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RCM Grade 8 Theory: Tips and Techniques for Successfully Transitioning to the Online Exam Format

In June, I started working online with a Grade 8 theory transfer student who needed to finish the course in view of a planned August examination. As we proceeded to complete the book, she duly registered for the “in person” examination, although the possibility of an “online exam” could not be discounted. My student was really hoping for the usual written exam, as she was comfortable in the traditional format. We timed the completion of the book by mid-July, to provide plenty of time to review and possibly switch to the online practice tests if needed (and once access was granted.)

When we were advised that the exam would indeed be online, I duly consulted the downloadable materials, videos and webinars provided by the RCM. During one of our lessons, my student and I watched the Level 8 RCM Online Theory Study Guide Walk-through.

After watching the video, my student commented that she found the “scariest” part of the transition to be the visible countdown clock and the 10-minute limit for the unit tests (and the 60-min limit for the final exam). So “beating the clock” would become the focus of our last few weeks of lessons. Using Zoom, she shared her screen as we worked through practice tests for two or three Units at a time. Her weekly assignment was to do additional practice tests until comfortable enough to complete the Unit tests.

As we explored the new question formats, we noticed some questions encompassed many layers of thinking (keys, accidentals, clefs, degrees) to come to the correct answer. In the units dealing with intervals, scales and melody-writing, the time-limit was initially problematic, in part because the online approach to answering the questions was unfamiliar. Repeatedly completing the practice tests would reveal strategies to solve these issues.

I strongly believe that any advanced music theory student, whether sitting a traditional or online exam, should be thoroughly familiar with and have memorized certain key concepts. This becomes particularly important in the context of a timed exam, which requires rapid analysis and answering of "mental-math"-type theory questions. Memorizing would assist in the rapid identification of:

1. All keys and their respective key signatures

2. All modes and how to quickly construct them*

3. Chord quality of each degree of major and minor keys**

4. Functional chord symbols for all positions of triads and chords

I've compiled a list of time-saving tips and tricks particular to each unit. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and not every question type is covered. I based my comments on what I discovered with my student and focused on the questions that tended to use up of a lot of time on the clock. Many of the strategies involve a systemic approach, often proceeding by elimination. Above all, students must read each question very carefully.

1. Unit 1: Pitch and Notation

a. Pitch Identification

  • Determine the key to eliminate some answers:

    • Presence of raised leading tone indicates a minor key

  • Check the clef to correctly identify the note and determine the degree answer among the remaining possibilities

b. Transposition

  • Proceed by elimination:

    • Non-identical intervals (different pitch relationships): not a transposition

    • Is it the same key signature, but a different clef?

    • Different key signatures? Look at the interval between the starting notes of the examples:

      • perfect 5th: French horn or English horn in F

      • major 2nd: trumpet or clarinet in B flat

2. Unit 2: Rhythm and Meter

  • Observe the pattern of division of hybrid meter in bar 1, as it determines the pattern of rests in bar 2 (for example, is 7/4: 3+3+2, 3+2+3 or 2+3+3?)

  • Be mindful of metric strength when joining beats or divisions of beats

3. Unit 3: Scales and Key Signatures

  • If accidentals differ when ascending/descending: it’s melodic minor

  • If accidentals are the same ascending/descending, it’s

    • Harmonic minor

      • If a sharp out of sequence (e.g. F-C-G-E)

      • If a flat is missing (_-E-A♭- missing B)

    • Major if all required accidentals are present

4. Unit 4: Intervals

  • Read carefully: Does the question require identifying the interval “as is” or its inversion?

  • Remember that compound intervals start at the augmented 8ve; when inverted add up to 16.

5. Unit 5: Chords and Harmony

  • Chord identification

    • Read carefully: is this question using a major or minor key?

    • If minor, some degrees have multiple possibilities depending on whether the raised leading tone is present in the chord:

      • Mediant: III or III+ (raised LT)

      • Dominant: v or V (raised LT)

      • Subtonic: VII or Leading tone: vii° (raised LT)

  • Chord inversion identification

    • Identify if chord contains 3 or 4 notes to eliminate half the answers.

    • For root/quality questions:

      • If chord is inverted, check the bottom note, as often only one correct answer is possible

      • If there are two possibilities, determine chord quality by means of the key signature and raised leading tone if present

  • Cadences

    • Use the key signature to determine the major/minor key options

      • Raised leading tone:

        • indicates a minor key

        • is NOT present in the Plagal Cadence – careful!

    • Verify bass notes to determine cadence type.

    • Do not choose the answer with the leaping treble clef chords. The correct answer will contain common tones, smooth voice-leading, and contrary motion. Remember that contrary motion is absolutely required in the Half Cadence (IV-V or iv-V).

6. Melody Writing and Analysis

  • Melody Writing

    • Determine the key by the

      • Key signature

      • Presence of leading tone

      • Downbeat or chord of first measure (tonic of the key)

    • Position bar 8 (final note is the tonic of key)

    • Position bar 7 (approach to final tonic through supertonic of leading tone, will outline dominant chord)

    • Position bar 4 (unstable note, will be a note of the dominant triad)

    • Position bars 5 & 6 (these will consist of either fragments in sequential repetition or an inversion of a motive from bars 1 or 2)

    • Place bar 3 (easy to determine at this point, usually outlines tonic or subdominant harmony and leads smoothly into the note of bar 4)

  • Chord Progressions

    • Determine the key (watch for the raised leading tone in minor)

    • The progression is determined by bass notes

    • Be mindful of the use of upper- or lower-case functional chord symbols for major or minor quality

  • Motion

    • Parallel motion: voices move in same direction with identical intervals

    • Similar motion: voices move in the same direction regardless of intervals

    • Contrary motion: voices move simply move in the opposite direction

    • Oblique motion: one voice is stationary

    • Static motion: both voices are stationary

  • Chord identification

    • A cluster chord has no gap between any of the notes.

    • A polychord resembles a cluster but is two different chords written together. There will be a gap present between the two chords (a line or space without a note.)

  • Analysis

    • Identify the key by checking for the

      • key signature

      • presence of leading tone

      • downbeat note (or chord) of first bar (likely the tonic)

      • final cadence (most often Authentic, occasionally Half)

    • When identifying the quality of intervals or chords, be mindful of

      • The key signature, as one of the notes may be affected by it

      • Any change of clef

    • Double-check that what looks like a V chord isn’t actually a V7 or possibly vii°7.


*Modes: a helpful chart of the is found on page 52 of the Grade 8 Celebrate Theory book. When I teach modes, I use a three-step process for each exercise:

  • Identify the major key from the accidentals: 3 sharps (F-C-G#) = A major

  • Identify the degree of the given starting note: if starting note E = dominant of A major

  • Identify the mode corresponding to the starting degree: Mixolydian = mode which begins on the dominant degree of a major key

**Chord quality: Once a student understands the hows and whys, they need to memorize quality of each chord in major and minor keys. (see Celebrate Theory, Level 8, p. 76). Automatic identification saves time and will be extremely useful moving forward into Harmony.

Major scale

Major: I – IV – V

Minor: ii – iii – vi

Diminished: vii°


Natural minor scale

Major: III – VI – VII

Minor: i – iv – v

Diminished: ii°


Harmonic minor scale

Major: V – VI

Minor: i – iv

Diminished: ii° – vii°

Augmented: III+

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