How to Ace your RCM History Exams

Today’s episode of PianoTV is all about how to ace your RCM history exams. I’ve personally aced them, so I’ll walk you through my study process.

I’m not a piano whiz. I used to do well in competitions as a child, but my playing marks have generally been average, and I’ve needed to clock a lot of hours. I’ve needed to put in a lot of effort.

I’ve known people who sail through things easier – this is where the idea of talent comes into play. People who don’t need to try as hard to get the same results. It’s hard not to begrudge such people!

But the benefit of being average – someone who must try harder – is that it’s easier for me to relate to my students. My averageness has been a major boon as a piano teacher.

There is one area, however, that I’ve excelled in. That area is music history.

To this day I’ve done 2 out of 3 music history exams. They’re exams required to receive your RCM Grade 9 and Grade 10 certificates.

On both of those exams, I’ve received marks in the 90s. For Grade 9 history, my mark was 93%. Good, but I knew I could do better.

For Grade 10 history, I did better – my mark was 97%. Whoever marked my paper even wrote something like “good job” at the top, which you never see.

Since I’ve managed high marks for both exams, I’m in a good position to share my advice with you. This video will discuss studying for RCM exams specifically – if you’re studying in university, college or a different school, this won’t be as directly relevant to you. Even so, you should still be able to glean a few tips from this.

Consult the syllabus

The most important thing you need to do is look at the RCM theory syllabus. It won’t tell you all the details you need to learn, but it’ll tell you the main points. Consider the syllabus the structure of your overall learning. You’ll need to understand everything listed on the syllabus in quite a bit of detail.

Here’s a look at an excerpt of the history syllabus for Grade 10:

The full history syllabus can be found online here.

For example, not only do I need to understand the composition Haec dies and understand how all the terms relate to it (cantus firmus, tenor, etc.), I need to know intimate details of Haec dies. The musical structure, what key it’s in (relevant in Baroque music onward), and key musical features – all without referencing sheet music.

You need to know specific details about composers as well. For example, if I’m studying Mozart, I not only need to be able to provide general information about him, but I should be able to write a 3-5 paragraph essay on him without references. This means I need to memorize dates, key compositions and key points in his life.

The history exams are rigorous because of this and require both excellent organization and memorization skills.

Consult the workbooks

Now that I have the skeleton of my studies worked out from the syllabus, it’s time to work through a music history workbook.

The ones I used and loved are the RCM’s own Explorations series:


look inside
Explorations 1
A Music History Overview. Composed by Janet Lopinski, Joe Ringhofer, and Peteris Zarins. History. Explorations series. Book. Published by The Frederick Harris Music Company (FH.TXH01).

Since these are RCM publications, you know that what you’re getting is directly relevant to the exams you’re taking.

Here are the newer history publications, which I haven’t used:


look inside
Celebrate Theory 10: History
Celebrate Theory. Composed by The Royal Conservatory Music Development Program. Theory. Celebrate Theory. Celebrate Theory is a new series that supports the study of music theory at every stage of a student’s musical development. Encompassing rudiments, harmony & counterpoint, analysis, and music history, Celebrate Theory is an essential resource for enrich. Book. 160 pages. Published by The Frederick Harris Music Company (FH.THS10).

I then take time going through the entire workbook, usually several months. I’m meticulous and try to digest information as I go. This is my first pass through the information, so I will return to it again to brush up on my knowledge, but I really try to absorb as much as I can in the first go.

When I work through the workbooks, I don’t worry about memorizing specific dates or all the details of a composition. That’ll come later.

Create a binder

Once I’ve gone through the syllabus and the workbook, I’ll start organizing my information into a binder. I like to put a printout of the syllabus pages at the very front, and then divide the binder into sections based on era (Middle Ages, Renaissance, etc.).

This is when I start to get really organized.

I’ll make a master list of composer dates, and a separate list for key composition dates. These are all the dates I need to have memorized for the exam, so it’s useful to have them all on one sheet of paper. It’s something to reference for months, and even in the days leading up to the exam.

Each composer has their own page – a jot-note fact sheet. By this point I’ve already researched the composer in-depth, so I take key information points and fit it all onto a single page. As with the sheet above, everything on this page must be memorized for the exam.

Each key composition also has its own page. I take everything I’ve learned about that composition, consider everything that must be memorized, and put it on a single sheet. And as with the composer sheets, I memorize all the content on the page.

In addition to memorizing composers and their key works, you also need to memorize information about key genres such as the concerto and sonata. For example, with the sonata you need to know it’s history and background as well as the main characteristics of the genre.

Flash cards

That is a lot of information to memorize! But you’re not done with the memorization yet. Each exam has a large swath of terminology that must be memorized as well. Use the syllabus to fill in the gaps – any term you want to review, anything that isn’t a composer, genre or composition (which is what you’ve filled the binder with) – write it on flash cards.

I love manually creating flash cards. The act of writing down information is such a great way to help solidify your knowledge of that information. That’s one of the reasons I write out the fact sheets for the binder by hand as opposed to typing it. It aids the memorization process just that little bit extra.

Flashcards can be used alone or with someone, which is another thing I like about them. In the weeks leading up to the exam, it really helps me to go through some random flashcards – and it’s a little harder if you have a friend, family member or partner hold the flashcards.

Create a playlist

When I’m studying compositions for exams, I want to be able to call to mind both the sound of the composition as well as some key moments in the sheet music. As such, having a playlist of all the study material is very useful. You can do this on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming services.

Sometimes I would listen to the music while out and about, such as going for a walk. Other times I would sit down with the music and follow along the sheet music. Both are great ways to study. The first way helps familiarize yourself with the music, and the second way helps you really study it.

(Much of the sheet music can be found for free at imslp.org. Other sheet music excerpts are in the workbook.)

Practice exams/Exam papers

So you have a binder full of information memorized, as well as a stack of flashcards. You’ve listened to your playlist plenty of times. Exam time!

Hold your horses.

In the month or two leading up to the exam, I spend time doing as many practice exams as I can get my hands on. You can purchase practice exams:


look inside
Official Examination Papers: History 2 – Middle Ages to Classical
2015 Edition. Composed by The Royal Conservatory Music Development Program. This edition: 2015 edition. Official Examination Papers. Book. 40 pages. Published by The Frederick Harris Music Company (FH.EX1514).

I managed to get my hands on three books of practice exams for my grade 10 exam. Sometimes it can be hard to find more than just the last one or two editions. But luckily I was friends with a piano teacher who had an older copy, and my local music store was well-stocked.

Each book contains about 4 practice exams. When you take the exam, you’re allotted 3 hours to complete it. Each book takes about 12 hours to work through.

That means I spent about 36 hours doing practice exams before doing the real one.

This is a key part of my strategy that you must not overlook. Each exam is a little different in the way it asks you to provide information. You might have fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, and so on. You might be asked something about a composer or composition you never even thought to study (I learned something like this on virtually every practice exam I took).

Each of the essay questions are a little different. Sometimes they might ask about a specific musical feature in a composition, other times they might ask for plot details (if it’s an opera) – there are many angles that the RCM wants you to understand about various composers and compositions.

That’s why I allotted 1-2 months of practice exams prior to taking one. Doing one exam every other day, in addition to continuing study, is a substantial amount of work.

Get a teacher

If you’re able, get a qualified teacher to look over your practice exams and give you pointers. I didn’t do this with my history exams, since I am a teacher and I was comfortable with the exam process and what was expected of me.

But most people doing history exams are NOT teachers, in which case you might want to hire one for a week or two just to give additional guidance. I’d recommend a teacher even beyond that, but not everyone is able to have regularly weekly sessions with a teacher.

Have fun!

Unfortunately I don’t have any particular wisdom about memorizing things. Some people have an easier time with memorization than others – and I’ve always been pretty good at it.

One way I solidify my memory, as mentioned earlier, is writing everything down manually. If I spend 30 minutes memorizing all the facts on Haydn, I might attempt to write a short essay with all the information I’ve learned. Or I’ll grab some blank paper and jot down the things I’ve memorized instead of just verbally muttering them under my breath.

I spent a lot of time in coffeeshops doing exam prep. And you know what? Despite the rigors of it, and all of the memorization, it was really fun. Every time I stop at that coffeeshop I basically lived at the summer of my Grade 10 exam, I get a nice little feeling – it’s a nice little memory of that pocket in time.

Doing exams – history, harmony, or practical – are great ways to stretch out of your comfort zone and push your knowledge acquisition further than it would’ve gone otherwise. It can be a lot of fun.

And for those of you in the earlier stages of learning, getting to the point of doing history and harmony exams can serve as goals. 😊

Catch you next time,

Allysia