Have you ever wanted to test your musical ability by applying for an ABRSM Music Grade?
The Associate of Boards of Royal School of Music is an examinations board and charity based in London which provide examinations in music all over the world. It was founded in 1889 and rebranded as ABRSM in 2009.
The royal school boards referred to in the title are as follows:
- The Royal Academy of Music
- The Royal College of Music
- The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
- The Royal Northern College of Music
Graded Music Examinations are put into a structure framework from beginner to advance. This is broken into three levels in the national qualifications framework. Grades 1 – 3 at level 1 (beginner), Grades 4 – 5 at level 2 (Intermediate) and Grade 6 – 8 at level 3 (advanced) . Most music subjects are offered from Grades 1–8 and have three standards of pass: a straight pass, a pass with merit and a pass with distinction. Candidates may enter any practical or music theory examination without taking any other although in order to progress to Grade 6 – 8 there is a requirement to have passed Grade 5 Theory or Grade 5 practical Musicianship or Grade 5 in a solo Jazz subject.
These are by far the most commonly taken exams. Available for over 35 instruments, these exams incorporate four individual components:
- Set pieces. The student is required to play three pieces (four, from memory, for singers doing Grades 6–8) prepared beforehand. These pieces are selected from the current syllabus for the instrument and grade, usually one piece from each of the groups A, B and C. Group A usually features Baroque and early Classical repertoire, Group B late Classical and Romantic, and Group C 20th century and contemporary music, encouraging the student to select a balanced programme with music in a range of styles and periods. For most instruments (obviously excluding the piano itself), some or all of the pieces are played with piano accompaniment. Each piece is marked out of 30. The pass mark is 20. (For Grades 6–8 singing, the pieces are out of 24/24/21/21 for each piece, the pass mark being 16/16/14/14 respectively.
- Scales. Various scales, arpeggios, dominant and diminished 7ths and, for Grades 1–4 only (Grades 1 & 2 for Piano), broken chords, are examined, according to the grade of difficulty. Scales are marked out of 21. The pass mark is 14.
- Sight reading. The student is presented with an unseen piece, has up to 30 seconds to prepare, and then must play to the best of his or her ability. Sight-reading is marked out of 21. The pass mark is 14.
- Aural. Various exercises are played by the examiner and the student is required to demonstrate skills in listening to and analysing music, for example clapping the rhythm or singing the melody. At higher grades, students are expected to comment on features of a short piece played by the examiner, including dynamics, phrasing and style and period. Aural is marked out of 18. The passing mark is 12.
The exams are marked out of 150, where 100 is a pass, 120 a pass with merit, and 130 a distinction.
Music Theory exams
Music Theory is examined through written papers. Papers last between one and a half and three hours depending on the grade. They are marked out of 100, where 66 is a pass, 80 a merit, and 90 a distinction. Candidates are required to pass Grade 5 Theory, Grade 5 Practical Musicianship or Grade 5 in a solo Jazz subject in order to progress to Practical exams at Grades 6, 7 and 8.
In a Practical Musicianship exam candidates demonstrate their understanding of melody, harmony, rhythm and form by responding to questions about music and by singing or playing an instrument of their choice in a series of tests. This exam is unaccredited and is used as an internal assessment prerequisite.
Jazz exams (Grades 1–5) are available for a variety of instruments. They are marked in the same way as Practical exams. However, many of the pieces include large improvisational sections, where the instrumentalist is required to fill in the empty bars with their own melody to fit the standard chord progression listed above.
My experience with ABRSM
A few years ago i decided to test myself musically so i applied to do a few ABRSM Grades. I thought with the structured graded framework in place this would possibly be a chance to enhance my music skills. I applied to do the following ABRSM grades during this time:
- Grade 3 ABRSM Classical Guitar
- Grade 5 ABRSM Classical Guitar
- Grade 5 ABRSM Music Theory
- Grade 3 ABRSM Alto Saxophone
I will now list the various exam pieces of Music (Composer and song title) i learnt and performed for the various ABRSM grades listed above. There are three lists (A, B & C) in each grade. You basically pick one song from the three lists.
Grade 3 ABRSM Classical Guitar:
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Musette. (List A)
- Charles Gounod, Funeral March of a Marionette. (List B)
- Peter Wrieden, The Acrobat (List C)
Grade 5 ABRSM Classical Guitar:
- Milos Karadaglic, Largo from winter suite by Antonio Vivaldi (List A)
- Milos Karadaglic, March of the Wooden Soldiers by Tchaikovsky (List B)
- Milos Karadaglic, Senhorinha by Guinga (List C)
Grade 3 Alto Saxophone:
- Vaughan Williams, Linden Lea (List A)
- James Rae, Waltz for Emily (List B)
- Chris Gumbley, Puddle Jump (List C)
These pieces of Music were not just challenging but a lot of fun to learn. I found through my practise and study that i was able to enhance my musical skills and understanding through these grades of Music. There were various reasons for each composition i picked, reasons such as style and technique, choice of composer or admirer of the composition. For example Johann Sebastian Bach is a baroque composer and one of the greatest composers of all time, Funeral March of a Marionette by Charles Ground was used for the program theme tune for Alfred Hitchcock presents. See below:
I also choose Largo (Winter) from the four seasons suite by Antonio Vivaldi, a breathtaking piece of music in which Vivaldi incorporates different textures into each season.
The Alto Saxophone was an entirely new area of study for me. I wanted to dive into a fresh musical area. The alto Saxophone being a woodwind instrument offered me something different in terms of musicality compared to the classical guitar. The family and timbre is different, the structure and pattern of notes are laid out differently, technique and engaging with other musicians requires a change in thought process, style and composition. The Saxophone is a challenging, insightful, fun and loud instrument to learn.
I will now demonstrate the results i achieved for the following ABRSM Grades:
- Grade 3 ABRSM Classical Guitar = Pass
- Grade 5 ABRSM Classical Guitar = Pass
- Grade 5 ABRSM Music Theory = Merit
- Grade 3 ABRSM Alto Saxophone = Pass
See below the guitar tablature for the Grade 5 ABRSM Classical piece ‘Senhorinha’ by Brazilian composer and guitarist Guinga.
Watch ‘Senhorinha’ by Guinga being performed below: