A music exam board has been accused of "dumbing down" test papers by introducing multiple choice questions, as Julian Lloyd Webber warns British students could lose college places to foreign applicants.
Students must pass a Grade 5 theory exam to be allowed to take Grades 6, 7 and 8 - the standard required for higher study - in their chosen instrument.
The Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) Grade 5 theory test currently includes composing rhythms and melodies, simplifying scores, and setting words to time patterns.
But from next year these traditional elements will been shelved and questions where a student previously had to write the definition of a musical term will have multiple choice answers to pick from.
The board insists that the decision will bring musical education into the modern era, and that tick-box questioning is an “accessible, effective and reliable way to test” the skills and knowledge of budding musicians.
However, it has proved unpopular with music teachers, who fear that it could devalue the grading system and force British conservatoires to recruit more foreign students due to a dwindling pool of domestic talent.
Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Julian Lloyd Webber, principal of Birmingham Conservatoire and brother to the composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber, warned that a drop in standards at entry to intermediate level could derail the entire process.
“What concerns me is that any drop in the standards may hinder the progression of British students to be considered good enough for their own music colleges, their own conservatoires,” he added.
“Anything that lowers the standard of progression through these exams cannot be seen as a good thing. Because it’s exceptionally important.
“We can’t just be relying-or we shouldn't be-on educating overseas students. We obviously welcome overseas students, but we want to see the British students coming through.
“If you get to the point where you go through the exams and you’re not good enough to get into a music college, that is not a good situation.
“If the grades are not stringent enough then we will have a problem when it gets to the final exam. The final Grade 8 exam used to be the pinnacle - the knowledge that you’ve got a Grade 8 distinction.
“As principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, I do not want us to get to the point where, when you pass Grade 8, you may not be at the level to enter a British music conservatoire. That is really worrying.”
Meanwhile, Pauline Carter, a piano teacher with more than 30 years experience, said the changes amounted to a “dumbing down” exercise, adding that she was now considering changing exam boards.
"Schools no longer have to address music as a core subject in the International Baccalaureate. And the national curriculum has sidelined music completely, she said.
"The Associated Board is supposed to be at the forefront of musical education. And if they are dumbing it down then there’s no hope for anybody else is there."
Echoing their comments, Don Gillthorpe, director of Music and Performing Arts at Ripley St Thomas Academy, Lancaster, said the changes may have been made to make “marking easier”.
“I think a lot of teachers want to make life easier by choosing things which pupils will enjoy," he continued. "And although music should be an enjoyable thing to do, sometimes music also needs to be hard in order to get better at it.
“I think sometimes we lose sight of what the children need to learn, and focus more on what they're going to enjoy or find easy straight away.”
Mr Gillthorpe said he was concerned that the changes would drive up “grade inflation” because the board had removed content designed to “effectively separate the stronger candidates from the weaker ones”.
A spokeswoman for ABRSM said that exams would continue to adhere to the same “rigorous standards”, adding that its commitment to teaching “core musical skills, knowledge and understanding is unwavering”.
“As part of our responsibility to teachers and students, we review and refresh all our assessments on an ongoing basis.
“Multiple choice questions are an accessible, reliable and proven way of assessing certain aspects of knowledge. They are an existing and accepted element of school exams and the vast majority of candidates will be familiar with them.”