Music Exams – good or bad?

Today I’d like your opinion on an important question – should we be putting our students through music theory exams?

I say this because I’ve got wonderful students that I’ve taught in the past with very different examination experiences with theory, and I wonder if you have had similar stories.

Firstly, lets meet Jane (all the names in this article have been changed for obvious reasons)

Jane is a great girl, quiet and hard working. She never achieves top marks in her practical assessments, even though she works really hard. She wants to be a music teacher one day, but never really seems highly motivated about anything.

She reached grade five level in her practical, and so after talking to her parents we all decided together that it was time to make a start with theory, before it all got too hard to fit in.

We started her on grade one, even though she probably was a little ahead of this level. We didn’t want to assume she had knowledge of theory so we started from the beginning.

This was the right choice for Jane, because as soon as she started doing the theory homework she started to understand more, and felt that she could achieve it.

We entered her for a grade one theory exam as soon as we could – and she loved the motivation of the exam coming up – it gave her the push to make her do the homework and complete the assignments.

When the grade one exam came she believed that she could get 100% – because we had told her that she could, and she went into the exam with confidence yet a serious attitude. She came away with …… guess what…. 100%!

This was a great motivational achievement for her, as she had almost never achieved 100% in her lifein any subject before. She then picked up in all her other musical studies – she was motivated to practice, went on to learn other instruments, and of course entered for the next grade as soon as possible. Good marks in grade two and three set her up for a musical career and entry into teaching studies.

Now… thats a good story of a great outcome from theory exams… but there is another side to this too from another perspective.

Tom is a really hardworking student, who gets mostly A’s and B’s in his school subjects, and if he isn’t achieving that level then his parents will do anything that is required to get him up to that level.

Tom came to us after studying music theory with other teachers, and showed all the signs that he understood the material in early theory grades.

When preparing for his second grade exam he would do all the homework on time, he would complete past papers very well and recite the musical terms easily, however when he sat for the exam he came away with….. a C!

A C was not acceptable for him or his parents – they knew that he was more capable than that.. but what went wrong?

He just made silly errors, rushed things, and didn’t perform in the exam room. He was capable and knew all the materials but the pressure of the exam constricted his abilities and results.

After consulting with his parents we decided that he should do the same grade again, even though he had passed we wanted him to come up to the standard that we knew he was capable of.

The result the second time?…. a B- !

Still not a result that he wanted.

Most concerning of all was the drop in his attitude over this time. Rather than a student who looked forward to coming to music lessons he gradually lost his interest. He became apathetic about it and we searched for other ways to inspire him about music.

Eventually we dropped music theory exams for him, as it really didn’t help him move forward with his musicianship, and he was a lot better off with his practical, without having to remember the negative experience he had with his theory.

So.. there are two strong views based on our personal experiences.

Everyone can say.. music exams are right for some people, and wrong for others… but how do we know as teachers?

Do we risk setting up negative anchors in students minds by entering them into exams?

Or are the potential gains much more, like what happened for Jane?

As usual, I’d love to hear your comments, feedback and input. The comments on this page are one of the most valuable resources, so please do leave a story of your own or an opinion on the topic… its most welcome!


  • By @rinari Reply

    Considering only the positive or negative results and subsequent attitudes of these students does seem to present conflicting support for exams, but there are a few ways of looking at even Tom’s situation, that support the side *for* exams. One consideration is that he is going to have to sit all kinds of exams in life, so perhaps this is an opportunity for him to learn how to manage them. Another is that perhaps it was partly the repetition of the same level that caused him to lose interest.

    I think we are all motivated to try putting students for exams by the fact that it gives them the motivation of having something concrete to work towards, and that a greater understanding of the theory of music leads to a higher level of musicianship in performance. Perhaps for students like Tom, or others who develop a negative attitude towards this process, we need to be more creative and less formalised in our teaching of theory (the old trick-them-into-learning), at least for a while, and could consider offering our own low-key exams privately.

    At the end of the day, we really want all of our students to learn, not just the ones who are going to have a positive experience doing exams!

  • By Rebecca Reply

    Why not give students the option of a written test? Students learn and express music in so many ways, confining them to one idea would be contradicting the subject we teach. We are charged as teachers with discovering how each student learns and achieves better. Why do we have to confine all students to the same thing? I love giving my students options. “Demonstrate on your instrument what this term means…explain the definition…find an example…apply to this situation…etc.” I have a hard time testing on paper a subject that can be so abstract.

  • By Ann-Marie Reply

    It is all individually based on what the client needs and/or wants from their music lessons. Some students just want to play and have fun. Others are driven with the desire to achieve in that field and so they would benefit from exam preparation and exams. As you have shown in your examples above, everybody’s needs and potential outcomes are different. We all learn in different ways. So the answer cannot be a blanket statement one way or the other. Instead exam preparation and the opportunity to sit for exams should be made available to those who wish to further themselves in their chosen area. Whereas, a more casual approach is necessary for those who choose to learn music for an escape from stress of day to day life.

  • By Jo Ellen Peters Reply

    I believe exams are good for children. How else can you really judge how much they have learned? Sure they can play for you and recite for you, but unless they know they have a exam to actually study for then you won’t really know how much they do know. I don’t think repeating an exam really serves much purpose, except to cause stress. Some children can just study for exams better than others. But, I don’t think that means the ones that can’t study good and get a good grade on an exam not take one.

  • By Rebecca2 Reply

    I think it is definitely a case of “horses for courses”. I think music students should all do the study but not necessarily have to do the exams, depending on the student and their goals. I have a lot of highschool students who are only beginners or are learning their 2nd or 3rd instrument. In most cases, I am teaching the theory but not requiring exams unless they want to continue to university with music or have a natural talent for it. With younger kids I encourage starting exams for theory as part of my aim to create well-rounded musicians. But I don’t push exams too early, unless they’re super keen. As a student, I sat my 1st Gr Theory exam in Yr 6 at school and got 100%. Naturally, my teacher and myself were thrilled! But then she pushed me to do 2nd AND 3rd Grade exams the next year (age 12) with my results dropping to 92 and then 78. It put me off theory for 4 years! (cadences were just too hard to understand at that age!) But when I resumed it I found I still had a knack for it and actually enjoyed it. Most students seem to have an aversion to theory, so best not to kill their love of music by insisting they do exams if they really hate the idea. If they want to pursue a musical career, they will want to do whatever it takes. 🙂

  • By Dan Reply

    My problem with exams is that they’re basically one person/company that creates a ‘system’ and then that becomes the focus for a year in lessons.

    Music and materials should be taken from many sources.

    I teach my students material that I have written, material that others have written, and help them write music for themselves.

    Exams can be a good way to get SOME students to focus, so I don’t disagree with them. But if that is the only study plan, then that’s a worry. It’s no longer music, it’s problem solving.

    I have recently started taking some students through the Rockschool exams (, as they seem more practical than most – at least for drums/guitar/bass etc. – but at the same time, we still learn other songs and technical aspects.

    Personally, I don’t understand why keyboard students aren’t introduced to chord charts earlier! If a child wants to learn classical music, then fine, but if a child is learning an instrument, they should be exposed to everything that instrument can do – ie. playing keyboards in a country/metal/jazz/pop/funk band, not just exams and recitals.


  • By Tim Reply

    I have in the past used exams a way of motivating my students to learn their instruments. I use it as a goal to aim for and also a rough gauge of how well they play their instruments. I always feel however that the one thing exams lack is any reference to a real performance!!
    I know people that are grade 7 & 8 that could never be part of a group that performs. They have only ever prepared for exams.

    I believe that exams have SOME purposes but they need to be used as part of a more holistic education package that we as teachers provide.

  • By Jane Reply

    I integrate theory from the time young children start music lessons. That way they receive little bits at a time, and it applies to what they are learning on the piano. I feel that it’s very important to be able to put the theory into practice. That’s when kids will understand it much better. If a student is very keen in music, then it’s time to consider a theory course, and running through a 1st theory course will confirm the student has understood all aspects of that grade level.
    Having said that, I’m not a big fan of exams. A few kids really excel. But, many of them become very frustrated, and they lose interest in working dilligently at their musical abilities.
    There’s no way to make a general decision about exams. We need to look at each student, and how exams will help or hinder them as a person. Their love for playing music should not suffer because of the frustrations of theory and theory exams. If they’re frustrated, we as teachers need to find a different way to help them understand how theory is part of what they’re already doing. Keep it practical! And, most of all, help students to love music!

  • By Wai Ling Reply

    Yes I agree exams is good to assess how much the child has learnt but I don’t enter my students for the theory exams in every grade. I’ll teach them according to their grades till they are ready for a grade 3 as their first exams then maybe a grade 4 or straight to a grade 5. We can go according to the students’ pace of learning and don’t push them for exams every year. Let them try the pass years’ exam papers after completing the syllabus in the theory work book, use the papers as a test and see if the students can manage. In this case both the teacher and students will not be so stress preparing for the exams every year. Theory lessons can be in a form of questions from the pieces the students learnt not necessary written work. Sometimes I find that if the students can learn their theory throught games and playing, they can understand better then from reading and writing. So let the student take their time to understand and discover how theory can help in their playing and send them for exams when they are ready or willing to go for it.

  • By Nathan Reply

    It depends on the age of the class and the content that you want to cover in your curricullum.

  • By Nathan Reply

    I am currently partaking in a research project regarding music assessment in general. I believe that formative assessment is the way in terms of performance aspects.

  • By Nathan Reply

    This one is for Tim: How did you exam your students? I am currently in search of a method that will allow for me to use formative assessment to positively affect my students in the understanding of music as well as preparing for a concert.

  • By Nathan Reply

    Are there any ideas on making formative assessments fun for the teachers and the students alike? thank you.

    • By janice Reply

      Hi Nathan – making assessments fun can be tricky! For some ideas you can have a look at the assessments included with our Printable Music Theory Books Products – There are multiple choice as well as traditional versions.

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