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!