Grade 2 Music Theory Overview

Pass Your Grade 2 Music Theory Exam


Passing your grade 2 theory exam is not hard, if you know what you need to do, you practice in the right way, play with what you learn and put the time in each day. This guide will take you through everything you need to know about how to pass your ABRSM Music Theory Grade 2 exam, as well as all the information about applying and how it works on the exam day.

This is how the guide is laid out:

  • Essential Resources
  • Theory From Grade 1
  • Overview of Grade 2

The Exam Content

  • Notes/Rest Values
    • Triplets
    • Grouping of notes
    • Grouping of rests
  • Time Signatures
  • The Stave
  • Scales & Keys
    • Major keys
    • Minor keys/scales
  • Terminology & Symbols
    • Free flashcards
    • Full list of grade 2 terminology
    • Symbols

Essential Resources

As well as reading our guide, we recommend purchasing a number of excellent and comprehensive resources that will help you. Think of this guide like a 10,000 foot view and the following resources as utilities to help you embed the learning.

#1 Resource
The First Steps in Music Theory book is an absolutely vital reference book. Compact, succinct and thorough – Eric Taylor lays out everything you need to know in a really useful format.
#2 Resource
Music Theory in Practice takes the First Steps in Music theory layout to another level and goes really in depth. It’s very similar to a past paper (previous exam paper) but has lots of questions in it.
#3 Resource
Model Answers for Grade 2. Model answers are how the exam board would ideally like candidates to answer the questions. Sounds a little like overkill – but when it comes to describing music in words, students need all the help they can get. Describing something clearly in an exam will mean full marks. Describing something in a less-than-clear way can cause you to be marked down.
#4 Resource
Music Theory Past Papers for Grade 2. There’s nothing like actually ‘sitting’ a past exam to get a feel for how they phrase the questions and how long it takes to complete. If you have the Music Theory in Practice above, then these are not essential.

Theory from Grade 1

Things you will already be expected to know from Grade 1:

1. Note Values/Durations
Note values of semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver and semiquaver, and their equivalent rests (candidates may use the terms ‘whole note’, ‘half note’, etc.). Tied notes. Single-dotted notes and rests.

2.  Time Signatures
Simple time signatures of 2/4 3/4  and 4/4, bar-lines and the grouping of the notes listed above within these times. Composition of a two-bar rhythm in answer to a given rhythm starting on the  rst beat of a bar.

3. The stave.
Treble (G) and bass (F) clefs. Names of notes on the stave, including middle C in both clefs. Sharp,  at and natural signs, and their cancellation.

4. Scales & keys
Construction of the major scale, including the position of the tones and semitones. Scales and key signatures of the major keys of C, G, D and F in both clefs, with their tonic triads (root position), degrees (number only), and intervals above the tonic (by number only).

5. Terminology and Symbols.
Some frequently used terms and signs concerning tempo, dynamics, performance directions and articulation marks. Simple questions will be asked about a melody written in either treble or bass clef.

Overview of Grade 2 Theory

In addition to the Grade 1 info above, for Grade 2 you will be expected to be familiar with the following areas:

1. Note values/durations
Triplets, and triplet note groups with rests.

2. Time signatures
Simple time signatures of 2/2 3/2 4/2 3/8 and the grouping of notes and rests within these times. Questions will include the composition of simple four-bar rhythms starting on the first beat of the bar and using a given opening.

3. The Stave.
Extension of the stave to include two ledger lines below and above each stave.

3. Scales, Keys & Intervals
Construction of the minor scale (harmonic or melodic at candidate’s choice, but candidates will be expected to know which form they are using). Scales and key signatures of the major keys of A, B and E , and the minor keys of A, E and D, with their tonic triads (root position), degrees (number only), and intervals above the tonic (by number only).

4. More terms and signs in common use.
More italian terms and symbols. Read on for more information!

The Exam Content

Note/Rest Values & Their Groupings


Triplets are three notes squashed into the place of two. For example, imagine two notes of equal duration side by side (they could be crochets, quavers, minims – anything you want. Let’s simply visualise these as two squares:

two-squares-representing-two-beats-minA Triplet will ‘squeeze’ another one into that same space that the two are currently taking up without extending the time or duration. This is shown in the image below as an example.

Grouping of notes

In the exam, you will be required to write out rhythms in clear and appropriate ways. At all times when doing this, think ‘is this the clearest way of writing out this rhythm? Could it be grouped better?’.

For example, in the image below the grouping of 8 quavers in 4/4 is much clearer when it is ‘beamed’ in groups of 4 quavers (the bottom version) rather than the top one where it is somewhat random.

This is because the beats of the bar (shown in numbers 1, 2, 3, 4) can be clearly seen in relation to the rhythm.

Grouping of rests

Generally speaking, when bars contain both notes and rest, it is a general rule that a new rest should be used at the start of every silent beat. Again – this is because it is very important when reading to visually see where the beats are.

For example:

However, there is an exception to this rule when the time signature is 4/4. In this case a 2-beat rest should be used for the first two beats or for the last two beats – but not for the middle two beats.

For example:

There are many more examples of note & rest groupings that you will need to become familiar with & so we do recommend getting the first steps in music theory book to explore this concept further.

As we said in the beginning, to take this topic area further it’s worth purchasing some past papers from Amazon. 

Time Signatures

The time signatures from grade 1 all had 4 at the bottom of the time signature. This meant that the beat was written in crochets. Grade 2 adds new time signatures where the beat is actually written in different note durations.

This may confuse you at first, as people get used to thinking of the crochet as ‘the beat’. However, the beat is really something that we feel and that can be written by different note durations. For Grade 2 music theory, you just need to get used to thinking of the beat in the following three note durations:

  • minim – shown as a 2 for the bottom note in the signature
  • crochet – shown as a 4 for the bottom note in the signature
  • quaver – shown as an 8 for the bottom note in the signature

*Don’t think of crochets as the beat anymore – otherwise it will confuse the heck out of you! Read on…

Examples & explanations

2/2 ‘Two minim beats per bar’.

The 2 at the bottom means that the beat is felt as ‘half notes’ or ‘minims’. The top number (also 2) means that there are 2 of these minims per bar.

At this point, most people rightly say “isn’t that just the same as 4/4? after all 2 minims also equals 4 crochets (4×1 = 4 and 2×2 =4)”.

Whilst that’s correct, the misunderstanding comes from thinking of crochets and beats as the same thing. Both 4/4 and 2/2 time signatures do add up to 4 crochets – the don’t add up to the same BEATS per bar. In 2/2 there are only 2 beats ‘felt’ per bar and in 4/4 there are 4 beats felt.

This is often frustrating for anyone learning music theory in the abstract – but as soon as you start playing or listening to music in 2/2 v.s 4/4 you’ll start to understand. The same logic applies to the other time signatures.

3/2 ‘Three minim beats per bar’

  • The 2 at the bottom means that the beat is felt as ‘half notes’ or ‘minims’. The top number ‘3’ means that there are 3 of these minims per bar.
  • This is very similar to 3/4 as there are 3 beats felt per bar
  • but it is very different to 3/4 as there is space to fit 6 crochets into 1 bar.

4/2 ‘Four minim beats per bar’

  • The 2 at the bottom means that the beat is felt as ‘half notes’ or ‘minims’. The top number ‘4’ means that there are 4 of these minims per bar.
  • This is very similar to 4/4 as there are 4 beats felt per bar
  • but it is very different to 4/4 as there is space to fit 8 crochets into 1 bar.

3/8 ‘Three quaver beats per bar’

  • The 8 at the bottom means that the beat is felt as ‘sixteenth notes’ or ‘quavers’. The top number ‘3’ means that there are 3 of these quavers per bar.
  • This is very similar to 3/4 as there are 4 beats felt per bar
  • but it is very different to 3/4 as there is only space to fit 3 quavers into 1 bar (you could only fit 1.5 crochets into the bar!)

What are these different types of signature called?

  • Music with 2 beats (not crochets!) per bar is felt and called ‘duple time’
  • Music with 3 beats (not crochets!) per bar is felt and called ‘triple time’
  • Music with 4 beats (not crochets!) per bar is felt and called ‘quadruple time’

The Stave

In grade 2 you are expected to read notes up to two ledger lines away from the normal stave – in both bass and treble clef.

Ledger lines are extra lines to ‘extend’ the stave in increments and they look like this.


In grade 2 music theory you are expected to read the following notes:

In treble clef:


and in bass clef:


Scales and Keys

Key signatures and major keys

You are required to know 6 more major keys and their corresponding key signatures. Below are the key signatures, first the sharps and then the flats. In order, they are:

  • G major, (one sharp)
  • D major, (two sharps)
  • A major, (three sharps)
  • F major, (one flat)
  • Bb major, (two flats)
  • Eb major, (three flats)


Minor Scales

You’ll also be required to know about the melodic OR harmonic minor scales. However, to really prepare for this exam we think it’s important for you to really understand the big picture.

There are actually three types of minor scale for minor key, they are:

  • Natural
  • Melodic
  • Harmonic

The natural minor scale uses all the notes of it’s relative major (the major scale of the key signature) – more info on relative major/minor.

The melodic minor scale is the same as the natural on the way down but has a raised 6th & 7th on the way up the scale.

The harmonic minor scale just has a raised 7th on both the way up and on the way down.

The keys you will be required to know these scales in for the exam are: A, E & D. Here they are all written out:


Terminology & Symbols

Learning Italian terminology can be slightly tedious, but it is necessary to pass your grade 2 music theory exam for ABRSM.

Free Grade 2 Theory Flashcards

To help this, we’ve created a free, highly interactive flashcard set for you to use online. With this online platform, you can review and learn the material in lots of different ways. We’ve also set up recordings of each word in english and italian so you can really understand how it’s pronounced.

Full list of terminology

Below however is a full list for you to reference from.

  • a = at, to, by, fo, in, in the style of
  • al, alla = to the, in the manner of (alla marcia: in the style of a march)
  • allargando = broadening (getting a little slower and probably a little louder)
  • andantino = slightly faster than andante (but may also mean slightly slower)
  • assai = very (allegro assai: very quick)
  • con, col = with
  • dolce = sweet, soft
  • e, ed = and
  • espressivo (or espress. or espr.) = expressive
  • FP (fortepiano) = loud then immediately soft
  • giocoso = playful, merry
  • grave = very slow, solemn
  • grazioso = graceful
  • larghetto = rather slow (but not as slow as largo)
  • largo = slow, stately
  • ma = but
  • maestoso = majestic
  • meno = less
  • molto = very, much
  • mosso, moto = movement (meno mosso: slower; con moto: with movement)
  • non = not
  • più = more
  • presto = fast (faster than allegro)
  • senza = without
  • SF, SFZ (sforzando or sforzato) = forced, accented
  • simile (or sim.) = in the same way
  • sostenuto = sustained
  • tenuto = held
  • troppo = too much (non troppo: not too much)
  • vivace, vivo = lively, quick


The amount of symbols is very minimal, the majority of symbols required for grade 2 are introduced in Grade 1.