Review by Frances Taylor in Music Teacher Magazine pub. February 2008

“Music Theory is a subject which seems to engender strong feelings a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. On the whole music pupils tend to view theory as a bit of a chore, something which is necessary but not quite so much fun as the practical music making. Unfortunately you can only get so far without some serious theoretical knowledge and as a self confessed lover of theory I am delighted to see a new publication to lighten the burden that we theory teachers face.

Pass Grade 5 Theory is both comprehensive and innovative. It covers all of the knowledge required to pass the ABRSM Grade 5 Theory exam, although its author, Dorothy Dingle, does not write under the auspices of this examining board. Rather she is a music teacher working in schools and dealing with the very practical issue of having to get pupils through the Grade 5 Theory exam at short notice so that they can continue with higher grade practical exams on various instruments, as well as providing the more in-depth theory knowledge required for GCSE Music, A-level Music or A-level Music Technology.

Dingle’s book began as a series of explanatory leaflets and worksheets prepared for Years 6-8 in the schools in which she teaches and this is one of the great strengths of her fully developed scheme of work which makes up this book. It becomes immediately apparent that Dingle understands her subject thoroughly and how to make it both accessible and understood. I suspect that this is a result in part of going through the process of teaching her material, allowing Dingle the opportunity to craft and refine her work until it evolved into the final book.

The book is divided into 13 units, each of which covers basic concepts such as Pitch, Scales and Key Signatures, Intervals, Note-lengths and Rests, Time Signatures and so on. However, this crash course in theory, unlike other work-books available which treat each grade separately, deals with each subject in entirety. For example, in Unit 1 instead of introducing just the notes of the treble and bass clefs, pitch is taught for every clef: treble, bass, alto and tenor clef respectively. And yet no previous knowledge is assumed. Everything is explained simply ad concisely. The work unfolds naturally to include ledger lines and shared notes which have the same pitch but may be written differently on different staves. Suddenly quite difficult concepts seem logical and straightforward.

In the second unit, Scales and Keys, the order of the sharps is remembered with the first letter of each word in the sentence Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket. Similarly the order of the flats is remembered using the sentence Blanket Explodes And Dad Gets Cold Feet. I am not sure that either of these sentences sit comfortably with me but this is a small inconsequential detail. I am probably too attached to the traditional Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle and teachers are at liberty to invent their own mnemonic sentences. What is important is that this important tool for remembering is given prominence. The advice to make sure that pupils really understand key signatures is highly commendable since as is pointed out ‘over 50% of the marks given in the Grade 5 theory exam depend on a thorough understanding of key signatures’ – something quite often overlooked by teachers and pupils alike.

In this particularly important section on scales and keys all the pitfalls are noted. For instance, when writing a scale without a key signature a number of points needing to be checked are outlined, such as using a sensible starting note, leaving room for accidentals to be added later and remembering that if a starting note uses a sharp or flat then so will the final note. All basic things, I know, but theory teachers are only too well aware that lack of attention to detail makes the difference between answers being marked correct or incorrect.

Intervals are another topic which is treated with clarity. In the first counting exercise no clefs are used as they are unnecessary and the uncluttered page is a help to focusing on the task. Pupils are reminded to include the line or space on which the lower note is written and the line or space on which the higher note is written when they count each interval number (second, third etc). One has the sense that the pupil is constantly being supported and encouraged through each step. I particularly found helpful the diagrams with boxes showing a summary of the relationships between intervals. For instance, one box asks if an interval is one semitone larger than the one you would expect to find in the major scale which starts on the lower note of the interval. If it is then you follow the arrows to the smaller boxes which give a range of options, on this occasion, all are augmented.

Here as everywhere throughout the book the work is well set out with plenty of space for working out and drawing keyboards to check the relationship between notes. Periodically there are Remember signs for things which need gentle reminders, Notice signs for things which require extra attention and To Lean signs for things which must be memorised.

The crowning jewel of Pass Grade 5 Theory is the final section, General Questions. Like the rest of this book it is so much more than it seems and so worthy of praise. The instruments of the orchestra are listed together with their families and the clefs they use. in addition there is a list of performance directions which apply to certain instruments. Keyboard instruments and voices are also touched upon as are ornaments. It is brilliant having all this information in one publication. The whole book is in fact a fantastic resource and should help a lot more pupils to both understand and enjoy theory as well as pass that dreaded exam without tears!

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