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How to Stop Needlessly Losing Marks on Harmony Exams


As the advanced theory examination session is upon us, this article considers ways to stop needlessly losing marks on harmony examinations. Rather than discussing note, chord and voice-leading choices, it will consider issues relating to careful reading of examination questions, accurate writing of notation and rhythm, and attention to detail.


Awareness in these areas is essential for maximizing examination results. Small omissions or errors incurred when writing an exam can really start to add up in terms of deductions. These lost marks can make the difference between “First Class Honors with Distinction” and “First Class Honors” classifications, or indeed, between a “Pass” and a “Fail”.


1. First and foremost, students need to read examination questions carefully.


Even if students have completed several practice examination papers, they shouldn’t take anything for granted. Although we expect standard questions covering the studied material, details can vary. Hence the need to read and reread the questions to make sure of what is required. For example, does the question ask that the candidate indicate functional chord symbols or root/quality chord symbols? Or does a formal analysis question require that certain elements be indicated directly on the score and others identified by measure numbers?


2. Keep track of the question requirements.


Avoid missing any of the required elements by checking them off as they are completed. Double-check to verify that all points have been covered.


3. Set-up the melody-writing exercise.


This question has real potential for losing marks due to omissions and notation errors. Before writing a single note, take time to correctly set up the page. This would include drawing the:


· Grand staff brackets

· Clefs

· Key signatures on each grand staff (do NOT repeat the time signature!)

· Repeat signs (being especially careful about their placement at the beginning of phrase 3 – the repeat sign must be placed AFTER the key signature)

· Bar lines (a ruler is helpful)

· Structural phrasing marks (being mindful of the anacrusis if applicable)


4. Rhythm


· In the melody-writing exercise, are the rests of the correct duration? Do the note values at the cadences take into consideration the anacrusis (if applicable)?

· When realizing a cadential 6/4, does the chosen rhythm reflect the staggered voice-leading which sometimes occurs with this chord?


5. Notation

· Are all note stems going in the correct direction? Students need to be especially careful of this in melody writing, counterpoint, and keyboard-style realization questions.

· Are rests correctly positioned within the staff?

· In Bach chorale, have all the fermatas been indicated?


6. Other considerations


· Write legibly. Do not risk losing marks because the examiner cannot read the given answer.

· Be careful with regard to harmonic analysis questions which span multiple measures within a work. A page turn may be required to ensure that no measures have been forgotten.

· Standardize non-chord tone identification across the examination, providing a key if there are any doubts about being misunderstood.


A successful examination result depends largely on the student's comprehension of the studied material. However, careful reading of the questions, precise notation and attention to detail will avoid needless deductions and help ensure the best possible mark. These good habits can really pay off, so let’s encourage them in our students!


Do you have more tips? Please share them in the comments!


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