Graded Music Exams

Music examinations provide a formal assessment of the accomplishments of pupils learning musical instruments. The exams are graded from 1 to 8, with Grade 1 being the entry level, and Grade 8 being the standard required for entry to higher study in a music college. Most exam boards also offer Initial level qualifications as a useful preparation before the Grade 1 exam.

Music exams are set in both theory and practical aspects. The theory examinations are taken by pupils of all instruments and typically cover areas such as musical notation, construction of scales and composition. The practical exams concentrate on the particular instrument favoured by the pupil, for example piano, guitar or flute. They cover elements such as playing set pieces, technical work including scales, sight reading, aural, musical knowledge and improvisation.

There are a number of organisations who provide assessment in musical ability which are open to all. All exam boards are different and the process of selecting an Exam Board and organising the exam entry can be quite daunting for a new pupil, parent and even teacher.

Click the graphics below for more information about each Exam Board.

No one board is better or harder than another; they just test different things in different ways and you can switch between boards as you progress up the grades. As always, the best advice will come from your teacher.

Practical and Performance Exams

Traditionally, instrument exams are performed ‘in person’ at an exam centre where the student would attend with an accompanist where appropriate to perform  their pieces, scales, sight-reading and theory tests with the examiner. In recent years the exam boards have introduced new exam formats which allow for remote assessment, with the candidates submitting video performances for review by the examiner.  These usually involve candidates performing additional pieces instead of the theory elements (scales, sight-reading, etc.), and allow for the use of backing tracks in place of an accomanist.

ABRSM and Trinity refer to the traditional exam format as the ‘Practical’ exam’, and the new format as the ‘Performance’ exam (ABRSM) and Digital Graded and Diploma exams (Trinity). The exam formats have separate syllabuses but are generally considered as having equal standing and status. So a candidate might take a Practical Grade 3 followed by a Performance Grade 4 then  Practical Grade 5.

Practical Exams at Examination Centres

For many younger children, attending a practical exam at an examination centre to perform their examination pieces in person (‘face-to-face’) for the examiner is quite often their first public performance, so this is a big event for them!

Most practical exams – the exceptions being percussion and keyboard/piano – require an accompanist. Arranging for an accompanist can be as much a challenge for parents as the exam is for the child, and so to make things simpler, EMS offers an ‘Exam Entry Service’, a ‘one-stop shop’ where EMS takes care of all the admin, registers the child for the exam and arranges for the accompanist. EMS accompanists are highly experienced in working with young musicians and will help put them at their ease so they can deliver their best performance on the day.

Entries for exams at examination centres have to be organised around 2-3 months in advance of the exam date, with one or two dates set per term.

Trinity Digital Grade and Diploma Exams

For information and advice on how to enter Trinity Digital Grade and Diploma Exams, please visit Classical & Jazz Digital Grades | Trinity College London

Exam Board Fees

The table below gives an indication of the scale of fees for Board Exams. Fees for performance/digital exams are paid through the exam Board website when registering. Please see the Board websites for current pricing.

Board/Grade Pre 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
TRINITY £45 £50 £55 £60 £70 £78 £90 £95 £110
ABRSM £46 £51 £59 £68 £74 £81 £94 £101 £119

For practical exams arranged by EMS an additional admin charge and accompanist fee is payable, which varies between £20 and £35 depending on the grade.

Things to remember once you have chosen which board and exam to go for:

  • Organise an accompanist: For most instruments, you will need an accompanist to play the piano part of the pieces during the exam. Your teacher may well be able and willing to do this, and if not, they should be responsible for finding an accompanist for the exam. There will be an extra charge for this service. Some ideas on finding an accompanist can be found at the bottom of this page.

  • Don’t miss the deadline: Each exam board has specific exam windows of about 5 weeks. These are normally towards the end of each term. Therefore, the deadline for exam entries being received is normally in the first couple of weeks of each term.

  • Information: Make sure you have all the information needed from your child’s teacher before going to book the exam (what grade, which exam, etc.). Your teacher may book it for you if you are lucky!