Graded Music Exams - are they right for me?

This article is written primarily for guitarists, but other instrumentalists may find it useful too.

Whenever you take up the study of a musical instrument, whether you are young or old, the option of taking graded music exams is always there. There are no upper or lower age limits and you can take them at any time in your life. The first of the benefits of taking graded music exams are that you will gain a nationally recognised qualification with the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). The lower grades up to grade 5 are levels 1 to 2 and equivalent to GCSEs. The higher grades 6-8 are level 3 and equivalent to A and AS levels. They also count towards UCAS points, so if you are thinking of University they could help you on the way.

Even if you're not thinking of University, many potential employers see graded music exams in a very positive way. You can demonstrate an ability to work outside of the mainstream academic curriculum and you can therefore provide the versatility which many companies value above many other factors. Graded music examination passes are a worthwhile addition to anybody's CV.

But, perhaps most importantly, you benefit from the discipline and training which are needed in any form of success. Whether or not Music is a chosen career path, graded exams can give you the only real milestone of your own progress.The increased confidence which this achievement brings will benefit you in all walks of life.

How do I go about it?

There are a number of recognised examination boards which do graded music exams. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) do most instruments, but to go beyond grade 5 you will also need to pass a grade 5 Theory of Music exam or similar. The ABRSM do not offer Plectrum Guitar or Electric Guitar, as some other boards do, but guitarists have the option of "Guitar", which means a traditional Classical or Spanish style guitar, with nylon strings and played with the fingers of the strumming hand. The ability to read standard music notation is required in all their exams.

Trinity Guildhall offer most instruments including "Plectrum Guitar" as opposed to "Guitar". A Plectrum Guitar can be either an electric or acoustic guitar, but if you are using an electric guitar you will also need to provide your own amplifier. With Trinity Guildhall, there is no longer a need for a grade 5 Theory of Music pass to progress beyond grade 5 and the ability to read standard music notation is not tested until grade 6.

Rock School offer grades in contemporary instruments such as guitars, keyboards, drums, vocals and popular piano. Their syllabuses are very flexible and, once again, there is no formal requirement for Theory of Music.

The Registry of Guitar Tutors (RGT) offer examinations in Guitar, Electric Guitar, Bass Guitar and Popular Music Theory and no previous qualifications are necessary in taking any of their exams. The ability to read standard music notation is not a formal requirement but becomes an option from grade 6 onwards, although the ability to read guitar tablature (TAB) is acceptable for this option.

What will I have to do?

Most graded exams are from Initial or Preliminary up to grade 8. Beyond grade 8 are the professional qualifications of Diplomas and Certificates, but grade 8 is generally regarded as the starting point for a career in music or a music related subject.

In Associated Board and Trinity Guildhall exams, the format is largely based on Pieces and Technical Work. You will usually have to learn 3 pieces from a selected list of repertoire and perform them to an examiner. Technical work means a list of scales, arpeggios and miscellaneous exercises designed to test your technique. The scales and pieces usually account for around 70 to 80 percent of the total marks, the remainder being allocated to "Supporting Tests", which take the form of (Associated Board) conventional sight reading and aural test and (Trinity Guildhall) a choice of 2 tests from Sight Reading, Improvisation, Musical Knowledge and Aural. For Trinity Guildhall exams, Sight Reading becomes compulsory from grade 6 onwards and the remaining choice is between Aural and Improvisation.

In RGT exams, the Classical Guitar syllabus follows a similar format to Trinity Guildhall, with Pieces, Technical Work and Supporting Tests, but the Electric Guitar and Bass Guitar syllabuses are different. "Electric Guitar" can be an acoustic or electric guitar and the examinations are divided into sections. Section 1 covers Scales and Arpeggios, section 2 is Chords, section 3 is Rhythm Playing, section 4 is Lead Playing, section 5 is Musicianship and section 6 is Aural. 60 percent of the marks are for Rhythm Playing and Lead Playing, then normally about 10 percent each for the remaining sections. From Grade 6 onwards, there are specialisms, such as tapping and sight reading, but see their website for the full syllabus requirements.

The Bass Guitar exams are similar, the sections being Scales and Arpeggios, Bass Patterns, Performance, Musicianship and Aural. Musicianship means a question and answer session which some people call a "Viva Voce".

To enter for a graded music examination, you can contact the relevant board directly, or if you need any further information you can email me at

Whether you decide to take graded exams or not, I hope you find thi page useful.