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Theory exams

The Pandemic
Music theory exams have until recently involved all candidates attending a venue to sit a traditional written exam. Throughout the nation, the exams were held at the same time to prevent questions being leaked and other forms of cheating taking place. These exams, which involved large numbers of candidates sitting in a school hall or similar venue, could obviously not take place for the duration of the measures introduced to control the spread of the pandemic.

Around this time, ABRSM (the board) introduced online theory exams so that candidates could take their exams from home. The board pointed out that these online exams were already being developed, and that the pandemic had merely accelerated their introduction. There were technical issues when the online exams were rolled out, with some candidates having problems logging in or being unable to complete their exam for whatever reasons. At this stage, candidates were still all taking exams at the same time, but online instead of in person. The board offered their apologies, and we've moved on.

Before I continue, I will make clear that as of now, June 2022, Grade 1-5 exams are online whereas Grade 6-8 remain as written exams. What follows therefore concerns Grade 1 to 5 only.

On demand
The board has now taken the system further such that 'on-demand' exams are available. You can take your theory exam when it suits you. Online exams remove the need for all candidates to sit their exam at the same time. That sounds like good news, but perhaps it misses a few points.

Firstly, in order to take an online exam, you need a suitable computer including a camera, plus a good, reliable internet connection. Good and reliable means that it has to be on and working well for the duration of the exam. The point has been made that not everyone has this luxury. Having delivered online practical lessons myself when face-to-face learning wasn't possible, I could vouch for the validity of that statement. Sadly, theory exams are not offered as an alternative to traditional written exams. They have replaced them.

Secondly, what about the musical aspects?

Written papers require marking. That job has been done in the past by a team or examiners awarding marks for each question, using controlled marking criteria. Several changes have been made in the past couple of years or so, resulting in questions being presented differently, or removed altogether. It all appears to have been leading towards the goal of online exams and automated marking, speeding the process no doubt, and reducing the cost of hiring the army of skilled examiners. As I have already stated, online exams were already in the pipeline. The pandemic simply speeded them into being.

I dislike the term 'dumbing down' and the board is keen to point out that online exams are testing the same musical knowledge to the same standard as their traditional written counterparts, but it's not easy to accept.

Let's look at a few things that have changed.

  1. The introduction of multiple choice questions
  2. Changes to the intervals question
  3. Handwriting anything at all!
  4. The removal of the 'completing a melody/rhythm' question

I have my own views of course, but have seen several eloquent statements from others that support them. Therefore I will give my own views, but will include the essence of some of what I have picked up along the way.

Multiple Choice
Starting with the multiple-choice questions (MCQ), this area appears to be the most controversial with many negative comments to be found. To state some positives, well, MCQs do remove the need for the requirement of any skill in the marking process, eliminate the need to ensure that a group of examiners interpret and adhere to the marking criteria consistently (but surely that is what moderation is for), and it does ensure that all candidates are treated equally. On the downside, it allows certain candidates to be prompted (the correct answer is, after all, plainly on view on the page), demonstrates nothing about musical knowledge other than having memorised a term or sign, shows no sign of how an answer is arrived at, and takes away any trace of creativity. Music theory has always been one of the drier aspects of musical education. Multiple choice takes us a few steps further into an even more arid environment.

I have read much about the science that goes into the process and the difficulties in creating MCQs that are fair and reliable. But I also also read about MCQ papers where questions exist where more than one correct answer is offered, and other questions where none of the answers is correct! A huge amount of work needs to go into the preparation of satisfactory MCQ papers, including pre-testing them with a wide range of students, statistical analysis of the results of such trials, and assigning a weighting to each question based on how many candidates, of various levels, get it right. Papers should also have a range of questions with varying 'weights' in order to be fair. Amongst the answers there should be a 'distractor' answer too, to give pause for thought.

One would hope and expect that ABRSM has been meticulous in its approach to the preparation of its new exam format and the questions contained therein. I have read comments from others that reveal suspicion. Personally, I cannot comment, except to say that I found one question in the 2019 practice paper rather tough given that it was supposedly at the Grade 1 level. The candidate was required to tick the correct meaning of the term 'ritenuto'. The following choices were available:

  • gradually getting quicker
  • slow
  • held back
  • gradually getting slower

Now 'ritenuto' (held back) is often abbreviated to 'rit.' but so is 'ritardando' (gradually getting slower). I would suggest that many at Grade 1 would have come across the abbreviation (i.e. 'rit.') rather than the full word as they were learning pieces. And knowing both terms associated with the same abbreviation is a bit ambitious. Of course, only one of the answers gets a mark.

Intervals
I am thinking primarily about the Grade 5 paper here and the intervals question is interesting. ABRSM say that they are testing the same requirements, to the same standard, but I see a difference here. Prior to the tick-box or mouse-click style of exams, a phrase of music was presented with several pairs of notes bracketed together along the way. The candidate was required to describe the interval between each pair of notes thus bracketed.

The modern equivalent has two notes isolated on their own little length of stave, complete with clef and key signature, but removed from any musical context. This is surely more straight-forward to answer? The clef and the key signature are right next to the two notes concerned for one thing. For another, there is no need to take account of any preceding accidentals in the bar, because there is nothing preceding the notes. Another step into that arid environment.

Writing
Remember the questions, particularly in the earlier grades, such as 'Add the correct clef...' and 'Write the scale of...'? Candidates had to draw either a treble clef or a bass clef in the space available to make the note shown match its given letter name, or write out one octave of a scale, noting the clef and whether ascending or descending is required, adding either key signature or accidentals as appropriate.

Not the same when you can simply mouse-click the required clef for it to magically, and neatly, appear in the space!

What about the phrase 'Marks will be given for neatness and accuracy'. Well, since the requirement to 'copy out the music to the end of bar 4' no longer exists, candidates do not have to write anything at all. Maybe the hand-writing of music is now seen as an unnecessary skill in the modern day of score-writing software and online exams, but shouldn't everyone be able to do it anyway, and have it included in the test?

The rhythm and melody question
Finally the melody writing question. Perhaps the biggest loss in the sweeping changes.

This question allowed so much scope for demonstrating musical understanding and ability. (I am including here the writing of the answering rhythm questions from earlier grades)

For one thing, the candidate is faced with a couple of lines of empty stave to fill! I am aware that this wasn't everyone's favourite question, but what an opportunity it was to show that you know about melodic shape, rhythmic interest, dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, and more. Balanced phrases (if that's what you wanted) with modulation half-way through, knowledge of cadences (all implied as you're only writing the melodic line of course, but they could be implied). It even required rudimentary knowledge of the instrument that you were writing for. What a question! But alas, it can't be marked by a computer and so has to go.

I can imagine that marking the melody (and even the lower grades rhythm) questions was interesting. It requires the assimilation of what the candidate actually meant, and whether it makes musical sense, something which can mean different things to different people. I'd like to think that those that used to mark theory exams were well up to those challenges and that the marks were reflective of the candidate's abilities. I am confident that this was indeed the case. But what scope the question offered for demonstrating understanding of so much. Furthermore, is actually allowed for some creativity, which is of course what music is all about. A rare opportunity for the candidate to express themselves musically as part of their exam, that has now become rarer still. This, along with the removal of the need to write anything at all, whether in words or musical notation, must lead to a less engaging examination process, and with less scope to show knowledge and musical ability.

Conclusion
Even a cursory glance through the sorts of questions that a candidate will now encounter during a theory exam reveals that the testing is limited to checking knowledge of stark facts about musical notation and terms. Bereft of any attmept to discover what skill, understanding and ability lies beneath that knowledge, and without any scope for displaying creativity, theory exams appear to have sadly taken a step backwards.

For many children (and adults), engaging in music theory has not been easy. It just got harder.

Last Updated: 20th Jun 2022

Back

Theory exams

The Pandemic
Music theory exams have until recently involved all candidates attending a venue to sit a traditional written exam. Throughout the nation, the exams were held at the same time to prevent questions being leaked and other forms of cheating taking place. These exams, which involved large numbers of candidates sitting in a school hall or similar venue, could obviously not take place for the duration of the measures introduced to control the spread of the pandemic.

Around this time, ABRSM (the board) introduced online theory exams so that candidates could take their exams from home. The board pointed out that these online exams were already being developed, and that the pandemic had merely accelerated their introduction. There were technical issues when the online exams were rolled out, with some candidates having problems logging in or being unable to complete their exam for whatever reasons. At this stage, candidates were still all taking exams at the same time, but online instead of in person. The board offered their apologies, and we've moved on.

Before I continue, I will make clear that as of now, June 2022, Grade 1-5 exams are online whereas Grade 6-8 remain as written exams. What follows therefore concerns Grade 1 to 5 only.

On demand
The board has now taken the system further such that 'on-demand' exams are available. You can take your theory exam when it suits you. Online exams remove the need for all candidates to sit their exam at the same time. That sounds like good news, but perhaps it misses a few points.

Firstly, in order to take an online exam, you need a suitable computer including a camera, plus a good, reliable internet connection. Good and reliable means that it has to be on and working well for the duration of the exam. The point has been made that not everyone has this luxury. Having delivered online practical lessons myself when face-to-face learning wasn't possible, I could vouch for the validity of that statement. Sadly, theory exams are not offered as an alternative to traditional written exams. They have replaced them.

Secondly, what about the musical aspects?

Written papers require marking. That job has been done in the past by a team or examiners awarding marks for each question, using controlled marking criteria. Several changes have been made in the past couple of years or so, resulting in questions being presented differently, or removed altogether. It all appears to have been leading towards the goal of online exams and automated marking, speeding the process no doubt, and reducing the cost of hiring the army of skilled examiners. As I have already stated, online exams were already in the pipeline. The pandemic simply speeded them into being.

I dislike the term 'dumbing down' and the board is keen to point out that online exams are testing the same musical knowledge to the same standard as their traditional written counterparts, but it's not easy to accept.

Let's look at a few things that have changed.

  1. The introduction of multiple choice questions
  2. Changes to the intervals question
  3. Handwriting anything at all!
  4. The removal of the 'completing a melody/rhythm' question

I have my own views of course, but have seen several eloquent statements from others that support them. Therefore I will give my own views, but will include the essence of some of what I have picked up along the way.

Multiple Choice
Starting with the multiple-choice questions (MCQ), this area appears to be the most controversial with many negative comments to be found. To state some positives, well, MCQs do remove the need for the requirement of any skill in the marking process, eliminate the need to ensure that a group of examiners interpret and adhere to the marking criteria consistently (but surely that is what moderation is for), and it does ensure that all candidates are treated equally. On the downside, it allows certain candidates to be prompted (the correct answer is, after all, plainly on view on the page), demonstrates nothing about musical knowledge other than having memorised a term or sign, shows no sign of how an answer is arrived at, and takes away any trace of creativity. Music theory has always been one of the drier aspects of musical education. Multiple choice takes us a few steps further into an even more arid environment.

I have read much about the science that goes into the process and the difficulties in creating MCQs that are fair and reliable. But I also also read about MCQ papers where questions exist where more than one correct answer is offered, and other questions where none of the answers is correct! A huge amount of work needs to go into the preparation of satisfactory MCQ papers, including pre-testing them with a wide range of students, statistical analysis of the results of such trials, and assigning a weighting to each question based on how many candidates, of various levels, get it right. Papers should also have a range of questions with varying 'weights' in order to be fair. Amongst the answers there should be a 'distractor' answer too, to give pause for thought.

One would hope and expect that ABRSM has been meticulous in its approach to the preparation of its new exam format and the questions contained therein. I have read comments from others that reveal suspicion. Personally, I cannot comment, except to say that I found one question in the 2019 practice paper rather tough given that it was supposedly at the Grade 1 level. The candidate was required to tick the correct meaning of the term 'ritenuto'. The following choices were available:

  • gradually getting quicker
  • slow
  • held back
  • gradually getting slower

Now 'ritenuto' (held back) is often abbreviated to 'rit.' but so is 'ritardando' (gradually getting slower). I would suggest that many at Grade 1 would have come across the abbreviation (i.e. 'rit.') rather than the full word as they were learning pieces. And knowing both terms associated with the same abbreviation is a bit ambitious. Of course, only one of the answers gets a mark.

Intervals
I am thinking primarily about the Grade 5 paper here and the intervals question is interesting. ABRSM say that they are testing the same requirements, to the same standard, but I see a difference here. Prior to the tick-box or mouse-click style of exams, a phrase of music was presented with several pairs of notes bracketed together along the way. The candidate was required to describe the interval between each pair of notes thus bracketed.

The modern equivalent has two notes isolated on their own little length of stave, complete with clef and key signature, but removed from any musical context. This is surely more straight-forward to answer? The clef and the key signature are right next to the two notes concerned for one thing. For another, there is no need to take account of any preceding accidentals in the bar, because there is nothing preceding the notes. Another step into that arid environment.

Writing
Remember the questions, particularly in the earlier grades, such as 'Add the correct clef...' and 'Write the scale of...'? Candidates had to draw either a treble clef or a bass clef in the space available to make the note shown match its given letter name, or write out one octave of a scale, noting the clef and whether ascending or descending is required, adding either key signature or accidentals as appropriate.

Not the same when you can simply mouse-click the required clef for it to magically, and neatly, appear in the space!

What about the phrase 'Marks will be given for neatness and accuracy'. Well, since the requirement to 'copy out the music to the end of bar 4' no longer exists, candidates do not have to write anything at all. Maybe the hand-writing of music is now seen as an unnecessary skill in the modern day of score-writing software and online exams, but shouldn't everyone be able to do it anyway, and have it included in the test?

The rhythm and melody question
Finally the melody writing question. Perhaps the biggest loss in the sweeping changes.

This question allowed so much scope for demonstrating musical understanding and ability. (I am including here the writing of the answering rhythm questions from earlier grades)

For one thing, the candidate is faced with a couple of lines of empty stave to fill! I am aware that this wasn't everyone's favourite question, but what an opportunity it was to show that you know about melodic shape, rhythmic interest, dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, and more. Balanced phrases (if that's what you wanted) with modulation half-way through, knowledge of cadences (all implied as you're only writing the melodic line of course, but they could be implied). It even required rudimentary knowledge of the instrument that you were writing for. What a question! But alas, it can't be marked by a computer and so has to go.

I can imagine that marking the melody (and even the lower grades rhythm) questions was interesting. It requires the assimilation of what the candidate actually meant, and whether it makes musical sense, something which can mean different things to different people. I'd like to think that those that used to mark theory exams were well up to those challenges and that the marks were reflective of the candidate's abilities. I am confident that this was indeed the case. But what scope the question offered for demonstrating understanding of so much. Furthermore, is actually allowed for some creativity, which is of course what music is all about. A rare opportunity for the candidate to express themselves musically as part of their exam, that has now become rarer still. This, along with the removal of the need to write anything at all, whether in words or musical notation, must lead to a less engaging examination process, and with less scope to show knowledge and musical ability.

Conclusion
Even a cursory glance through the sorts of questions that a candidate will now encounter during a theory exam reveals that the testing is limited to checking knowledge of stark facts about musical notation and terms. Bereft of any attmept to discover what skill, understanding and ability lies beneath that knowledge, and without any scope for displaying creativity, theory exams appear to have sadly taken a step backwards.

For many children (and adults), engaging in music theory has not been easy. It just got harder.

Last Updated: 20th Jun 2022

Back

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Copyright © 2020-2024 Robin Padgham.

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Copyright © 2020-2024 Robin Padgham.
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