Rockschool’s Popular Music Theory Graded Exams are a great asset for any musician, composer or teacher who is interested in studying the theoretical side of creating music. These graded exams will not only enhance your students’ individual instrumental knowledge but also focus on band interaction and how the instruments in a band function together.

Starting with Debut and progressing up to Grade 8, learners will develop the fundamentals of music theory which are universal across all genres which use ‘traditional’ staff notation and functional harmony. Using some of the best-known genres in Rock and Pop and some of the world’s biggest artists and composers as a stimulus, learners will also discover more about the lesser-known instruments, how these instruments are notated and how to arrange their own brass and string sections. On completion, learners will have the confidence, skills and ability to direct and work with bands, performers, studio engineers and composers.

Rockschool’s Popular Music Theory has been designed to complement and support the practical and analytical skills found at GCSE, iGCSE, A-Level, the IB and our own Vocational Qualifications and Graded Music Exams.

Thinking of going to University? At Grades 6, 7 and 8, learners can also gain up to 10 UCAS points!


Examination Content

The Graded Popular Music Theory Exams are available from Debut- Grade 8 and are split across the following sections:

Music Notation (20%)

Popular Music Harmony (25%)

Band Knowledge (25%) - this section is in two parts, with each part covering a range of instruments; Part 1: Identification Part 2: Notation and Techniques

Band Analysis (30%) - in this section the questions will include the identification of music notation, harmony, and the stylistic characteristics of Guitar, Bass, Drums, Keys, and Vocals in a multi-instrumental context.

At Debut, students will learn the basics of music notation, elements of popular music harmony and instrumental components and notation. The exam time is 60 minutes.

At Grade 5, students will learn the unique instrumental techniques and technology exclusive to various popular genres, and continue to make headway with harmony, notation and theory. The exam time is 120 minutes.

At Grade 8, students will learn complex music notation and popular music harmony, as well as analysing bands within multi-instrumental scores. The exam time is 180 minutes plus additional rest breaks.

All exams are carried out exclusively online so read on for more information.

The classification bands for Graded Popular Music exams are

Pass: 60%–74%

Merit: 75%–89%

Distinction: 90% and above.

Candidates will need to pass 40% of every section in the exam to pass overall.

Getting Started

1. Buy your Popular Music Theory Guidebook & Graded Workbook

Firstly, decide which grades are most appropriate for your students and then buy the appropriate Popular Theory Guidebook which are split into two levels; Debut- Grade 5, and Grades 6-8

Guidebook: Debut- Grade 5

Guidebook: Grades 6-8

You can also buy workbooks for each grade. These include sample papers so you can test what students have learnt in the guidebooks and ensure their theory knowledge is up to scratch.

Workbook: Debut

Workbook: Grade 1

Workbook: Grade 2

2. Study

The Popular Music Theory exams can be studied independently, as part of a distinct taught programme, or embedded into your existing curriculum or instrumental teaching. It is an excellent way of equipping students with the skills and understanding they need to analyse music from across the Western Classical, Jazz and Popular Music traditions. You can also register yourself – or source teachers – using our RSL Teacher Registry:

UK map of the RSL Teacher Registry Database

3. Enter for your Popular Music Theory Exam

Exams can be taken from the comfort of a students’ own home via a remotely-invigilated session or via a session invigilated by you at your venue at a mutually convenient time. Candidates can enter online for their exam via remote invigilation or your exam session can be arranged by contacting RSL Awards directly in the UK and Ireland; or through your local RSL Awards representative for international sessions. As the exams are all taken online, we are able to offer dates and times throughout the year with a high level of flexibility and efficient systems on the day itself and in communicating results. Please see our Popular Music Theory exam fees here.

4. Sit your exam

5. Receive Your Results

Pending moderation, candidates will receive their results online first, followed by postal confirmation shortly after.

We aim to release results a maximum of 3 weeks after the exam has been taken.


Further information

Hit the button below to download the Popular Music Theory Syllabus Guide

Theory Syllabus (502KB, .pdf)

Please also contact us via business@rslawards.com to find out more and to discuss any questions you have in more detail.

Download the FAQs below for further detail on how our Digital Theory Exams work, and how you can get started.

Digital Popular Music Theory FAQs

Ready to enter for your Digital Popular Music Theory exam? Click here to go to our online entry page, or if you'd like to arrange a private exam session then email business@rslawards.com.