All About ABRSM Exams

In today’s video, we’re going to take a look at ABRSM exams – what they are, where you can take them, and why. Last month we did a similar video featuring RCM exams, so take a look at that if you’re located in Canada or United States, as it’s a very popular music school in those areas.

The RCM is the one I’m personally familiar with and certified in, but the ABRSM shares many similarities, and is available in more countries around the world – so I really wanted to talk about it today.

Let’s get started!

What’s the history of the ABRSM?

The ABRSM, which stands for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, offers a musical curriculum and exams around the world (in over 90 countries). It’s based out of the UK and has existed since 1889.

The ABRSM is possibly the most major musical organization in the world, with over 600,000 students taking exams each year. When you hear someone say they have their “Grade 6 in piano”, there’s a good chance they’re talking about the ABRSM grades (or, alternately, the RCM grades).

A cool thing about the ABRSM is that they’re also a charity – ranked in the UK’s top 200 charities by annual expenditure.

Where do you take them? What countries?

It would be entirely pointless for me to rattle off all 93 countries you can take ABRSM exams, so I’ll provide a link for more details:

ABRSM home page

It’ll show you your local exam centre, though I do find it difficult to find the location of exam centres outside of the UK – so be prepared to do some Googling to see what’s near you. I wish they had a complete international list somewhere, but I can’t seem to find one. If anyone else does, please hook me up with the link!

If you click the country in the top right corner of the ABRSM home page, you’ll get a full list of all the countries served (just not a list of the individual cities).

Other major examination centres

If the ABRSM is not up your alley, or there isn’t a local exam centre, here are some other options for you:

  • Trinity College London – over 600,000 exams each year (music, performing arts). UK, Ireland, Italy, Australia – around 60 countries.
  • RCM – based in Canada, also serves the US

We’ll talk about Trinity College London and the AMEB sometime in the future, just to fully explore all of your musical exam options. Stay tuned!

ABRSM exams: Levels

Before we really get into this, let’s take a look at what the ABRSM levels/grades are:

There is also an ungraded “preparatory” exam that young students can do.

Basically, most students make it to a grade 8 level (which is equivalent to about a grade 10 RCM level). The levels beyond that are diplomas, and are much more challenging – they’re meant for the serious music student/professional.

Exams vs universities

So how do these music schools, such as the ABRSM, differ from going to University or a music college?

They’re complimentary and run parallel to each other. Neither is a substitute for the other; you can complete your ABRSM grades to enhance your University education, but it’s not a complete substitute.

If you’re applying to a music program for University, most entrance exams/auditions will require you to play at a certain grade level, and they serve as a really important credential. Having exam experience and creds looks great on an application.

In general, if you’re applying for a University in the UK, having your ABRSM will be a big help. Not only will you possibly get UCAS credits for grades 6, 7 and 8, it’s going to help you prepare for an audition. Having your grade 8 ABRSM doesn’t automatically get you into school, but it’s about the level you’d want to be able to audition at. Specific music colleges will have more stringent entrance policies.

University equivalencies

Here’s a table of the ABRSM equivalencies and their corresponding NFQ level and other credentials. As a Canadian, I was unfamiliar with the NFQ, which is a scale that goes from beginner (1) to higher doctorate (10). It’s actually really interesting and I’m curious to learn more about it.

My UK friends, please let me know in the comments if I’m misrepresenting anything!

From a playing perspective, having your LRSM via the ABRSM is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. It’s not the same – you wouldn’t be able to, say, teach in an elementary school with an RCM certificate – but the skills you develop is similar.

The highest level of the ABRSM, the FRSM, is sort of the equivalent of a Master’s degree.

If you’re interested in being a music teacher, having ABRSM credentials can enhance your university credentials. They’re not substitutes for each other, but rather they enhance each other.

High school accreditation

In the UK, as we mentioned, you can get UCAS points for doing your grade 6, 7 and 8 ABRSM exams. These points help you get into universities and colleges, and are collected from things like your school grades.

So if you get good marks on your piano exams, it’ll help your educational future – even if you have no interest in applying to a music program.

The average student

The average but motivated student can reasonably expect to reach a grade 8 ABRSM level by the time they complete high school. It’s like the GED of music. If you reach this level, you’ll be able to enjoy music for life, even if you stop actively studying it as an adult.

The average student will also progress about one grade a year, just like school. Every now and then students can “skip” grades – like if they’re progressing very rapidly, start learning at a later age, or already have some musical knowledge before getting into exams.

Adults can take exams in the same way, purely for personal enjoyment! I think it’s really nice to not only learn piano, but to also have external validation – a grade level certificate – of your skills.

Determining your grade level

One question I get asked a lot is:

How do I know what grade level I’m at?

This is a question I addressed in the RCM version of this video, but I wanted to discuss it here as well, because not all of you are going to watch both!

There are no hard and fast rules (that I know of), but I try to assess this based on these factors:

-What kind of pieces can you learn comfortably? This would be something you could learn in 2 weeks to 1 month with relative ease (ie not practicing piano 3 hours a day).

-What kind of pieces are difficult for you, but you can still accomplish? These are stretch pieces, and usually take several months to learn well.

-What kind of pieces are too intense? These are pieces a level or two beyond a stretch piece. If you attempted to learn one of these, you would probably get extremely frustrated and make very little progress

-It’s also worth considering your sight reading skills. You might be able to play at a level much higher than you can read. If this is the case, I would probably knock you down a grade or two so that you can get better at reading, which will then allow you to advance more easily.

I would go to the ABRSM website and check out their syllabus, which they have listed for each grade. You can look at what kind of pieces are at each level, and their difficulty. From there, you can try out some pieces to get a sense of where you’re the most comfortable.

How long do grades take?

The general rule of thumb is that each grade represents about a year of steady practice. The standard trajectory for kids, depending on how young they start and their abilities, are as follows:

Some people are going to move faster, and other people are going to move slower. I try to keep it pretty regimented for kids, and more flexible for adults. So this timeline won’t make sense for everyone, but it’s what I keep in the back of my mind when I’m teaching and planning lessons.

ABRSM exams: Theory

In the ABRSM, there is a music theory exam you can take that corresponds with every grade. As far as my understanding goes, you don’t necessarily need to take every theory exam (just as you don’t need to take every practical exam).

However, you do need your grade 5 theory (or above) if you want to get your certificates for Grade 6, 7 and 8. You aren’t even allowed to take these exams until you’ve passed the corresponding theory exam.

This grade 5 theory exam is actually very high-level, and shows that you have a good understanding of the most important theory concepts in music (which will then help you learn the higher-level pieces).

One feature of the ABRSM is that you don’t necessarily need to write a theory exam to get this grade 5 certificate – you can also get your grade 5 in practical musicianship. For this exam, you need to show competency with writing music, singing/playing from memory, sight-singing and improv, and answering questions about a score.

When are exams held?

The exact, specific days that exams are held change from year to year, but they’re always around the same time.

There’s a spring session (usually March), a summer session (June/July) and an autumn session (Nov/Dec). The same sessions are available for theory exams as well. For specifics, visit this page.

Price range

In USD, you can expect exams to range from about $50 (Grade 1) to $110 (Grade 8). In CAD, that would be $65 to $150. But again, exchange rates are variable. This just gives you an idea.

How does RCM compare to ABRSM?

In this video’s North American twin, the one on RCM, we talked about how these two schools compared to each other.

First, the grades are organized a little differently – for example, Grade 10 RCM is pretty similar to ABRSM grade 8. The next level, ARCT, is fairly equivalent to DipABRSM (the next level in ABRSM).

From a grade-by-grade standpoint, they’re pretty similar. RCM grade 9 and 10 is tougher than ABRSM 8, in my opinion, since you have to learn more pieces and learn more technique. So I think holding a Grade 10 RCM is slightly more of an achievement than a Grade 8 ABRSM. But there are still further levels in ABRSM, so it all balances out.

Final note on ABRSM exams

I just want to make a final note about these exams. In addition to preparing a selection of pieces (3 pieces in the main grades) and technique (scales and stuff), you’ll also be required to demonstrate ear/listening skills and sight reading abilities during the exam.

For example, a grade 8 student will be required to quickly study a page of music, and then play it (slowly). They’ll also be required to identify cadences, chords, intervals, and so on by ear. The requirements are different for each grade, so you can check out the syllabus to see what you need to study.

Conclusion

Hopefully you enjoyed today’s video on ABRSM exams! Until next time.

xo,
Allysia

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.