What are graded music exams and should your child do them?

1. What are graded music exams?

A music grading system refers to a system of evaluating a student’s skills and abilities through a standardized examination process. The system typically involves taking music theory tests, practical exams, and performance evaluations.

Here are three of the most popular and recognized grading systems for music:

Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)

ABRSM exams 

ABRSM is based in the United Kingdom and is one of the most well-known and respected music examination boards in the world. They offer graded exams for a wide range of instruments, including piano, violin, guitar, and singing. The ABRSM grading system goes from Grade 1 (beginner) to Grade 8 (advanced). For more advanced students, ABRSM offers several levels of diplomas. The diplomas (ARSM, DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM) are considered undergraduate and post graduate degrees equivalent. Many music schools and universities worldwide recognize the board’s certifications.

For more information visit http://us.abrsm.org

Trinity College London

Trinity exams 

Trinity College London is another internationally recognized music examination board based in the United Kingdom. They offer graded exams for a wide range of instruments, starting from Initial (beginner) to Grade 8 (advanced). Similar to ABRSM, they also offer a diploma program (ATCL, LTCL and FTCL) for more advanced students. Many music schools and universities worldwide also recognize TCL grades and diplomas.

The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM)

The Royal Conservatory Exams 

The RCM is based in Canada and offers a comprehensive system of music study and assessment from beginner to advanced levels. Their grading system goes from Preparatory (beginner) to Grade 10 (advanced). After the grades, RCM has two diplomas, ARCT and LRCM for more advanced students. Many music schools and universities worldwide also recognize RCM’s grades and diplomas.

All three of these grading systems are recognized internationally and offer a comprehensive approach to music education and assessment.

Certificate of Merit (CM)

CM Exams

If you live in California, USA, then there is also available the Certificate of Merit (CM), offered by the Music Teachers’ Association of California (MTAC). The CM system has 10 to 11 levels depending on instruments.

For more information: https://www.mtac.org/

Which music grading system is best?

Internationally, ABRSM is the most recognized music grading system, followed by TCL and RCM. All offers a wide selection of musical works in their exam syllabuses. ABRSM changes/refreshes its syllabuses every few years. However, ABRSM seems to change their syllabuses more often than the other systems mentioned in this post. Students should have no problem finding pieces that they like for any examination level among the pieces in the syllabuses.

ABRSM, TCL and RCM accept registration for exams from teachers, parents, or students themselves if they are of legal age. A student who deems themselves good enough can get assessed, with or without a teacher. However, CM only accept registration from a teacher who is a current member of MTAC. From this perspective, CM is less flexible and approachable than the other systems. It is also not recognized anywhere else outside of California.

Ultimately, the choice of grading system will depend on your location, instrument, and personal preferences. Often though, the choice of assessment system depends on what the school or teachers are familiar with. Some schools only offer to prepare students for one grading system. It is the system with which they are affiliated, or have the most experience. At Huntington Beach School of Music and OC Musica, our teachers will recommend a grading system that suits your child. However, students or parents can opt for another system that they prefer.

2. Should your child be taking one?

While it is very attractive, and there are certainly benefits, to following a grading system such as ABRSM, TCL and RCM, it may not be the best route to impose these exams on all students. Let’s explore some of the pros and cons of using a music grading system like the ones mentioned above.


Clear goals: One of the biggest benefits of following a music grading system is that it provides clear goals for students to work towards. The system helps students progress in a logical and structured way, with each grade building upon the skills and knowledge learned in the previous one.

Standardized Evaluation: A music grading system provides a standardized way to evaluate students. This means that regardless of where a students takes the exam, they will be evaluated using the same criteria. This helps to ensure a fair and equitable students’ evaluation process.

Motivation: A music grading system can be a great motivator for students. Having a clear set of goals and objectives can help students stay focused and motivated, as they work towards achieving their desired grade. This can be especially beneficial for beginners who are just starting out.

Feedback: One of the benefits of a music grading system is that students receive feedback on their performance. This feedback can help students identify areas where they need to improve and work on their weaknesses.

Recognition: A music grading system provides recognition for students who achieve high grades. This recognition can be in the form of certificates, medals, or trophies. This can be a great way for students to feel a sense of accomplishment for their hard work.


Limited Assessment: A music grading system may not be able to accurately assess a student’s overall abilities. Music is a complex and diverse art form, and a grading system may not be able to accurately measure a student’s true ability.

Standardization Over Creativity: A music grading system may place too much emphasis on standardization and technique, at the expense of creativity and originality. This can be problematic, as music is an art form that relies heavily on personal expression and individuality.

High-Stress Environment: Exams can be stressful, and a music grading system can create a high-pressure environment for some students. This can be especially challenging for those who are already prone to performance anxiety.

Limited scope: Another potential downside of using a music grading system is that it can be somewhat limited in scope. While reputable systems such as ABRSM, TCL and RCM, cover a wide range of instruments and musical styles, it may not fully capture the breadth of musical expression that exists. This can be especially true for students who are interested in more unconventional or experimental forms of music.

In conclusion, a music grading system has both pros and cons. While it provides a standardized way to evaluate students and can be a great motivator, it may not accurately assess a student’s overall abilities and can place too much emphasis on standardization over creativity. Encouraging the right students to work on grading exams can motivate and speed up the learning process. However, imposing a grading system on the wrong child and it could turn them forever away from ever experiencing the joy, and feeling of accomplishments, from learning to play a musical instrument. An experienced teacher can help decide whether your child should follow a standardized grading system and when they are ready for it.