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Why I wrote All-In-One Music Theory

Why I wrote All-In-One Music Theory

by Rachel Billings


I thought it may be helpful to write down a few thoughts in response to questions I’ve occasionally been asked (usually in relation to All-In-One to Grade 5 book, the first book I wrote and most familiar, although there are ten books in total which make up the All-In-One music theory series ).

Q. Why did you decide to write All-In-One music theory?
I didn’t ‘decide’ to write any music theory book/s, rather the material developed gradually from ‘a collection of individual, self-contained worksheets which were written originally to help my own students and free up valuable lesson time for the instrumental work it supports’ (quoted from the Preface page in All-In-One to Grade 5).

I started gathering my ideas during my first year of teaching in 2001-2002 (during my last year as a post graduate student at the RNCM) and, over the course of several years, the work sheets became numerous.

The Preface page in All-In-One to Grade 5 also explains my motivation behind writing the material… ‘Most music theory books can be wordy and daunting for the beginner (especially if they are young) and often information is presented in an unrelated way through a graded system, which, in essence, relies on dry repetition and rote learning of facts’.

To solve this problem I sought an ‘integrated yet progressive’ approach. All-In-one…  ‘maintains an overall progressive approach whilst never failing to expose the simple rules and patterns which underlie music theory. These patterns, once understood, are understood once and for all by the pupil, applying as much in the later grades as the former’…All material was written with the conviction that pupils gain satisfaction and enjoyment from their work if they understand why rules or conventions exist and, from the start, students are equipped with the bare bones of information needed to work things out for themselves independently of the teacher.’

All-In-One was intended to be a flexible, time saving method which keeps the focus, as it should be, on the music itself and learning to play the instrument:

‘teachers can introduce topics when best suits the need of the individual pupil; for instance in relation to pieces a pupil is learning’.

Ultimately, the driving force behind writing All-In-One music theory books was sheer frustration! I desired a fuss free and enjoyable approach and I couldn’t find the material I wanted for my students therefore I ended up writing my own.

Q. How long did it take you to write All-In-One to Grade 5 (and the books based upon this)?

From the time I wrote down my first ideas until the current, 2016 edition (and the new books based upon this) it has taken fifteen years in total. The first edition was completed in Sept 2008 after five/six years of compiling my material, but since then the book has undergone considerable revisions and substantial improvements in certain areas.

Q. Were there any memorable moments or particular challenges you encountered when writing All-In-One to Grade 5?

Yes. Problems fell into one or the other of two categories:

1) Writing the actual book.
Once the individual papers were written it took quite a while to finalise the structure of the book, meaning the order of the worksheets and how they link together (I tried to keep in mind the natural order I would used them for my own students although the Part 1 and Part 2 symmetrical structure also needed to work smoothly). For many days I had papers spread out on my lounge floor as I mulled things over. Several years later I also encountered specific challenges regarding the THIRD edition which contains substantial changes, especially to Chapter Three to make it ‘more suitable for students taking the individual grades en route to grade 5 without, most crucially, losing All-In-One’s integrated approach’. These changes created challenges when altering the ‘Graded checklists’ for ABRSM and Trinity students (click here to read about the substantial differences between the third and previous editions of All-In-One to Grade 5). All problems were finally resolved, but it took me some time to work out how it was possible to achieve what I wanted to achieve.

I also found it challenging to write the puzzles, especially ‘Crossword Grandioso’ in Chapter Four. It was originally intended to be half the size but ended up so large (81 words) because of my continual failure to square it off! I wanted a perfect square and, in my determination to achieve this, it kept growing and growing as I struggled to prevent words from sticking out here or there, until finally, somehow, I managed to get everything to fit.

2) Computer-processing the book.
By 2007, after five years of compiling my teaching material, all of the work sheets in ‘All-In-One to Grade 5’ existed in their basic form (i.e. meaning they were basically the same as found in the first/2008 edition) but still it was all hand written and not one page was on computer. An enormous amount of work needed to be done to get the book to ‘first edition’ status (Even at that stage, there remained a huge amount of work to do before the 3rd/2016 edition existed). Convenience dictated that my work should be on computer so that I could print out sheets quickly for students whenever I wanted (I was so fed up of having to take numerous trips to photocopy shops to photocopy everything for each student and the cost involved!). I approached a technically savvy ex post graduate music student to do the work but that idea was a mistake. The problem, as I discovered early on (which, in hindsight , is the reason I chose to self-publish), is that I like to remain in full control of everything; I know what feels right in terms of layout, spacing, font etc. …. I soon discovered it is nigh on impossible for one person to dictate their intentions to another, and expect them to be fulfilled in each and every way on every page. I was never happy with the results. After the unsuccessful attempt to get someone else to computer-process my book, I then made the decision to do it myself. In hindsight, this was the first step to self-publishing, but at the time my primary thought was that I had to teach myself how to computer process my material if I wanted to achieve anything  (in terms of appearance and layout) which approximated the results I desired. I knew it would not be easy because my knowledge of computers at that time was very poor (in 2007 I had only basic knowledge of Microsoft Office Word). It did take me a long time to master the Desktop publishing and Music Notation programmes and I worked late each night after finishing teaching, often well into the early hours of the morning ( I discovered helpful people on the help forums as I learnt how to use their software). The advantage of all this was that I was not dependent upon anybody and I could make changes to my work whenever I want to very easily. I loved the freedom that my new computer skills gave me. Very often an idea would occur to me whilst teaching and as soon as my lessons were over I would dash to the computer to make the necessary adjustments whilst fresh in my mind. One change might lead to another change and in turn affect material in other papers. My computer programmes and the skills I was learning in fact inspired creativity because I was able to make adjustments so easily and therefore write in such a free and unhindered way that would simply not have been possible had I continued with only pen/pencil and paper (I no longer had to tear up paper after every adjustment and spend hours rewriting everything from scratch by hand!!). I imagine my books would have been extremely different if l had been dependent upon someone else to computer process them and the process less spontaneous/inspirational. It is almost certain that the last (3rd ) edition would not exist because it would have been too hard for me to wrap my mind around its new structure which is more complex (beneath the surface) than previous versions (Chapter Three especially). The third edition would simply have not been possible without the help of computer programmes which made adjustments easy for me to do.


Q. Is the reason you self-published that you didn’t get accepted by a large national publishing company?

 No (This is not a question I have actually been asked but I am aware that people may think it because, perhaps understandably, self-published books can be viewed with suspicion).  I hope that my answer to the above question reveals the natural process by which All-In-One music theory came to be written. My primary concern in 2007 was to get things just as I wanted and therefore that, of necessity, led to me learning how to computer process my written work. One thing just led to another. I kept delaying sending my work to a recognized publisher (it existed only as a cloudy thought at the back of my mind) as I wanted more time to make my intentions (regarding format/layout etc.) crystal clear. At some point, somewhere along the road, I thought I may send my work off to publishers, just  ‘not yet’…. ( I knew from my experience with the ex post grad music student, how easy it was for intentions to be misunderstood). In hindsight, my issue was clearly one of wanting ‘control’ over every part of the process; I was concerned about details that most people would leave to a publisher to decide. When I ended up with a finished product I was happy with the next step (in September 2008) was finding a printer to print the smallest amount of books I could get away with (120) so as to equip my own students yet without being considerably out of pocket (meaning that if I had bought fewer books -as ideally I would have wished- the price per book that I paid to the printer would have been significantly more than the price I felt comfortable charging each student). I unavoidably had far more books than I wanted; some of these I gave away to friends and colleagues and others I sold by placing an advert in the members section of the ISM journal (‘Incorporated Society of Musicians’). However the thought of approaching a publisher with my finished work was soon squashed when shortly after my little advert was published (August 2008), Rhinegold very unexpectedly approached me to ask if they could write a review. They clearly viewed me as the publisher. The next few months were rather an anxious time and a flurry of activity as I prepared for a future print run. I received a very successful write up in February 2009 and when orders increased I felt that I had already done much of the work a publisher would have done plus I was rather curious to see what would happen if I continued doing things myself.  I decided to call this emerging enterprise ‘Aaron publications’.… The rest is history.

Eight years of hard work later (fifteen since I first started compiling my material) I occasionally wonder what would have happened if I had taken time out to explore having my work published by a large recognized publisher, but nowadays it certainly doesn’t feel right to do so. Funny that at the point when it could have felt ‘just right’ (just after the first 120 books were printed) my mind became quickly became immersed in other matters. It came as a big surprise when Rhinegold requested to publish a review of my book/s. My intention at that stage was merely to sell my excess stock and it had never once occurred to me that people other than music teachers read the ISM journal! I was quite taken aback by Rhinegold’s interest in my work and delighted by the review but, in the intervening five/ six months prior to its publication, I was acutely aware I was simply not yet ready for another, larger, print run! My book was still only in its draft/preliminary edition which was big (305mm x 240mm) heavy and cumbersome. Each book weighed 1.3 kg /1300 grams and had to be sent as a medium parcel, costing me a fortune in postage to send (The initial 120 hardback books I subsidised and paid part postage costs myself so I was in fact selling at a loss. Obviously I could not afford to keep doing this!). I was beginning to wrap my mind around the practicalities of selling my book/s, the chief concerns being weight and size. I spent many hours, days and weeks editing to adjust both margin and content, so that the text size would not be affected in a significantly smaller, lighter and user friendly edition. The hardback cover was replaced with a thick plastic protective shield which is equally durable, but that created further difficulties because not all printers are equipped with the machinery needed to fit this sort of cover combined with the tough spiral binding I wanted. Therefore several months of delays ensued before the paperback version could be printed (280mm x 215mm weighing only 725 grams). ‘Aaron publications’ became officially registered as a business in February 2009, to coincide with the publication of Rhinegold’s review and, in part so that my books could receive an ISBN number and be registered by the British library. Between August 2008 and February 2009 was a whirl wind of frenzied activity. I became a publisher out of necessity and public demand, largely aided by Rhinegold’s nice review.

The attractiveness of a large marketing campaign is appealing because advertising is not my strong point. I do not even know if it’s too late to request a big recognized publisher to publish my work, considering people would consider it ‘published’ already, albeit by myself.  I think I missed the boat; in hindsight it was ‘published’ when I gained the ISBN numbers, although I felt I had no option but to do this because it felt unprofessional to continue selling without ISBN numbers (also it added a degree of copyright protection since ISBN books are requested and date stamped by the British library among others). However my biggest concern regarding contacting another publisher, is that  I don’t think I could bring myself to hand over all my original computer files to another person/organisation (and with it, I presume a degree of copyright). The passing years have given me an increased sense of protectiveness about ‘my baby’( yes, I view All-In-one music theory somewhat as a child, born out of much labour and love) and I wouldn’t want another publisher to take credit for fifteen years of computer processing work which they have not done. Rightly or wrongly that is how I feel. Anyhow, I really like the name ‘Aaron publications’ and I don’t want to lose that name! (anyone who wants to know why I chose this name, just pop me an email!)

(All-In-One music theory books are available at .To see a list of shops (which we know about ) which stock All-In-one music theory books, as well as schools using my material please go to  Not all shops selling All-In-One Music Theory are listed on this website since many get their books through our music distributor Music Exchange


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The importance of music theory

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The importance of music theory; it helps many musicians perform better and provides a window into the composer’s mind and intentions.

The importance of music theory should be widely recognised. It is with good reason the ABRSM exam board say students must pass Grade 5 music theory exam before they can take grade 6, 7 or 8 practical exam on their chosen instrument. Yet most students do not study music theory in their instrumental lessons. The result is a mad rush to prepare for Grade 5 music theory just a few months, even weeks, before the exam and many students are not prepared. Why is theory not taught earlier as part of the instrumental lesson? There are at least three reasons.

The first reason is easy to understand; lack of time. There is already much to fit into an instrumental lesson; exercises, instrumental studies, pieces, aural training… The list goes on. Theory is too often tagged on at the end or forgotten altogether (until the exam date looms!).

Secondly, there is a real fear from the teacher that they will bore their student if they open a theory book. After all, isn’t music theory boring? Many people assume that it is and sadly this attitude is found in many teachers (and propagated since many teachers teach as they have been taught themselves) . The problem is that theory is taught by rote and people are used to the old “jigsaw method” whereby dry snippets of information are given bit by bit, in the hope that they will eventually piece together and make sense to the student. For many that day never comes!

Also, thirdly, a few teachers worry that the parent may misunderstand if they devote more time to music theory. After all, isn’t the child being sent to an “instrumental” lesson? Will the mum or dad object if occasionally the instrument is put to one side and they spend half their time looking at a theory book?

Obviously, it is hard, if not impossible for a musician to write a piece of music if they have little theoretical knowledge. Which time signature is best to use? How do you group the notes, rests and beam the tails accurately? How do you indicate your intentions? Basic knowledge is essential if the music is to be written clearly and legibly. Grade 5 theory also involves some knowledge about orchestral instruments in general. It is ludicrous to write a piece for clarinet which cannot be performed because the notes are either too high or too low for the instrument. It would be silly to write ‘accelerando’ (which means get gradually faster) when you in fact wish to tell the performer to slow down (‘rallentando’). The importance of music theory for composers should be obvious.

Some musicians may object to any mention of the dreaded two words “music theory” and respond; “But I’m not a composer, why bother? Anyway, I learn theory whilst learning a piece of music”. That is true, to a certain extent, but the result is often mere surface knowledge. Yes, you may be told that 12/8 time signature means count four dotted crotchet beats in a bar or that the current piece you are learning is in B major, which has five sharps. But does that make sense? It has proven hard to remember rules presented in such an abstract fashion. But not only that; can you be satisfied with such meagre understanding? Don’t you wish to know why these particular numbers are chosen and the reason such rules and conventions exist?

Too often the response is; “Music theory isn’t important, let’s just get on with playing the instrument!” But knowledge of music theory should be an essential ingredient in any music lesson since it can help a person to play better on their instrument. This statement should not be misunderstood! Of course some students, with a good ear, know instinctively how to phrase and shape a melody without much knowledge of music theory. However, for other students, to whom this does not come naturally, a little knowledge of the building blocks used to write a piece of music, whilst not guaranteeing a musical performance, can only be beneficial. Music theory, after all, is largely about how music works. All musicians (even non pianists!) should know a little about chord progressions and the direction/feeling produced by certain chords written in a particular order  ( so called ‘harmonic progressions’). Certain chords naturally create the feeling of tension and relaxation which in turn dictates the way the melody is shaped. At the basic level, this knowledge is about cadences. For example, an ‘Interrupted Cadence’ (chords V-vi) creates the feeling of instability, whilst a ‘Perfect cadence’ (V-I) feels final and complete.

Some chords are unusual for the period in which they are written; for example a ‘diminished chord’ in Classical music. It is good to be aware that the composer intended this chord for dramatic effects. Anyone would find it helpful to memorize a piece of music if they know about its structure and we should recognize brief but important pivot chords (that perhaps suggest a moment of hesitation in performance) which are responsible for changing the entire course of a piece of music and setting it off on a different emotional route.

Musicians should desire to understand the music they play and learning music theory is part and parcel of achieving that goal. The importance of music theory should not be underestimated. It can provide a window through which we are able to understand the composer’s mind and intentions, enhance our appreciation of music and help many musicians feel more fully connected with the music they perform.

Do you agree? (Comments welcome below)

Please read the Preface page from My own music All-In-One Music theory books , which explains the need I felt to write All-In-One music theory. The  All-In-One Music Theory Books explore simple rules and Patterns which apply across the Grades, avoiding as much as possible a segmented/learning by rote approach

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Differences between ABRSM and Trinity College London music theory

Differences between ABRSM and Trinity College London music theory exams are outlined in the All-In-One music theory books

Endorsed as ‘BEST MUSIC THEORY’ by Victoria College Examination Board (December 2019)

Differences (as well as similarities) between ABRSM and Trinity College London Music theory syllabuses can be seen on the graded checklists which are displayed at the beginning of the All-In-One music theory books. 

ABRSM Graded Checklist  (first of two pages)

Trinity College London Graded Checklist (first of two pages)

There are some similarities as well as differences between ABRSM and Trinity College London theory exams.  ‘All-In-One  music theory’ books (THIRD ed), unlike most others, are suitable for BOTH Associated Board (ABRSM) and Trinity College London students. One reason for this is that students can easily navigate their way through the grades for either examination board by referring to the Graded checklists at the front of the book (and tick off the topics when they have been completed).

ABRSM students require only one book (All-In-One to Grade 5/All-In-One: Grades 1-3 or All-In-One: Grades 4-5) however Trinity College London students using All-In-One to Grade 5 also require the ‘Trinity Supplement’ booklet (£3.99) to use alongside. You are advised to see the graded checklists within the book itself to understand in detail the similarities and differences.1

ABRSM is the most popular examination board yet Trinity College London exams are equally recognised qualifications. Trinity is perhaps most suitable for instrumentalists learning pop music or jazz due to its inclusion of jazz chord symbols (as well as Roman notation). It focuses upon composition (at an earlier stage) via adding a bass line to a melody or vice-versa. Trinity students, unlike ABRSM students, are expected to know about ostinato (common in jazz music) , syncopation, sequences (real and tonal) the ‘natural minor’ and pentatonic scale, inverted intervals, arpeggios, broken chords and a little about the guitar and saxophone.

The All-In-One series of music theory books contains a Trinity Supplement booklet with topics closely related to those already studied in the main book (e.g. ‘broken chords’ can easily be understood by anyone with knowledge of the tonic chord and inversions). Therefore anyone, not just Trinity students, will find the ‘Trinity Supplement’ highly beneficial and the next logical step.

Compound time signatures are introduced at grade 3 for both ABRSM and Trinity students. However,  ABRSM students are expected to know a wider variety of key signatures at an earlier stage than Trinity students.

Unsure which exam syllabus to follow? Why not start with All-In-One to Grade 5 book/All-In-One: Grades 1-3 or All-In-One: Grades 4-5 and decide when you are ready, in your own time. If you wish to learn the few extra subjects required by Trinity College London syllabus, progress to the Trinity Supplement booklet (or simply turn to the ‘Appendix’ at the back of the All-In-One: Grades 1-3 and 4-5 books). Which exam syllabus do you prefer and why; Associated Board or Trinity College London?

Update December 2019: Did you know that All-In-One Music Theory now also features a ‘Victoria College of Music Graded Checklist (VCM)’? Rachel Billings has rewritten the lower grade Music theory syllabus for Victoria College Examination board, following their request, to fit in well with her All-In-One books. There are many advantages about taking VCM exams. Read more about the partnership between Aaron publications and Victoria College Examination Board clicking here

1. Students using All-In-one: Grades 1-3 and Grades 4-5 book do NOT require the additional Trinity Supplement booklet because these books already contain this material in the Appendix).