidates.” It is to be hoped that they will take on board the detailed comments made to them by BDA.

Given the ABRSM simultaneous announcement that all G1-5 theory exams will move online from the start of 2021, with no paper option available other than for very limited accessibility reasons (outlined in the document linked above), it is disappointing that at the time of writing alternative provision is not offered for the significant minority of candidates who do not own a laptop and/or are without a reliable (or any) internet connection.

Finally, does the new format, as many contend, constitute a dumbing down of this qualification? 

  • The removal of the examination of the ability to write music notation by hand neatly and accurately is seen as dumbing down. However, it could be argued that the skill can – and should - be taught even if it is not examined. For many, having to access and complete the paper online is actually harder than doing a written paper.
  • The requirement now to be equally familiar with both commonly used labelling systems for describing intervals greater than an octave makes the exam itself harder and adds a new knowledge requirement.
  • Although the sample paper looks shorter and easier, on close examination most questions are now testing more than once concept at a time. This increases complexity so is not a dumbing down. However, in my opinion it is a retrograde step as it seriously disadvantages both younger candidates and some neurodiverse candidates. 

In conclusion therefore, I suggest that this provision by ABRSM is better than nothing whilst the current uncertainty remains about if/when paper exams will be possible. However, going forward it would be a very sad day indeed if no changes were to be made to this new online provision, in particular improving accessibility both for neurodiverse candidates and for those lacking access to the required tech.

Article written by Dorothy Dingle, author and publisher of Pass Grade 5 Theory – all you need in one volume. The book covers all syllabus changes since 2018, including the latest ones, with the addition of further material. Full details at, where you will find a list of distributors and a link for direct purchases.

This and companion publications are also available at many music retailers.