I'm sorry if this is not the correct place to post this question, I use many stack exchanges but this is the first time I have used the Music SE. I would like to learn music theory (ABRSM), with the aim of completing the exams. However, I do not know where to begin. Do I have to get a teacher or can I just teach myself, using the ABRSM music theory books?

My previous music experience, in case you wish to know is outlined below:

  • I can play piano at a Grade 8 standard, but have never gone through the 'grades system'. And so, I do not know many arpeggios and scales. Of course, I know of them, and I know different key and time signatures simply from reading and playing from sheet music, and so I would be able to work out a scale, but I cannot just play a scale on demand, instantly, from memory.
  • I am also, at the moment, learning to play the cello. I only began at the beginning of this year meaning I am Grade 1 (ABRSM) Cello.
  • Do get a teacher.
    – Neil Meyer
    Dec 11, 2016 at 16:48

3 Answers 3


The ABRSM theory example books are available, so there's no need to find a teacher, but, as Neil Meyer says, get one, at least for a few pointers. As a grade VIII player, you'll have a good idea of most of the theory, even if you're not aware of it, and could probably go in at grade III level initially.

So in answer to the actual question, start by yourself, and when you feel that things are getting tricky, find a teacher, but I guess for you, that may not be until grade V or even VI.

  • Thank you for your helpful answer. I think I shall do exactly that and if things get too difficult, I shall find a teacher for clarification. Dec 11, 2016 at 17:25

I'm a music theory teacher who specialises in training students for the ABRSM exams. If you want to take the exams, then it's a good idea to begin at grade 1, even though it will be quite easy. I frequently take on students who want to take grade 5 (or higher) and have large gaps in their knowledge - things like how to beam notes correctly into groups, for example. You will most likely whizz through the early grades, but will still probably pick up a fair bit of knowledge you did not have before.

You do not need to buy the ABRSM books, there are alternatives. My own website for example, has free courses for grades 1-8. Many people find the ABRSM books quite hard going, especially for the later grades (6-8).

Once you have passed grade 5, the exams are much more about using theory in a practical sense. Up to grade 5, you are basically learning the facts about how music is written down and works - notes, scales, chords, and so on. At grade 5, there is a composition question which is worth 15% of the exam, but the composition should showcase your knowledge of theory (key, cadences, structure and so on). For grades 6-8, a whopping 50% of the exam is given over to "subjective" questions - you are asked to write out 4-part harmony, need to understand figured bass and harmonisation, and the composition question is now worth 20%. For this reason, you will definitely need a teacher for grades 6-8, should you wish to continue that far - you need someone to guide you in your answers for this part of the exam.

The ABRSM also publishes past papers and model answers for all the grades - these are an essential part of teaching yourself if you want to take the actual exams.

Please see http://www.abrsm.org for more info about the exams and http://www.mymusictheory.com for lessons

  • Since it's only possible to take one exam per session, and there are 3 sessions per year, it will take nearly two years to reach grade V. I'd certainly have a look at each grade, but maybe go I, III, V for a faster journey. They're not cheap either. Also worth pointing out - taking practical grades past V need one to have grade V theory passed first.
    – Tim
    Sep 22, 2021 at 8:38

It is certainly possible to teach yourself using the ABRSM books. For up to grade 5, there's the pink book "The ABRSM Guide to Music Theory", which has all the stuff you need to learn, but in completely the wrong order. There's the little orange "First Steps in Music Theory", which is in the right order, but is a quick summary with little explanation. Put the two together, and between them they make a usable book.

There's the school exercise books "Music Theory in Practice". If you're teaching yourself, get the model answers book as well. There's also plenty of old exam papers you can get (four to each book), and again you can get the model answers books to test yourself.

And as Tim notes, you don't have to take all the exams - you're allowed to skip some if you want to.

  • You have to work trough all the books though. You cannot do grade 3 and skip grade 4 completely and then do grade 5. They all follow on each other.
    – Neil Meyer
    Dec 12, 2016 at 6:54
  • True, each exam may contain questions on everything up to that grade.
    – Simon B
    Dec 12, 2016 at 19:14

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