Grade 4 Theory – Essential Notes

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Grade 4 theory introduces quite a few new ideas, taking the paper from a beginner to intermediate level. Eric Taylor’s Music Theory in Practise is the best book for practice material, using his AB Guide to Music Theory to help if you have any issues. Try working through the chapters in the following order, using these notes to help you to remember the essential points. When you have completed all the exercises in the book, try some grade 4 theory practise papers.

This guide should not be used as a replacement for lessons with a theory teacher – it is simply intended as a revision guide. Theory lessons are now taught using our new online system, Cadenza. Email Lauren at to book a lesson now.

  1.   Keys with five sharps or flats 

Begin your grade 4 theory exam by drawing a circle of 5ths:

circle of fifths

  • Major keys: Look to the key signature that corresponds on your circle
  • Harmonic minor keys: Find relative major by counting up 3 semitones, write key signature for relative major, sharpen the 7th note of the scale (from the bottom)
  • Melodic minor keys (ascending): Find relative major by counting up 3 semitones, write key signature for relative major, sharpen the 6th and 7th notes of the scale
  • Melodic minor keys (descending): Find relative major by counting up 3 semitones, write key signature for relative major

2.   Alto Clef

Alto clef

  • The middle line of the stave goes through Middle C.
  • Be careful of position of sharps and flats in key signature
  • A common mistake is to misinterpret the octave when rewriting in treble/bass clef

3.   Double sharps and double flats

Double sharps and flats

  • Double sharps are one semitone higher than a sharp, and double flats are one semitone lower than a flat
  • If a double sharp/flat appears within a piece, this may cancel to the natural OR to the single sharp/flat – be careful to check the key signature

4.   Breves, double dots, duplets

  • A breve is an 8-beat note


  • A breve rest is only used in a bar with 8 beats of silence. This would break the rule of a semibreve rest being used for a whole bar

Breve rest

  • Double dots lengthen a note by half + half of the half. e.g. dotted semibreve = 4 + 2 + 1 = 7 beats long
  • Duplets are used to show 2 notes in the time of 3 (opposite of triplets). Often used in compound time signatures, when wanting a dotted crotchet split into 2 instead of 3 notes.

5.   Technical names of notes in diatonic scale

  • Work out the key of a piece by checking the key signature in your circle of 5ths. If there are no accidentals, it will be the major key. The presence of accidentals usually shows a minor keys.
  • Working from the first note of the scale, the technical names are as follows:
  1. Tonic
  2. Supertonic
  3. Mediant
  4. Subdominant
  5. Dominant
  6. Submediant
  7. Leading note
  8. Tonic

6.   The chromatic scale

  • There must be at least 1 note in every line/space, but not more than 2
  • If possible, try to stick to sharps OR flats
  • Take note of the key signature, and remember to use natural signs where necessary

7.   Ornaments

  • Trill – move quickly between 2 notes


  • Turn – note, note above, note, note below, note


  • Upper mordant – note, note above, note


  • Lower mordant – note, note below, note

inverted turn

  • Acciaccatura (grace note) – crush one or more notes quickly onto another


  • Appoggiatura – small note takes half value of big note

  • An ornament written above a note will begin straight away
  • An ornament written below a note will begin with a longer note

8.   Instruments

You will be asked about different instruments, and the family they are from, in your grade 4 theory exam.


  • Violin (treble – non transposing)
  • Viola (alto – non transposing)
  • Cello (bass – non transposing)
  • Double bass (bass – non transposing)

Bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, harp.

String quartet = 2 violins, viola, cello


  • Flute (treble – non transposing)
  • Oboe (treble – non transposing, reed)
  • Clarinet (bass – transposing, reed)
  • Bassoon (bass – non transposing, double reed)

Piccolo, cor anglais, saxophone


  • Trumpet (treble – transposing)
  • Horn (treble – transposing)
  • Trombone (bass – transposing)
  • Tuba (bass – transposing)


Percussion (tuned)

  • Piano
  • Marimba
  • Xylophone
  • Glockenspiel
  • Timpani

Percussion (untuned)

  • Tambourine
  • Triangle
  • Maracas
  • Bass drum
  • Cymbals

9.   Triads and chords on I, IV and V

  • Work out which key you are in
  • Write down the notes of chords I, IV and V (by taking that note of the scale as the root, and adding the 3rd and 5th notes above it)
  • Use this as a key to identify and name different chords

10.   Intervals

Augmented                                 Augmented

MAJOR                                          PERFECT

Minor                                              Diminshed


  • First calculate the numerical value of the interval (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.)
  • Write out the major scale of the lowest note of the pair
  • If the 2nd note features in the correct place, it is a major interval. One step higher = augmented, one step lower = minor, 2 steps lower = diminished.
  • Exceptions are 4ths, 5ths and 8ves. These must be treated as perfect intervals, and changed accordingly.
  • If the lower note is too awkward to work from, you can change it by sharpening or flattening, as long as you do the same to the higher note

11.   Time signatures

  • This is quite in depth at this stage – I would recommend reading the appropriate chapters in AB Guide to Music Theory (1/2, 3/3, 5/1-3)
  • 16 at the bottom of a time signature means semiquavers
  • When changing from one time signature to another, be sure to identify where each beat falls, and ensure that you carry this idea through to your working
  • As ever, when beaming notes, make sure you are beaming into complete beats. In compound time, this will always be a dotted note

12.   Four bar rhythms and/or Writing a rhythm to words (you have a choice of one or the other in your grade 4 theory exam)

Four bar rhythms

  • Take into consideration the first bar, and whether or not it is complete
  • Use some of their ideas and develop them. Reuse their key features

Writing a rhythm to words

  • Read the verse very carefully, and think about where the strong syllables are
  • Words at the end of lines and phrases will probably get longer note values
  • Every syllable needs a note
  • Keep lines and phrases balanced and of similar lengths

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