The Grade Music Exam Syllabus: easy guide by E-MusicMaestro for parents and first-time candidates

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The grade music exam syllabus is written principally for teachers who are preparing candidates for music exams. The terms therefore tend to be specialised and are not always clear to non-musician parents and first-time candidates. This guide is an attempt to explain, in non-technical terms in as far as possible, what is examined and how it is marked.


So first, some definitions …

Piecea piece of music or a song, of difficulty appropriate to the grade

Scales – technical exercises consisting of groups of notes, pitched step by step

Arpeggios – technical exercises made up of just the most ‘important’ notes of the scale

Sight reading – playing music not seen before, after a short time to prepare

Improvisation – making music up – a few notes are given and the candidate has to make up the next notes to produce a complete phrase of music

Technical exercise – a piece specially designed to require technical skills appropriate to a particular instrument or voice

Musical Knowledge questions – questions related to the pieces played, such as naming a note in the score or giving the meaning of a musical term

Aural tests – listening tests that show musical memory and perception


  • notice changes in loud or quiet, fast or slow in a tune played by the examiner
  • sing back a short tune just played by the examiner
  • spot the difference when a tune is played with an altered note

Intonation – whether or not the notes are played or sung in tune (this obviously cannot apply to the piano or organ)

Musical detail – aspects such as loud and quiet playing, pace changes and playing the notes smoothly or not, using the pedal for pianists, as required by the style and character of the music.

Style – relates to the era when the music was composed and to the conventional way of interpreting music from that period in history.

Character – the mood of the music, created by a combination of many aspects, including the notes used in the tune and also the way the music is played.



Next, some information on the exam and the syllabus …

Examining boards

The major examining boards for graded music exams, operating worldwide but particularly in the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand are Trinity College London and ABRSM.

How long does a music exam take?Who takes music exams?

Grade music exams take between ten and thirty minutes, depending on the grade.

Who takes music exams? 

 There is no age limit – anyone is eligible to take a music exam.

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How is a music exam marked?

The examiner writes a report form during the actual exam. The report form summarises strengths and weaknesses in the way the music was performed. Examiners do not offer advice to the candidate about how to play or practise, nor do they advise teachers on the best way to teach. The report forms and certificates are then sent to the person who entered the candidate, usually the teacher.

What criteria are used?

The criteria for achieving a pass in a music exam are based on general musical elements and principles and therefore they are broadly similar for each examining board.

Because general criteria are used, examiners do not need to be experts in playing every instrument, but they do know how each instrument should sound when played well.

The criteria used by an examining board are freely available to the public, in the printed syllabus and on the website for each examining board.

Marks are awarded depending on to what extent the candidate’s performance matches up to the best standards of achievement possible in that exam.

Trinity exams have a maximum mark of 100: Pass 60, Merit 75, Distinction 87.

ABRSM exams carry a maximum mark of 150: Pass 100, Merit 120, Distinction 130.

Pieces carry more marks, relatively, than other skills in music exams. Each piece is marked separately, rather than a global mark being given for the overall standard of the three pieces.

Do all music exam boards examine the same things?

The major music exam boards ask for three pieces or songs but there are some differences between Trinity and ABRSM in the supporting tests.


Trinity grade music exams compared with ABRSM music exams

Trinity skills examined

Trinity Initial Grade – Grade 5

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Any two of these – Sight reading

Aural tests


Musical knowledge questions

Trinity Grades 6 – 8

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios plus three technical exercises

Sight reading

One of these – Improvisation

Aural tests

Trinity marking criteria

  • Notational Accuracy & Fluency (7 marks): getting the notes and rhythms right and playing without hesitations or stumbles
  • Technical Facility (7 marks): ability to create a good sound and to control the instrument or voice – aspects such as playing with varied articulation (eg legato and staccato) and pedalling for piano
  • Communication & Interpretation (8 marks): playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music

ABRSM Grades 1 – 8

ABRSM skills examined:

Three pieces / songs

Scales and arpeggios in selected keys for each grade (singers instead perform a traditional, unaccompanied song)

Sight reading

Aural tests

ABRSM marking criteria:

  • Pitch: correct notes for all instruments and voice, with correct intonation – ie playing or singing in tune
  • Time: correct rhythms, suitable speed / pace changes and fluent playing
  • Tone: consistently well controlled sound – clear and pleasant to listen to
  • Shape: musical detail eg gradual increase or decrease in loudness that goes with the musical phrases, or variations in loud and quiet
  • Performance: playing or singing in a manner that is and engaging for the listener and suitable for the style and character of the music


General advice for supporting tests

Scales and arpeggios should be:

  • accurate in notes and correctly pitched in intonation
  • fluent and rhythmical
  • musically played with a confident sound

Sight reading should be:

  • fluent and accurate
  • musically played, with appropriate detail
  • confident sounding

Aural tests should show:

  • accurate answers
  • perceptive listening
  • confident replies to questions

Improvisations should show:

  • appropriate development of the fragment of music given as a stimulus
  • fluency
  • confidence


How to do well in a music exam

The best advice is to prepare thoroughly in every aspect to be examined.

Pieces are, of course, the most enjoyable part of the exam preparation but those candidates who neglect to practise scales and arpeggios, who are not competent sight readers or who have not practised developing their aural skills or improvisation skills will lose marks.


Help with preparing for a grade music exam

Develop music aural skills with E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training:


Video demonstration and advice – ABRSM grade exam piano pieces:


Video demonstration – piano syllabus pieces, Trinity and ABRSM 2015-16,as from August 2014

Practise ABRSM piano scales, grades 1 – 5 with Scalebox:

Pre-exam online video assessment – a new service from E-MusicMaestro, offering expert, specific advice as well as an assessment of your playing. All instruments and voice.

For details and booking:

Please use email title, Performance Assessment.



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Good instrumental teaching


What is good teaching?

Whether you are beginning as a teacher, getting back into teaching after a break or just reviewing your practice, I’d like to share with you a few points that I try to bear in mind myself, as a piano teacher. We all have a preferred and individual teaching style, but these are some reminders that I give myself from time to time.

Good teaching has a clear focus, with definite goals based on musical principles. Good teaching results in good learning. Teaching should build on current understanding and promote future progression. Good teaching ought to be enjoyable for the teacher as well as for the pupil and if I am not particularly enjoying the lesson I ask myself why and aim to do something about it!

Once a student has played for me I like to think of something genuinely positive to say and then to discuss potential improvements to that piece or to the student’s technique in relation to any particular technical or interpretative demands.

What we teach

What we teach is best formulated according to agreed, conscious learning objectives for a particular student, whilst being sufficiently flexible to respond to the needs of the student in any particular lesson. Both short-term and long-term goals should be set for each student, for instance this lesson’s objective may be to teach the student how best to practise legato pedalling, whereas the long-term goal might be to pedal a Schumann piece well enough to pass the Grade 5 examination in six months’ time.

Be adaptable – if a pupil comes along with an idea for making up some music, this can be a powerful motivating tool and the other plans for the lesson may be incorporated later. A student who is involved in setting their own learning targets will be more engaged with the learning process but of course we have to guide students as to how they might improve their playing.

How we teach

Different students have preferred learning styles and it is helpful to know what these are so that we can both teach that student most effectively. The most relevant preferred learning styles for the pianist are:

(i) Kinaesthetic – these students will prefer to learn by ‘finger memory’ of melodic and chord shapes and they will probably be good at this way of memorisation

(ii) Visual – these students will prefer to learn by looking at the shapes that the music makes on the keys and they will probably be good sight readers

(iii) Aural – these students will prefer to learn by remembering how the music sounded. They may like to learn by rote more than by reading music and they will probably be good at memorising

(iv) Combination learners – these students will be able to draw on a range of learning styles.

Being a creative teacher

I like to begin teaching a piece by focusing on an aspect of it in a way that resonates with the individual student’s preferred learning style.

I know that, when beginning Satie’s Gymnopedie III, consistently using the Left Hand finger pattern 5-3-1 for root position chords (like A-C-E) and first inversion chords (like C-E-A), but using fingers 5-2-1 for second inversion chords (like A-D-F), can be of enormous help in achieving accuracy but the way I put this across will vary depending on the student.

Visual learners will be guided by how the patterns look on the keys compared with the notes in the score and kinaesthetic learners will become able to relate the feel of the hand position to the chord sequence to be memorised. Instead of telling my students about the fingering patterns, I may try asking them to devise a method or remembering the different chord shapes by choosing helpful fingering.

Aural learners will benefit most from remembering the sound of the chords. It is a useful and highly relevant exercise in aural development to encourage the student to hear whether the root (the A in chord A minor) is at the bottom, in the middle or at the top of the chord. Hearing this detail provides a quick accuracy check.

I think we should also develop students’ learning capacity in the ways that do not come to them so readily. If we know a student is probably going to learn pieces more by rote than by reading the notation, we could be positive about that student’s memorising abilities, whilst also encouraging better music reading by regularly providing easier sight reading opportunities. Nurture independence by showing students how to learn and practise effectively.

We can think of ways to engage those students who prefer playing by ear to reading from the dots. Playing the chord sequence of the Satie piece while improvising a melody with the other hand could be an enjoyable way of capturing the mood of the music, whilst memorising the chords. You could begin by doing this as a duet with the student, taking it in turns to improvise.


The means of assessing whether or not we have achieved our objectives must be clear to us, for instance we will know if we have really succeeded in teaching the correct time value of dotted rhythms in a Kabalevsky piece if the student plays accurately in the next lesson. If not, we may want to think of a different way of teaching rhythm in that piece.

The best way of judging whether we are helping a student to achieve long term aims may be through examination results but, if that path is not chosen, taking time to discuss the term’s achievement with the student may be a useful guide to how they feel about their playing and also helpful in formulating aims for future lessons.

Advice and resources for piano teachers and students:

Additional help for your teaching – 

Aural Test Training for music students:

E-MusicMaestro videos of piano pieces Grade 1 – 5:

Look out for more piano pieces on our new Youtube Channel as from August 2014:

 © Sandy Holland

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June 6, 2014 · 1:59 pm

An approach to performance anxiety

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ~ Cicero

Playing Piano

So much has been written on the subject of performance anxiety that there seemed little to add to the wise words of Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey on awareness, trust and skill in The Inner Game of Music.

Certainly, I was greatly influenced by this bookwhen I read it a number of years ago. The approach I normally take with my own students, most of whom take Advanced Level performance examinations, is two-fold. Firstly I provide weekly performance opportunities at a lunchtime Piano Club, so that playing for an audience becomes routine and loses its power to frighten them. Secondly I ask them literally to talk themselves into being calm, focused and confident by repeating positive affirmations, aloud, to themselves when they are relaxed, for instance before bedtime and when they wake up.

The most effective statements seem to be:

When I play I think only of the music

When I perform I play fluently and musically

The examiner enjoys hearing my playing

When I perform I feel excited, calm,  focused and happy.

The affirmations must be placed in the present tense, not in the future, so it is not advisable to say, ‘When I give my recital I will play fluently’,  but better to say, ‘In recitals I play fluently’.

Recently, however, I read an interesting post by Daniel Miller on the Tiny Buddha website* about how gratitude can calm your nerves and make you more effective and I’m thinking that this could be added to my pre-recital support programme.  Gratitude has many benefits, including the capacityto promote happiness, health, self-esteem, as well as improving relationships and sleep patterns.

Thinking grateful thoughts could be helpful in taking the emphasis away from the importance of ‘Me’ in the recital and putting the focus where it belongs, on the music itself. Helpful statements could be along the lines of

I’m grateful that …

I am able to play this wonderful music

I am doing something I love to do as part of my education

I have this opportunity to play for a fellow musician who wants me to do well

I am privileged to play on a good, grand piano.

Gratitude can shift our focus from negative to positive thinking;  it can give us a more balanced perspective on the situation – if I make a slip I can keep going because I am well prepared;  it can allow us to stay in the ‘now’ moment rather than dwell on the outcome; it can take the place of fear.


*Tiny Buddha


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E-MusicMaestro Summer Music Course for Singapore Students – Course leaders Peter Noke and Sandy Holland

Singapore course small copy

The first E-MusicMaestro Summer Music Course for students from Singapore was held this year at Duvale Priory in Devon, UK.

Fourteen music students of mixed ages, accompanied by their teacher, Elizabeth Lim Seok Wah and by several parents, travelled to England to take part in this course. The party was met by Peter, who accompanied them on a visit to the Roman baths in the historic town of Bath and of ancient, awe-inspiring Stonehenge. There was a memorable tour of Wells Cathedral School, where a special concert had been organised, after which there was time to experience evensong at Wells Cathedral.

The music course consisted of three activity-packed days with course leaders, Peter and Sandy and guest tutors, drummer Andy Gleadhill and Richard Michael, professor of jazz at St Andrew’s University. Parents were invited to go on a further sightseeing tour and shopping trip to Dulverton and then Exeter, to relax in the sunshine in the tranquil surroundings of Duvale Priory or to join in with the music course.

The approach to learning was active and creative, with all sorts of musical instruments available in addition to the pianos. The warm-up activities were energizing and students learned in an engaging way about the different eras of music, after which there were closely matched team quizzes. Creative music was very much emphasised, with a whole range of composing and improvising activities provided, encompassing a wider spectrum of artistic activity that also included movement and painting.

The drumming session led by Andy Gleadhill provoked an excited response, since African Drumming was new to the students. The approach was absolutely hands-on, with a drum for everyone and progression through easy techniques through to more challenging cross-rhythms – a great success!

Richard Michael was already known and loved by many of the students, having previously led an E-MusicMaestro jazz course in Singapore. As ever, his inimitable style and irrepressible enthusiasm for jazz were inspirational.

The course took place in the lovely functions barn just a few metres away from our accommodation. All students received tuition from Peter or Sandy in duet playing and there were opportunities for performing, with a concert on the first evening for duets and for the day’s group compositions.

There was a students’ cricket match in the safe, enclosed garden overlooked by Duvale Barn, our home for the duration of the course. One parent went fishing in the private lake and had his catch cooked for dinner that evening. Even the course dog, Couber had a great time paddling in the shallow River Exe and running through the long grass! Duvale Priory owner, Rosena provided delicious meals and there was a games room with snooker table for anyone who had time to play in between course sessions, piano practice and eating.

The course culminated in a wonderful, final concert that involved every student in a performance of words, mime and music, devised by Elizabeth and her students. We were able to sit back, relax and enjoy the music before handing out certificates to the participating students, who gave us gifts and cards of appreciation.

Many thanks to Elizabeth for giving us the opportunity to work with her lovely students.

A few of the many appreciative feedback comments from parents and participants:

“Thank you for putting in so much time and effort to make the workshop a wonderful and successful one.”
~ Tricia and Gracia’s mum

“Your passion for music is amazing and truly inspiring. I’m glad my kids have come on board this journey! Thanks!”
“My girls had an enriching and great time.”
~ Mrs Loke

“Your lessons were really ‘our-of-the-box’ and your approach to teaching was really interesting. Thank you for your invaluable lessons”
~ Terence

“I really enjoyed your lessons and found them to be incredibly enriching! Thanks!”

“Thank you for making the lessons and games fun! I enjoy it very much!”
~ Tricia

“Thank you for teaching us. I love your lessons very much!”
~ Gracia

For enquiries about bespoke E-MusicMaestro courses for music students and professional development opportunities for piano teachers please contact Sandy Holland at:

Aural Test Training suitable for ABRSM examinations at:

How to teach and play piano – better !

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Aural Test Training for ABRSM exams

Our new E-MusicMaestro Grade 6-8 Aural Test Training programme is now online, in addition to Grades 1-5,  and we have a new video to celebrate!

√ Grades 6 – 8 Aural Test Training gives practice possibilities for all tests in both treble and bass registers along (where sung), with help files for most tests.

√ E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training is the only web-based resource where you can experience a wealth of practice materials professionally recorded using an acoustic piano, with ‘live’ singing responses.

√ The practice materials are expertly designed to promote not only better aural test results but also to help music students to become more accomplished musicians in the process.

√ Access these materials at home on your desktop or laptop computer or on the go, via your iPad, or iPhone or Android.

√ A monthly subscription of just £2.99 gives access not just to one grade, but to all grades 1 – 5 so you can begin a grade lower and build up your aural skills.

√ £4.99 per month accesses all grades 6 – 8 for as long or short a period as required. This price structure offers incomparable value for money along with great flexibility of use.

√ It’s easy to subscribe for small monthly payment, made via the safest possible, online system in which credit card details are securely encrypted so that they are never visible. For your security we are fully PCI compliant.

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