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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 6-8:
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Composers and Eras


Composers and Eras - Grade 7 Music Theory Score Reading

In the Grade 7 music theory score reading question, you might be asked to name a likely composer or era for the score. The composers listed will be reasonably famous ones, and the musical eras are normally divided into 100-year options.


Stylistic Characteristics & Clues

Baroque (1600-1750)

  • polyphonic texture (using separate, intertwining melodies)
  • “basso continuo” style with a keyboard accompanying solo instruments
  • “suite” genre pieces, (dances) including the minuet, gigue, sarabande, gavotte, bourée, allemande, courante,
  • period instruments such as harpsichord
  • instruments not invented yet: piano, clarinet
  • lack of dynamics and other performance directions
  • simple harmony that mostly stays within one key or modulates to a closely related key
  • use of ornaments such as turns, mordents etc.


Romantic (1820-1900)

  • rich, thick, dense texture (lots of notes at the same time)
  • increasingly complex rhythms and cross-rhythms
  • lyrical melodies
  • many performance directions, highly expressive and precise
  • large scale orchestras often with additional non-standard instruments
  • rapidly changing keys, often in unexpected directions, but still using the tonal (major/minor) system
  • large contrasts in dynamics and articulations


Classical (1750-1820)

  • light texture often with a solo melody with a chord-based accompaniment
  • balanced form (e.g. regular 4-bar phrases)
  • melodies based on scales/arpeggios
  • harpsichord not typical
  • piano and clarinet now in use
  • small scale orchestras
  • basic dynamics and simple performance directions such as accents, staccato
  • tonal harmony with modulations to mostly closely related keys
  • ornaments still in use, but less so
  • pedal marks not in used for piano


Modern (1900-2000)

  • dissonance
  • non-standard notation e.g. dotted bar lines
  • experimental techniques
  • non-diatonic harmonies such as whole tone scales, atonalism, serialism, jazz harmony
  • complex and irregular rhythms, frequently changing or unusual time signatures
  • highly precise performance directions



Famous Composers

It’s not possible to write an exhaustive list of composers whose names you should be familiar with, but here is a list of some of the names that have come up in Grade 7 music theory papers over the last few years:


Baroque (1600-1750) Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel,

Classical (1750-1820) Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

Romantic (1820-1900)  Rossini, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Wagner

Modern (1900-2000) Debussy, Ravel, Gershwin, Britten


You might be able to pinpoint a composer by the time period clues alone, but in some cases you may be presented with two or more composers from the same era. If so, you will need to know something more about the specific genres those composers were known for.


Always look at the language used – while any composer might use Italian terms, only a German composer will use German terms, and only a French composer will use French. German composers include Wagner and Bruckner, French composers include Chopin, Ravel and Debussy.

chopinChopinChopin wrote almost exclusively for the piano (including works for piano and orchestra).

Schubert is famous for writing lieder (“songs”). A lied is a song, usually for a solo voice with piano accompaniment, and is written in German.

Verdi and Rossini are known for writing opera and oratorios.

Gershwin wrote jazzy harmonies.

Debussy had a preference for the whole tone scale (e.g. C-D-E-F#-G#-A#)

Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner were famous for using enormous, extended orchestras



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