We’re going to talk about the different exam categories of grade 4 piano: song categories, the technique that’s required, as well as ear and sight tests. Linked below is a copy of the online syllabus which is free to use and has all this but in more detail.
Grade 4 piano: Overview
Grade 4 piano generally corresponds with your sixth year of piano as a kid (oftentimes the start of the third or fourth year of piano as an adult, depending on how hard you work).
Grade 3 was the first intermediate level of piano (beginner is preparatory to grade 2). Grade 4 is very similar to grade 3 in terms of content, just at a slightly more challenging level.
Grade 3 is the first year we begin to approach Classical sonatinas, and you’ll find more of them in grade 4. Musical texture becomes more challenging this year, something you’ll notice especially with Baroque selections. For modern and Romantic pieces, it’s all about balance and expression – and more challenging rhythms.
So grade 4 is considered “intermediate” (everything between levels 3-6 is considered intermediate). Once you hit Grade 7, that’s when things start getting advanced.
Grade 4 piano is a really exciting time. Grade 3 can be a bit of a shock (jumping into sonatinas especially), but by grade 4, students are starting to get more comfortable with the increased challenge. This is where the music becomes more elaborate and interesting (both to play and listen to), and repertoire options continue to expand.
Grade 4 RCM and Grade 4 ABRSM start to diverge in terms of difficulty. Ultimately, RCM grade 10 is roughly equivalent with ABRSM grade 8, and right in the middle is where things start to split.
In general, grade 4 ABRSM is a little more difficult than grade 4 RCM (though you don’t have to learn as many pieces). Pieces at a grade 4 ABRSM level range from a grade 4-7 level in the RCM.
For Grade 4 RCM exams, you need to prepare 5 pieces: 2 etudes (studies), and 3 repertoire pieces.
For Grade 4 ABRSM exams, you need to prepare 3 repertoire pieces.
Grade 4 piano: List A
The RCM and ABRSM both have 3 categories for pieces at this level – List A, List B and List C.
List A pieces in the RCM are Baroque dances. There are some minuets like in grade 3, and many more pieces from Bach’s classic Notebook for Anna Magdalena, which you should definitely pick up if you’re an intermediate student.
Other dances include marches, musettes, airs, and many others. There are also a couple of Telemann Fantasias at this level.
Baroque pieces at this level are written in contrapuntal style (2 voices), so they’re often very challenging studies of hand independence. This means that, instead of the left hand simply playing chord patterns, both hands are playing simultaneous melodies.
In the ABRSM, List A merges both the Classical and Baroque eras, but there’s a much stronger lean toward Classical repertoire. In this section you’ll see movements from a Haydn sonata, and Vanhal, Kuhlau and Clementi sonatinas.
I say this every time, but this is almost always the most difficult category for students. Classical and Baroque pieces are generally the oldest styles we learn on piano, and thus they’re the most unfamiliar. They generally require the most dexterity and hand independence.
Next up, List B’s.
In the RCM, this means Classical and Classical-style repertoire. This is where you’ll find all of the sonatina movements by Clementi, Diabelli, Gurlitt and others. There are also a few other Classical selections that aren’t sonatinas, such as Beethoven’s German Dance.
Sonatinas are very challenging compared to other repertoire at this level, requiring a blend of really important skills and techniques, such as:
-Classical accompaniment styles, such as alberti bass
When I was learning piano, I was always frustrated by the challenges of Classical-era music like sonatas and sonatinas. They would be the pieces I procrastinated on. But once I was able to play them, I often found them to be the most fun. They have a ton of variety, and they’re often really fast. They take a while to perfect, but they end up being great “show-off” pieces.
The ABRSM’s list B choices are a little different. Since the List A encompassed Baroque and Classical eras, the list B is Romantic-era music (19th Century). Romantic-era music is generally very well-loved because of its expressiveness, and because it’s much more similar to modern music (it’s generally very chord-based).
Hofmann’s Scherzo is a well-known tune at this level, though it’s quite difficult (the RCM puts it at grade 7). We also see Schumann’s Merry Peasant from his op. 68 Album for the Young, and Tchaikovsky’s Mazurka from Album for the Young.
Finally, we have List Cs. They’re pretty similar between the RCM and ABRSM – they focus on modern 20th and 21st Century pieces.
This is an absolutely huge category in the RCM syllabus, with over 100 selections to choose from. In addition to pieces from Schumann and Tchaikovsky’s collections (along with other Romantic composers), you’ll come across modern genres like jazz and blues. You’ll find mood pieces and character pieces. This is the category for Christopher Norton, Martha Mier and Mike Schoenmehl, who are some of my favorite modern composers.
Though the ABRSM’s music selection is always much smaller, the list C category covers a diverse range from Jazz, to traditional tunes, to Kabalevsky.
Regardless of whether you use ABRSM or RCM, the list C category is generally the most loved category of music.
RCM requires a fourth and fifth piece to be learned, called studies or etudes. These are songs designed around a specific technical concept, like light staccatos, working with fifths, chromatic scales, and stuff like that. They can be old or new, quirky-sounding or more traditionally song-like.
You’ll encounter composers from Czerny to Bartok, to modern composers like Schoenmehl and Gillock.
RCM pop selection for grade 4 piano
The fifth, and optional, category in grade 2 piano is pop pieces. I don’t like to omit this category! There’s a pop syllabus for the RCM as well, which I’ll link to here: RCM pop syllabus.
Basically, if you do an exam, you have the option of substituting a pop song for the study. You can play a pop song that is either at your grade level, or the grade immediately higher (so grade 4 or 5).
In this section you have lots of fun choices – everything from really modern tunes from Glee to movie tunes from Mary Poppins to pop songs by guys like Sam Smith.
That covers, in a nutshell, every repertoire selection for an exam. Let’s move on to the other important study categories!
Grade 4 piano technique
First, let’s talk technique. RCM grade 4 sees us continuing to do 2-octave hands-together scales in major, melodic and harmonic minor keys. Just like in grade 3, there’s a 2-octave formula pattern to contend with as well – though this one is more challenging since it’s a C harmonic minor formula pettern.
The biggest technical changes from RCM grade 3 to 4 are:
-triads are now hands together
-arpeggios make their first appearance
Grade 4 is the first year you see arpeggios in the RCM syllabus (they appear earlier in ABRSM).
In the ABRSM, you also need to be able to play scales hands together, in the form of melodic, harmonic and major scales. One big difference from the RCM, though, is that you also need to be able to play them hands separately.
Unlike the RCM, there are no triads at this level in the ABRSM – just hands-together and hands-separate arpeggios.
The biggest change in ABRSM grade 4 is that all of the arpeggios are to be played either hands separately or together, and the chromatic scales are now hands together (as well as hands separate).
So we’ve talked about the repertoire, and we’ve talked about technique. That makes up the majority of your learning and practice – but there are two more important categories that we shouldn’t overlook:
Sight reading and ear training.
Sight reading involves reading a song fragment on the piano, off the cuff. The RCM sight reading for this level is quite a bit easier than the ABRSM. Expect it to be 4 measures long, in common major and minor keys (like C, G, D and F major, and A, E and D minor). Time signatures will be either 3/4 or 4/4, and the rhythm won’t be any more complicated than 8th notes.
You also need to sight read a rhythm for the RCM grade 4 exam by tapping a steady beat. This will also be 4 measures, but the rhythm will be slightly more complicated (dotted 8ths/16 notes might be included).
In the ABRSM, the sight reading passage will have eight measures, and could possibly be in more unusual keys like Bb and Eb major. One benefit over the RCM, however, is that they do give you about half a minute to look through the excerpt, and test anything out that might be confusing. With the RCM, they prefer if you begin playing after a mere 10 or 15 seconds to glance over everything.
Then we have the ear tests. In the RCM, you have to listen to the examiner play something and clap back the rhythm and identify interval distances. You have to discern the difference between major and minor chords while also being able to identify specific notes in the chord such as root, third and fifth. And finally, you’ll have to “play back” a short little ditty that the examiner plays (they’re short and 1-handed).
For the ABRSM, you’ll do a melodic playback (imitating something on piano) OR a melodic singback (singing what the examiner plays on piano). New to grade 4 is being able to sing 5 notes, a capella (no accompaniment) from a score (the examiner will help by playing the opening chord). The examiner will play something on the piano, and then ask you musical questions about it. Finally, you’ll do a clapback (you clap the rhythm of something the examiner plays).
Grade 4 piano exam percentages
Finally, let’s talk percentages. These percentages are exactly the same as in grade 3.
More on the syllabus
In the RCM syllabus, there’s a big song list of all the pieces you can play at a grade 4 level, in each category (List A, List B, and so on). Definitely check that out – if you like, you can buy the grade 4 RCM/ABRSM books, as they have a good, diverse collection of the pieces and then there’s no guesswork involved – you know the pieces are all going to be at the right level.
Another route is to get books that include these grade 4 pieces – these books often have songs at a variety of levels, not just grade 4. This is a good route to take if you want to have a more interesting piano book collection, or if you want to diversify beyond the pieces provided in the Grade 4 books.
In the near future, I’ll talk about my favorite grade 4 level books and why, so stay tuned for that.
Hopefully this has provided you with some general information about Grade 4 piano through the RCM and ABRSM.
If you have any questions about grade 4 piano, or things you’d like to see me discuss in a video, please leave a comment below! I always love your feedback, and want to help you out as much as I can.