Why Bother Studying For RGT Popular Music Theory Exams?

Suzy Cramer explains how music theory has helped to broaden her musical horizons and points out that by applying a little bit of theoretical knowledge, we can all become better musicians. 

Like a lot of people I attempted to play various instruments at school, I made a little progress and then gave up each in turn as it started to become hard work. I could read music to a very basic level; we are talking treble clef notes, it all got a bit scary once they developed the little lines above and below the stave!

A big old cliché later and well into my thirties I bought myself a guitar, I could remember a little and I sailed through RGT Acoustic Performance Grades 1-3.

I then started to lose heart and felt that old childhood discomfort again. It was getting difficult but I realised that without reading music, you could; thanks to the huge range of books, online resources, sure-fire tab and pre-chorded songs, play guitar to quite a reasonable level. However, effectively you are just learning shapes and I should stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! However, I felt like I was missing out on becoming a musician, though I was pleased to have picked up the guitar again.

So, I ordered the first couple of RGT’s Popular Music Theory books and started to read them on my train commute, setting myself small tasks to carry out with my guitar when I got home. I would try finding a couple of notes on the fretboard or try to form notated chords, rather than just using standard chord boxes. This is definitely the hardest transitional discipline l went through, it forced me to go backwards and rethink what I had learnt in a different way. I then expanded this activity as I slowly went through the grades and suddenly realised that I already knew the location of most of the notes on the fretboard. I understood what I was actually playing in terms of scales rather than just seeing them as numbers across the fretboard. Five years, a banjo, a ukulele and a Grade 8 exam later, I can read music “fluently” in treble and bass clef. I see scales and modes as ways of making my music more interesting, not just as things you have to learn to pass an exam. I write and compose my own music, I also teach and play with other musicians. There are a whole host of other amazing things I could write a book about, let alone an article.

I thought I would share my experience and if I could give a quick answer to the question in the title of this article, it would probably be:

“Because it turns a one-dimensional guitarist into a three dimensional musician.”

Finally, here are some tips that I found useful along the way, in no particular order:

  • Focus on musicians you like and are genuinely interested in when preparing for the essay questions. If you are a massive music nerd like me, limit yourself to researching the question topic only and prepare practice bullet points with a fact per point.
  • Download all the past papers and go through one a week in the last 8-12 weeks leading up to the exam. Write down anything you are hazy on and seek help from a tutor, even if it’s on a casual, one-off basis. Limit yourself to the allocated exam time in the last few weeks of preparation.
  • Play through as many of your answers as possible on your instrument. This can also improve your playing, an added bonus!
  • Tackle every level in small chunks, whilst doing something else on the playing side. Maybe learn a new song, your brain will relate the two, it really helps you to remember stuff.
  • Give yourself a reasonable deadline as it keeps you focussed. I found that working through one graded exam a year was manageable, alongside a full-time job and other commitments

Many employers view music qualifications on a CV as a positive thing. Especially in the case of a mature candidate, it indicates an ability and willingness to learn new disciplines, even if a music career is absolutely the last thing on your mind.


Suzy Cramer pic

Suzy Cramer

2 thoughts on “Why Bother Studying For RGT Popular Music Theory Exams?

  1. This is a very inspirational article to me as I am a frustrated guitar learner. Some people can only progress effectively with the knowledge that underpins their learning and it seems that most guitar tutors leave out this theory as not being reqiuired unless the student wants to do grades . Every learner needs a complete framework of understanding the process. Thank you for highlighting this .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *