ABRSM Grade 1: The Basics

Today’s episode is all about ABRSM Grade 1 (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music). In a previous video I talked about grade 1 through the RCM, so if that’s something up your alley, definitely check it out as well.

About the ABRSM

The ABRSM is London-based, but is available in 90+ countries, so if you’re curious if you can do the exam in your neck of the woods, be sure to check out the ABRSM website. That is one of the major benefits of ABRSM over RCM – it’s available in more locations, since RCM is mainly Canada, US and UK.

As a disclaimer, I’ve never put a student through ABRSM, because RCM is the dominant exam/piano structure system in Canada. However, I’ve put enough kids through the RCM, so the ABRSM system isn’t too hard to grasp.

ABRSM Grade 1: Technique

For Grade 1, the technical requirements of ABRSM and RCM are very similar – they both involve 2-octave scales and triads of similar keys (a few majors and minors). If you want specific details on what scales and stuff, check out the ABRSM grade 1 syllabus for complete details.

Sight Reading and Ear Development

The sight reading component is a little more complex than grade 1 RCM, in that it could be in any of 5 keys – C, G, F major, or A or D minor. The ear tests involve actual singing – they don’t expect you to be a great singer, but you do need to be able to carry a tune in order to copy something they play on the piano with your voice.

Otherwise, the ear test is pretty simple – you have to be able to tell the difference between legato and staccato, and loud and quiet. You need to listen for changes when the examiner plays a musical phrase twice. Unlike the RCM at this level, you don’t need to know intervals, which, to me, is what makes this ear component a little easier.

ABRSM Grade 1: Repertoire

The biggest difference between RCM and ABRSM lies in the repertoire. For ABRSM at a grade 1 level, you only have to prepare 3 pieces (it’s 4 with the RCM). The categories are the same – list A, B and C – there just aren’t studies or pop songs.

Another big difference is that there are only 6 pieces to choose from per category, which is significantly more limited than the 100+ options per grade level you get with the RCM. I think this can be both a pro and a con – sometimes lots of selection can be paralyzing, but if you don’t like any of the 6 choices, you’re kind of hooped.

A plus side to the 6 options per category is that the syllabus changes every couple years, unlike every 8 years with the RCM. Less pieces, but a quicker turnover.

Out of those 6 choices per category, 3 per category can be found in the official ABRSM grade 1 publication. What a neat and tidy system!

List A

The list A pieces are all baroque and classical, and fairly standard ones at that – you might have heard some of these pieces before. Clementi, Haydn, Mozart, and Neefe are the big names on the list.

List B

The list B section ranges from the 1800 to 1900s – the late classical and romantic eras. If you’re familiar with etudes, you might be familiar with composers like Gedike and Gurlitt, included in this category. Compared to the RCM, this section is most comparable to the etudes.

List C

List C is where you get into the newer, more excitingly-titled pieces, like “The House on the Hill” and “Calypso Joe”. All of these are expressive pieces designed to build interpretation skills through use of dynamics and articulation. These can be compared to the RCM’s list B category.


And that’s really all there is to it. ABRSM Grade 1 is far simpler to understand than the RCM syllabus just because the options are so much more limited – as mentioned above, that can be both a pro and a con.

My suggestion is that if you’re using ABRSM, great – but if you’re looking for more repertoire options, visit the grade 1 section of the RCM syllabus for more ideas, especially when it comes to things like jazz and pop.


Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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