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Music Theory

Learning Theory is a very important part of understanding music. Now I know hat many pupils would prefer to just learn the piano and forget about the theory, sadly this is not a good idea.

ABRSM requires that students pass Grade 5 Theory before they move onto Grade 6. Other Exam Boards are not so bothered but do suggest that students undertake the study of Music Theory in the course of their education.

Theory Plans

During a students time of learning they will learn basic theory. However, I tend to start a students Theory education around the time they are studying their Grade 3. This gives the student the opportunity to enjoy playing and not get tied down with Music Theory.

Students will learn theory through multiple choice games that are fun and entertaining and will be able to use this format from Grades 1 - 5 with my approach. Once I feel they are ready we will then use mock exams from Trinity and ABRSM to strengthen their understanding of the Theory.

For some students theory can be extremely complex and may cause fear and anxiety. If this is the case, I only concentrate on basics as I would rather my students enjoyed learning their instrument.

Parents should tell me prior to Theory if their child has a fear of numbers or struggles with Maths/Arithmetic. 

 1. ABRSM and Trinity grades are accredited at the same level.

The UK qualifications regulator, OFQUAL monitors the standards of all exam bodies in the country. Each exam is given an RQF (regulated qualifications framework) level, so that exams may be compared across different boards, and even across different disciplines.

The RQF levels for music theory grades are the same for ABRSM and Trinity. At each RQF level, a number of points are awarded. Grades 1-3 are all level 1 for example, but a the points awarded at level 1 increase in line with the grades.

TQT stands for "total qualification time" and is the estimated number of hours (including both with a teacher and independent work) needed to pass the exam.


Grade Board       RQF     TQT     Equivalent to

1          ABRSM     1.           20.     GCSE F/G or 1

1.          Trinity.      1.           20.     GCSE F/G or 1

2.         ABRSM.    1.           30.     GCSE E/F or 2

2           Trinity.     11           30      GCSE E/F or 2

3          ABRSM     1            50      GCSE D/E or 3

3          Trinity        1            50      GCSE D/E or 3

4         ABRSM      2             58      GCSE B/C or 4-6

4         Trinity         2            70      GCSE B/C or 4-6

5        ABRSM       2            90       GCSE A*-B or 7-9 

5        Trinity.         2            90.      GCSE A*-B or 7-9

6       ABRSM        3           130.      A level

6.       Trinity.        3.           130.      A level

7.       ABRSM.     3.           170.      A level

7.      Trinity.        3.           170.      A level

8.     ABRSM.      3.           210.      A level

8.     Trinity.         3.           210.      A level

AmusTCLTrinity  4             900       1st year BA

LmusTCLTrinity   6            1800.      3rd year BA 



2. The Pass/Fail marks are slightly lower for Trinity than for ABRSM.

Grades 1-8

BoardPass MeritDistinction

ABRSM  66% 80% 90%*

Trinity.    60% 75% 87%

*In the new online ABRSM tests (from 2020) the % required for a distinction is 86.6%



 Pass Distinction

Trinity 60% 80%


3. Some ABRSM grades are shorter exams.

Board Grades 1-3 Grade  4Grade  5Grades  6-8 Diplomas

ABRSM 1.5 hours  2 hours 2 hours 3 hours N/A

Trinity2  hours2 hours3 hours3 hours3 hours


4. The ABRSM exam centres are more numerous than Trinity centres across the UK and worldwide.


5. The ABRSM offers three exam dates per year (March, June and November) and Trinity offers two (May and November), in the UK.

*Covid update: the exam sessions on offer are currently unknown.


6. The Trinity music theory exam fees are slightly more than ABRSM

(Fees correct as of December 2019)


Grade ABRSM.           Trinity.         ( Prices have changed since 2023)

1          £29.                    £31

2          £31.                    £33

3          £34                     £37

4          £37                     £40

5          £40                     £43

6          £44                     £47

7          £48                     £51

8         £50                      £56




7. The ABRSM syllabus is more traditional than Trinity. 

The early grades for both boards focuses on broadly the same areas: notation, scales, keys, time, performance directions, intervals and triads.

At grades 6-8 the boards diverge considerably. The ABRSM board follows the traditional curriculum of figured bass and Classical harmony (Baroque to late Romantic). Trinity only includes very basic figured bass (grade 6), and unlike ABRSM it does include non-diatonic key systems/scales, such as modes, pentatonic and whole tone. 


8. The ABRSM syllabus is narrow and focused, the Trinity syllabus is broad and comprehensive.

Trinity covers non-diatonic harmony even in the early grades. In addition, composition skills are tested at all grades (ABRSM dropped composition from grades 1-5 in 2018). Trinity covers a wider range of practical techniques (including ostinato, sequences and imitation) and requires a knowledge of form and basic orchestration. The question types will vary from paper to paper.

ABRSM at grades 6-8 requires a detailed knowledge of style, in particular Baroque (trio sonatas at grade 8), SATB (grades 6-7) and piano-style writing. The same types of question will appear in each paper.


9. The ABRSM syllabus is quite different between grades 1-5 and 6-8. The Trinity syllabus is graded gradually to build on skills throughout grades 1-8 in a similar way.

ABRSM grades 1-5 are knowledge based. The candidate is required to understand basic music literacy and is not tested on any practical skills. Broadly speaking, the same skills are tested at each grade, with some minor extensions of facts as the grades increase. Each grade increases in complexity in terms of key signatures and time signatures.

At grades 6-8 there is a seismic shift, to a paper where 50% is now skills based (writing harmony, creating bass lines, writing a composition, filling out the gaps in half-written piece of music etc.) Most students find the gap between grades 5 and 6 enormous. 

Trinity is quite different in that the emphasis is on learning plenty of new knowledge with each grade, rather than focusing more on key/time signature complexities. Harmony is introduced much earlier than with the ABRSM, and builds up the candidate's abilities much more gradually. There is no enormous gap between any two grades. The balance between practical skills and theoretical knowledge remains mostly the same, as the grades increase.


10. Pre-requisites.

The ABRSM requires a pass at grade 5 theory as a pre-requisite to taking grades 6-8 in a practical subject (other alternatives are also available). They will accept Trinity Grade 5 Theory instead of ABRSM. 

The ABRSM requires grade 6 music theory for candidates for the DipABRSM Teaching diploma. Trinity grade 6 is also accepted.

There are no pre-requisites to taking any grade of music theory exam with either board.


11. Content by Grade 5

 ABRSM Trinity

ClefsTreble, bass, alto, tenorTreble, bass, alto , tenor

CompositionFrom grade 6 only, instrumental onlyAll grades, for instruments and setting words to text

FormThe phrase & cadence, chorale, piano pieces, trio sonataSections, strophic, binary, verse & refrain, suite, chorale, sonata form, concerto, etude, Lied, mazurka, nocturne

HarmonyGrade 1: Chord I
Grade 4: IV and V
Grade 5: II, inversions, cadences
Grade 6: all triads, SATB style, modulation, V7
Grade 7: all 7th chords, Neapolitan 6th, suspensions
Grade 8: Augmented 6ths, borrowed chordsGrade 1: Chord I, chord symbols
Grade 2: 1st inversion, circle of 5ths
Grade 3: Chord V, 2nd inversion, perfect cadences & progressions, SATB style
Grade 4: Chords IV and V7, modulation, Plagal cadences
Grade 5: Chord II, imperfect cadences
Grade 6: all triads, diminished 7ths, basic figured bass
Grade 7: all 7th chords, suspensions 
Grade 8: Serialism, chromatic chords

InstrumentsGrade 4: standard orchestral instruments
Grades 5-8: extended symphony orchestraGrade 3: violin, cello, flute, bassoon
Grade 4: viola, double bass, guitar, descant recorder, oboe, horn
Grade 5: Bb clarinet, Eb alto saxophone
Grade 6: treble recorder, A clarinet, Bb soprano sax, Bb tenor sax, Eb baritone sax, Bb trumpet
Grade 7: Eb tenor horn, tenor trombone, bass trombone, timpani
Grade 8: cor Anglais, Bb cornet, tuba

Key Signatures Grade 1: up to 2 sharps/flats, Grade 2 = 3, Grade 3=4, Grade 4=5, Grade 5=6 Grades 1&2: 1 #/b, Grade 3=2, Grade 4=3, Grade 5=5 

Orchestration N/AString quartet, orchestral scores, close/open scores 

Scales Major, minor harmonic and minor melodic, chromaticMajor, minor harmonic, melodic and natural, pentatonic, Aeolian, Dorian & Mixolydian modes, whole tone, chromatic 

StyleRecognising and writing: Baroque, Classical, Romantic
Recognising: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th CRecognising and writing: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th C, Rock/Blues

Time sigs Grade 1: simple, Grade 3: compound, Grade 5: irregularGrade 1: simple, Grade 3: compound, Grade 4: irregular

Transposition At octave/treble to bass by Grade 3, Grade 4:alto clef, Grade 5: tenor clef and for transposing intruments.  At octave/treble to bass by Grade 3, Grade 4: by 4th/5th and for transposing instruments, Grade 5: at any interval

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