Music exams are a great opportunity for students to measure their achievement. Preparation for exams gives students motivation to practice harder and to improve their skills. Exams lay good foundations for music making while encouraging students to reach their full potential and also help them to take pride in their achievements.
Frequently asked questions
The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) is an organization in London, England established in 1889. Over 650,000 candidates participate in ABRSM exams each year from more than 90 countries around the globe. There are currently three categories of ABRSM exams: Practical, Theory, and Performance. All three exams span eight formal grades with additional advancement after grade 8 for Practical and Performance. Click here for available syllabi provided per instrument for Practical and Performance exams. ABRSM published materials are available for purchase online and largely required in order to take the exams. All passing students receive a world-renowned certificate upon completion. The exams are graded on a points system with four categories: Distinction, Merit, Pass, Fail.
The ABRSM Practical Exam is conducted live and in-person. It dedicates itself to the practice of music - applying music concepts in a way that generates a superior musical performance. This exam is divided into four parts to assess performance ability, technique, musical notation, and musical comprehension. They are:
- Three musical pieces spanning the different time periods in music history.
- Scales/broken chords/arpeggios or unaccompanied song for singing.
- Sight-reading test.
- Aural testing.
The ABRSM Theory Exam examines how music is created and explained through musical notation. It is a written or online question-answer test containing several musical concepts. It gradually becomes more difficult for each grade. Students must continually progress in their theory lessons to advance to the next grade level as the exam requires extensive prerequisite knowledge. Grades 1-5 take an online exam that can be done at home using their own computer. Grades 6-8 have an in-person, paper-based exam done in a group setting with other candidates.
The ABRSM Performance Exam is a video submission of four pieces performed uninterrupted. It focuses on students’ communication, interpretation and storytelling skills in a setting of their choice. This exam can be recorded anywhere, including a studio, church, or at home.
Trinity College London - Trinity College London is another internationally recognized music examination board based in the United Kingdom. They offer graded exams for a wide range of instruments, starting from Initial (beginner) to Grade 8 (advanced) and is recognized by many music schools and universities worldwide. Similar to ABRSM, they also offer a diploma program (ATCL, LTCL and FTCL) for more advanced students.
RCM stands for the Royal Conservatory of Music which is a worldwide music education program for a variety of musical instruments. The RCM education program is designed by grade level for each instrument ranging from preparatory to level 10, with an equivalent practical exam that can be taken at the completion of the grade.
Certificate of Merit® (CM) is an annual evaluation program that was created and developed by the Music Teachers' Association of California (MTAC) in 1933. The CM curriculum includes performance, technique, ear training, sight reading/singing, and music theory in one exam. There are eleven levels, from Preparatory through Advanced (Level 10) and the program requirements are set forth in an applicable instrument Syllabus (e.g. piano, strings, guitar, voice). Students who successfully pass the exam are awarded with certificates and special recognition. Outstanding young musicians are given the opportunity to appear on State Convention programs. Your teacher must be a member of MTAC to participate in this exam.
Huntington Beach School of Music only offers CM exams preparation for piano.
- Practical Exam has two sessions: spring and fall. The assigned dates and times come out a few weeks in advance.
- The spring exams occur sometime in April - June.
- The fall exams occur in October - December.
- Theory Exam:
- Grades 1-5 is an online format and are offered by Opus 1 every month.
- Grades 6-8 is a paper-based format and is offered by Opus 1 three times a year: spring, summer, and fall.
- Performance Exam is available every month (pending booking capacity) and students may record and submit their exam at any time.
For Trinity Exam, there's more information about Trinity's Music and Performing Arts qualifications in the USA on the following pages:
For RCM Exam, dates and deadlines for both practical and theory examinations, as well as details regarding theory examination timing can be found at this link.
CM Exam is held once a year in February-April depending on the MTAC branch of your teacher.
For ABRSM, Trinity and RCM there are no age limits. In fact, students at a young age all the way into adulthood have participated in these exams. The question is more a matter of a student’s skill level. In general, students should typically have had at least 1-3 years of formal private lessons prior to taking an exam.
For CM, students must be age 5 or older by October 31 to participate.
The longer a student prepares, the more likely they are to get the highest attainable score. Teachers tend to spend 6-8 months preparing students, though students new to the exams can sometimes take longer. Occasionally, under more cautious circumstances, teachers may encourage up to 1 year of preparation. It is advisable to begin preparing as soon as possible.
There are two approaches that you and your teacher can explore:
- Begin with a grade level that will be slightly on the easy side and confidently go into preparation knowing they’ll be ready when the exam time comes.
- Begin with a more challenging grade level that will encourage growth and offer a demanding course of study. The decision is largely dependent on how motivated a student is, how much formal training has already taken place, and availability of family support.
Our answer to this question varies on a case by case basis depending on three these general things:
- Are they working out of an ABRSM (or a RCM) book?
- Are their practice habits consistent?
- Do they plan to pursue music as a career path?
If the answer to all or some of these three questions is yes, then our answer is usually yes. For these types of students, the music exams are a great route to further their music education by keeping them motivated and goal oriented. What is also important to know is that it is never too late try! If this is something that perks the interest of a student, we are always on board to support and facilitate this path.
On average, preparation for an exam can take anywhere from 6-12 months and requires a serious amount of practice time and dedication to have a pleasant experience and receive a good mark. It is not a small undertaking – but a rewarding one!
Please talk with your teacher as soon as possible to discuss your interest and move forward with your preparation.