5 Common Mistakes Students Make on Music Theory Exams and How to Easily Avoid Them

Cite this article as:

Glory St. Germain. (August 3, 2022). 5 Common Mistakes Students Make on Music Theory Exams and How to Easily Avoid Them. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 25, 2024. https://ijm.education/music/5-common-mistakes-students-make-on-music-theory-exams-and-how-to-easily-avoid-them/

Mistake #1

As a piano and music teacher, theory exams can seem overwhelming to a music student so it is very important to know how to prepare for them.

Mistake #1: Not sure HOW to write a music theory exam.

One way to prepare is by doing mock music theory exams. When doing mock exams in your studio, create the same scenario as an actual exam. Set a date and time for the mock exam to start. Begin and end the practice exam on time.

Exam Tip #1: Plan to leave at least 4 weeks for mock music theory exams. Students should complete 8 – 12 mock exams before the actual exam.

Mock exams should be completed in an “actual exam” type format and setting. This builds knowledge and confidence. Begin with the music theory exam Set #1.

Just as students prepare for a piano exam, they would do practice exams. When doing practice music theory exams, students should arrive as their actual exam:

  • ARRIVAL: Arrive 10 – 15 minutes early to allow time to sign in and get ready.
  • SUPPLIES: Bring their own pencils (if they are not using a mechanical pencil, they should bring a pencil sharpener), eraser and ruler. There can be no “musical design” on any items they bring. Extra paper is the only thing supplied at an exam. Practice asking the “Exam Moderator” for 2 sheets of scrap paper.
  • COMFORT: Bring a bottle of water, tissues if needed, and a couple of candies (lifesavers, cough drops, etc.). Visit the washroom before the exam begins!

Mistake #2

Many students may have done piano, instrumental or voice exams, but this may be the first written music theory exam and knowing where to begin is essential.

Mistake #2: Don’t know WHERE to begin.

Before beginning the music theory exam, take a blank piece of paper and write out the UMT Chart. This includes writing out the Circle of Fifths. Use this to check the key signature for the major and minor keys when completing questions. Do NOT open the exam until the UMT Chart is written out. Remember to ask the Exam Moderator for a piece of blank paper.

Exam Tip #2: Use the UMT Map system to guarantee success.

The UMT Map is a series of 4 worksheets designed to ensure that the student has all memory joggers at their fingertips before beginning their exam. In the Ultimate Music Theory Certification Course, you will learn how to use the UMT Map system with your music students.

On the last page of the music theory exam should be a sheet with staff lines. If it is not there, ask the Exam Moderator for one.

Write out the key signatures on this page for all staves. (Basic and intermediate levels 5, 6 & 7 will need to know the treble and bass key signatures; advanced level 8 needs to know the alto and tenor C clef key signatures.)

Remind students:

  1. When writing an answer that uses a key signature, if the key signature is incorrect, then the entire question is marked as “0”. Students must place ALL sharps or flats in the key signature correctly on the staff. If even one sharp or flat is placed incorrectly, it affects the tonality of the scale or melody.
  2. When a key signature is at the beginning of the question, it affects ALL notes in the question UNLESS another key signature is placed after a double bar line (or unless an accidental is used in a measure). A double bar line does not cancel a key signature — only another key signature cancels a key signature.

Mistake #3

Sometimes students get nervous or confused when writing a music theory exam. They need to learn how to take steps to remain calm and take their time.

Mistake #3: Didn’t UNDERSTAND the question.

Read the instructions. This is so important we need to repeat it again and again; READ the instructions.

Exam Tip #3: Use the Double Check Method and the Double Do Method.

Underline the key words that are specific to that question. If the question has more than one part, complete the question in the ORDER of the instructions, one step at a time.

Double Check. Reread the question to be sure everything was completed and check (✔) each completed instruction off using your pencil.

Double Do. When you finish the exam, use the Double Do Method — go back and do all the questions again. Use your extra pages and extra staff pages. If your second answer looks different from your first answer, Double Check!

Read the instructions again. Which answer is correct? Be sure that the correct answer is written in the exam.

When using the Double Check and Double Do Methods, you are also developing life skills. We all complete tasks that require double-checking to ensure it is 100% accurate. Use the same system when completing the UMT Workbooks.

On an exam, students ARE allowed to underline and check off the instructions. The only things that are marked are the actual answers that have been written in the appropriate answer places.

Mistake #4

We use systems when doing piano practice or music theory review tests that sometimes are NOT used when doing music theory exams. By omitting these success systems, students often get confused.

Mistake #4: Get CONFUSED in music rhythm questions.

When adding rests, bar lines or time signatures to a given music rhythm, analyze the question.

Exam Tip #4: Use the UMT innovative + and ~ symbols when completing rhythm questions. This guarantees understanding of pulse and rest placement.

Before beginning to write your answer, write the basic beat and pulse below each measure in the question.

When adding rests, use the plus (+) sign to JOIN the strong + weak or medium + weak pluses and use the tilde (~) sign to NOT join the weak ~ weak or weak ~ medium pulses.

Students are allowed to write scoops, the + and ~ symbols, the pulse and the basic beat (or dotted basic beat for compound time) directly on their examination. This does not have to be erased after the exam is finished. The only thing that is marked is what is actually written IN the answer space.

Watch this free 7-minute video that reveals a new music theory system to learn rhythm & rests that actually helps students understand rhythm.

Mistake #5

In preparing for music exams (whether piano, instrumental, voice or music theory), being well prepared and confident is The Way to Score Success!

Mistake #5: Forget to CHECK the examination after completion.

Write a list of important things to check before beginning the exam and then be sure to check the music theory exam before handing it in.

Exam Tip #5: Use the “Check List” before handing in your music theory exam.

✔ Check that ALL the questions are answered. The exam will be written on the front and back of each page. Do not leave any questions unanswered.

✔ Check the clef, key signature and accidentals in each measure that may affect the notes. (Use the Circle of Fifths as a reference.)

✔ Check the technical degree names and their roman numerals.

✔ Check that you followed the “Double Check Method” for each instruction.

✔ Check that you followed the “Double Do Method” for each question.

✔ Check that all answers are written clearly and neatly. If the person marking has to “guess” at your answer, it will be marked as being incorrect.

✔ Check that you have written your candidate number on each page.

✔ Check the time! If you have time, “Triple Do” each music theory question! Do not leave the examination room until the time is completed.


In conclusion, navigating music theory exams successfully requires a strategic approach to preparation and execution. By addressing the common mistakes outlined in this article, students can enhance their chances of achieving success in these assessments. The importance of realistic mock exams, strategic planning, and understanding key concepts like the UMT Map system and the Double Check and Double Do Methods cannot be overstated. Additionally, maintaining composure during the exam, employing innovative symbols for rhythm questions, and conducting a thorough review before submission contribute significantly to a well-rounded exam strategy. The “Check List” serves as a final safeguard, ensuring that every aspect of the exam is meticulously reviewed before handing it in. By incorporating these strategies into their preparation routine, students can not only avoid common pitfalls but also approach music theory exams with confidence, ultimately paving the way for a more rewarding musical journey.

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