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All about grade 5 piano (RCM/ABRSM)

In today’s video, we’re going to talk all about grade 5 piano through the RCM, as well as grade 5 ABRSM piano. These are two major systems of grading, exams and levels in the piano world.

We’re going to talk about the different exam categories of grade 5 piano: piece 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.

RCM Syllabus

ABRSM Syllabus


Grade 5 piano generally corresponds with your seventh year of piano as a kid (oftentimes the start of the fourth or fifth 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 5 could be considered solidly in the intermediate realm (early advanced starts at level 7).

According to the RCM syllabus,

“At Level 5, students encounter longer and more varied forms, fuller

harmonic  textures,  and  an  increasingly  sophisticated  interplay  of

melody  and  accompaniment.  Technical  requirements  expand  to

include dominant 7th chords.”

Grade jumps seem to feel more dramatic every two levels or so. I find grade 1 and 2 to be pretty similar, but the jump to grade 3 a big leap. Grade 3 and 4 feel pretty similar, but again, the jump to 5 feels like a leap. At this intermediate level, you need a really solid foundation set in earlier years.


Grade 5 difficulty level

Grade 5 RCM and Grade 5 ABRSM are a little different 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. I generally tend to consider grade 6-7 RCM and grade 5 ABRSM to be roughly equivalent.

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 5-8 level in the RCM.

For Grade 5 RCM exams, you need to prepare 5 pieces: 2 etudes (studies), and 3 repertoire pieces.

For Grade 5 ABRSM exams, you need to prepare 3 repertoire pieces.

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 as well as some early fantasias and sonatinas (all Baroque era). You’ve got the first Bach Little Prelude appear on this list (with more to come in future grades), some Scarlatti sonatas, and some dances like the March, Allemande and Minuet. There are also a couple of Telemann Fantasias at this level.

Most of the 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. You’ll see Bach and Handel, and movements from sonatinas and sonatas by guys like Haydn and Kuhlau.

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.

List B

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, like Beethoven and Mozart dances, and a Hummel Romance.

Sonatinas are very challenging compared to other repertoire at this level, requiring a blend of really important skills and techniques, such as:

-scale passages

-cadence patterns

-Classical accompaniment styles, such as alberti bass

Sonatinas (and easier sonatas) are generally the longest pieces you’ll play for your exam. Where your list A and C might be 1 page, maybe 2 pages, the sonatinas tend to be multiple pages. You only have to learn 1 movement of a sonatina for your exam, but I like to go all the way and my students will often learn all 3 (or 4) movements of a sonatina. It’s a nice challenge, and reward, to be able to play a 10-ish minute piece at the end of it.

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). My students almost always prefer this category above others.

We see Sibelius’s The Harp Player, Bloch’s Dream, and of course a Schumann piece from his Album for the Young op. 68 (In Remembrance).

List C

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. There’s plenty of Bartok, Carroll (an underrated favorite for intermediate students), Kabalevsky, Shostakovich and many more.

Though the ABRSM’s music selection is always much smaller, the list C category covers a diverse range from Jazz, to traditional tunes – Gillock, Poulenc and Prokofiev are more well-known amongst those.

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. This is the category of pieces with the shortest selection.

You’ll encounter composers from Czerny to Bartok, to modern composers like Gillock, Kabalevsky and Tchaikovsky.

Pop music

The fifth, and optional, category in grade 5 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 5 or 6).

In this section you have lots of fun choices – Falling Slowly from Once, Ghostbusters, Dancing Queen, Summer Nights…it’s a great category!

That covers, in a nutshell, every repertoire selection for an exam. Let’s move on to the other important study categories!

Grade 5 technique

First, let’s talk technique. RCM grade 5 sees us continuing to do 2-octave hands-together scales in major, melodic and harmonic minor keys – just faster than grade 4. There’s a 2-octave major and minor formula pattern to contend with as well.

The biggest change here is the addition of dominant 7th triads. These, along with the arpeggios (newly introduced in grade 4), are played hands separately. I’ll be doing an entire video on dominant 7th triads so stay tuned for that!

In the ABRSM, you’ll see a really big jump – you now need to be able to do all major and minor scales, hands together, 3 octaves. You need to be able to play them hands separately as well.

You’ve also got some contrary motion scales for the first time, and chromatic scales starting from any note. And like last year, you have the hands separate-and-together arpeggios, now in all major and minor keys.

Up until now, I would’ve considered the RCM technique to be more difficult (and definitely more diverse). This year, though, the ABRSM is probably more difficult just because you need to know ALL the scales.

Sight reading

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 grade 5 is going to be around a grade 2 level (both for rhythm and playing). You’ll need to be able to tap a steady beat in one hand while tapping a given rhythm in another (or sing-speaking it). You’ll then be expected to take that rhythmic excerpt and sight read it on the piano.

The sight reading excerpt might be in ¾, 4/4 or 6/8, and might be in a major or minor key with up to two sharps or flats in the key signature. The excerpt will be approximately 8 bars long.

In the ABRSM, the sight-reading passage will have 8-12 bars and be in a variety of time signatures like 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 3/8 and 6/8. It’ll be in a more difficult key signature (E, Ab majors, F#, C minors). You’ll be stretching outside of the 5-finger position. Some other features might include 4-part chords (2 notes max. in either hand, simple syncopation, and slowing of tempo at end.

The ABRSM 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.

Ear training

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, minor and dominant 7th chords, and listen for if a chord progression moves from I-V-I or I-IV-I. And finally, you’ll have to “play back” an 8-bar ditty the examiner plays – doing a clapback first, followed by a playback.

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 6 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 5 piano percentages

Finally, let’s talk percentages, starting with RCM. These percentages are exactly the same as in grade 4.

Pieces (List A, B, C): 56%

-list b is worth the most, 18%, where the other songs are worth 16%

-an extra 6% is awarded for memory (2% per song)

Technique (scales and stuff, as well as study): 24%

-all technique is worth 12%, and the two studies are worth 12% (6% each)

Ear tests: 10%

Sight Reading: 10%


Pass: 60%


Now let’s look at the percentages for ABRSM, which are also identical to those in grade 4.

Songs (List A, B, C): 30 marks each (total 90, or 60%)

-each song is worth 20% of the overall mark

Technique: 21 marks (14%)

Sight Reading: 21 marks (14%)

Ear tests: 18 marks (12%)


Total Marks: 150


100 marks needed to pass (66%)


In the RCM syllabus, there’s a big list of all the pieces you can play at a grade 5 level, in each category (List A, List B, and so on). Definitely check that out – if you like, you can buy the grade 5 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 5 pieces – these books often have songs at a variety of levels, not just grade 5. 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 5 books.


In the near future, I’ll talk about my favorite grade 5 level books and why, so stay tuned for that.

Hopefully this has provided you with some general information about Grade 5 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.




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