Frequently Asked Questions about
Music Grade Exams
What are they?
Music grade examinations are a method of formally assessing the progress of students learning music. They can give students of all ages something to aim for, a focus for their work, a sense of achievement and the experience of playing or singing in front of someone who isn’t their teacher, friend or family member.
Grade exams generally progress from Grade 1 (basic) to Grade 8 (advanced), although several exam boards (see below) include exams before Grade 1 (i.e. ‘Preliminary’) or after Grade 8 (‘Senior Certificate’) as well. Finally, it is possible to continue after Grade 8 with a performance or teaching diploma exam (see below).
Grade exams can be a useful way of measuring progress and motivating students, but they are not the only way – and they are not for everyone. We prefer to leave the decision of whether or not to follow the ‘exam path’ up to teacher and student, or teacher and parent.
What do they measure/assess?
Grade exams for instruments or voice (singing) assess practical skills. Depending on the examining board and level of examination, these skills include playing or singing a number of ‘set’ pieces (usually three), as well as scales/arpeggios, sight reading (playing or singing a piece for the first time ‘by sight’) and aural (ear) tests. Music theory exams assess various aspects of music theory and in higher levels include some composition.
What are exam boards?
Exam (or examining) boards are recognised national or international organisations that produce exam syllabi and assess students. There are a number of different examining boards, with slightly different syllabi, focuses and marking methods.
The best known exam boards in Ireland are:
- Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (Associated Board or ABRSM for short)
- Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM)
- London College of Music (LCM)
- Trinity College London (TCM – also affiliated with Registry of Guitar Tutors exams
Exams can focus on ‘classical’ repertoire and technique (ABRSM, RIAM, LCM, TCM); jazz (ABRSM, LCM, TCM); rock/pop (LCM, TCM, Rockschool); or musical theatre (LCM). Exam syllabi for different instruments and voice (singing) are listed on our Grade Exam Syllabi by Instrument page or on the individual Instrumental • Vocal Departments pages of this website.
Students may come to the New School having already taken one or more grade exams, in which case they can continue with the same exam board, although it is also possible to change exam boards at any time.
When do grade exams take place?
Exam boards generally schedule exam periods three times a year, one in the autumn, one in spring and one in early summer. In preparing you for a grade exam, your teacher will estimate the time it will take and choose an exam period based on that estimate. Your teacher will need to register you for the exam well in advance, and an exam fee is generally required at the time of registration. Both the fee and the length of the actual exam depend on the level; the higher the grade, the higher the fee and the longer the exam.
Where do they take place?
Exams take place at a number of different centres around Dublin. When you register for an exam, you will be given the exact details. The New School is an exam centre for Associated Board (ABRSM) exams, and we schedule a full day of examinations for students in May each year.
If I choose to take grade exams, how often will I take them?
That depends on your progress and goals. Many students progress through grade exams at the rate of one grade per year, others more quickly or more slowly. Also, it is not strictly necessary to take every grade level before you move on to the next. Students can take a Grade 2 exam, for example, and then move on to Grade 4. Your teacher will help you to decide both how often to take exams and when.
Do I need to start from the beginning (i.e. Grade 1), or can I start at any level?
Students can start taking exams at any grade without having taken the grade before or an equivalent exam, although it should be noted that some exams in the higher grades require that you pass an equivalent grade theory exam in advance. Exam boards do assume that if a candidate starts at any level other than Grade 1, then he/she is proficient in the techniques and skills required at the lower grades.
What do I need to bring to a grade exam?
You must bring your original sheet music, published by the exam board, although you can also bring photocopied music for yourself in order to eliminate page turns. Except for piano/keyboard, guitar and percussion exams, you will need a piano accompanist who will play through the set pieces with you before the exam and accompany you within it. The New School has a panel of recommended accompanists to choose from, and we have an official accompanist for ABRSM exams taking place in the school each May.
What happens after I complete all of the grade exam levels?
Passing a Grade 8 music exam is a huge achievement in itself, and indicates an advanced knowledge of your instrument. Students who would like to make a career of music may want to consider preparing for a performance or teaching diploma after completing Grade 8. A diploma is a recognised qualification that can open up many opportunities for a musician. Diploma exams are rigorous and require a great deal of preparation, given that they amount to professional qualifications. (See Tuition Options – Performance • Teaching Diploma Preparation.)
Where can I get more information on grade exams?
We recommend the Associated Board (ABRSM) website, which has extensive information on their exams and what they assess. Much of this information would also apply to other examining boards.
This website also includes a Grade Exam Syllabi by Instrument page, with links to downloadable grade exam syllabi for many instruments, as well as voice (singing).