A Comparison Between Different Music Exam Boards

In the past, if you wanted to take a piano exam, there was only one main music examination board – ABRSM. Today, we have a plethora of choices. Here’s a brief comparison between the music examination boards.

The discussion here will focus on different musical genres (Classical, Pop, Rock, Jazz).  So for instance, we will not be comparing Classical Piano between ABRSM, ANZCA, LCME as the genre is essentially the same.

 


Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM – Classical)

  • Technical Work (Scales, Arpeggios, Chromatics, Contrary Motions, etc)
  • 3 Pieces
  • Sight Reading
  • Aural
  • General Knowledge aka Viva (dip. onwards)

This is a Classical music exam consisting mainly of Classical music pieces. In Classical music per se, there is NO improvisation. The objective is to develop your fundamentals and you interpret the musical piece note for note – as exacting as possible, based on the composer’s original intent. This exam is suited for those with the discipline and focus to work at Classical-oriented pieces with note for note exactness. If you are an aural learner (you prefer to play by ear rather than by score) who prefers improvising, this exam route may not be suitable for you. However, if you like Classical pieces and prefer a more ‘structured’ approach to learning, then this would be suitable.

 

Australian New Zealand Cultural Association (ANZCA – Modern)

  • Technical Work (Scales, Modes, Arpeggios, Chromatics, Contrary Motions, etc)
  • 3 Pieces (Prep – Grade 3) or 4 Pieces with improvisation on at least 1 piece (Grades 4-8)
  • Sight Reading (all grades) or Improvisation (Grade 2 onwards)
  • Aural
  • General Knowledge

This is a Modern/Contemporary music exam consisting a variety of pieces like Blues, Jazz, Boogie, Ragtime, Latin, etc. The technical work required for each grade is more difficult than ABRSM (eg. melodic minors in Grade 1). ANZCA allows for an ‘outside’ piece of music to be played during the exam to replace one of their set pieces – this means greater personal choices for the candidate. Improvisation is also compulsory from Grade 4 onwards on at least one of the pieces. Furthermore, from grade 4 onwards, the candidate can choose either to focus on sight reading or improvisation in the technical section. Compared to ABRSM, ANZCA offers more options – though some of these options can be more challenging.

This exam is suited for those who prefer the sound and groove of modern and contemporary music styles rather than Classical music. The grooves and syncopation of the musical choices here are very catchy. However, this exam is also challenging. Grade for grade, it is more difficult than ABRSM due to higher note-densities, syncopation, poly-rhythms.

 

London College of Music Examinations (LCME – Jazz)

  • Technical Work (Scales, Modes, Arpeggios, Chromatics, Contrary Motions, etc)
  • 3 Pieces (all improvised)
  • Sight Reading/Improvisation
  • Aural
  • General Knowledge

This is a Jazz music exam. This is for music students who like Jazz music and freedom in improvisation. All pieces are purely Jazz. This exam requires you to play AND improvise all 3 pieces. Like ANZCA, LCME(Jazz) allows for an ‘outside’ piece of music to be played during the exam to replace one of their set pieces. One unique feature of this exam is that bonus marks are given for UCAS application for Grades 6-8. So if you’re planning to study in British universities in the UK, this exam will help in your application as it gives you extra ‘points’.

 

Trinity College London (TCL Pop/Rock)

  • 3 Pieces (with or without backing track)
  • Session Skills (Playback or Improvisation)

This is a Pop/Rock music exam for keyboards/piano. This is one of the easier and learner-friendly exam boards in terms of technical difficulty. The focus is more on Keyboard accompaniment for the earlier grades, rather than full-on piano. In other words, instead of playing the melody, harmony and rhythm, you focus on the harmony and rhythm only. This exam is more suitable for students who like pop and rock music or may find the other exam boards challenging. This keyboard exam requires you to perform 3 pieces but does not have technical work, sight reading or aural sections.

As this exam does not have the ‘scales’ component, it is the least technically rigorous of all the boards. It puts in the fun in learning keyboards from an ‘accompanying’ perspective, rather than from a solo piano perspective. However, there is a component called “Session Skills”, where the candidate is tested on either a ‘Playback’, or ‘Improvisation’ component. The former requires extensive listening skills, as well as chord reading skills; where else the latter requires spontaneous improvisational and extensive chord reading skills, coupled with various styles of music genres (latin, funk, rock, jazz, country, etc.).

All pieces from the book are accompanied with backing tracks as you are expected to play along with the provided backing tracks during the exam. This means your timing has to be accurate. You have also the flexibility to have an ‘outside’ piece to replace one of their set pieces.

 

Rockschool

  • Technical Work (Scales, Arpeggios, Chromatics, Contrary Motions, etc)
  • 3 Pieces (with backing tracks)
  • Sight Reading or Improvisation (Grades 1-5), Sight Reading & Improvisation (Grades 6-8)
  • Aural
  • Stylistic Studies (Grade 6 onwards)
  • General Knowledge (Called ‘Musicianship’ for their syllabus)

This is also a Pop/Rock music exam. It is similar to TCL (Pop/Rock) in terms of musical styles, except that is offered by a different company; with a different suite of song choices but with more tested components. Again, the focus is more on keyboard comping rather than full-on piano. You have also the flexibility to have two ‘outside’ pieces to replace their set pieces. Compared to TCL, Rockschool has more components to be tested on. You can choose an outside piece to perform for the exam, but these must be pieces with grand staff, not lead sheets. All pieces are accompanied with backing tracks as you are expected to play along with the provided backing tracks during the exam. Again, this means your timing has to be accurate. Again, like TCL, extra UCAS points are given should you decide to study in UK universities.

 


There are of course, other music examination boards, but the main point is that different boards offer different experiences for the student. Some are note-for-note, some are very improvisational, some are Classical, some are Modern and others are Jazz. How do you decide which music exam board to take?

Every candidate/child/person is different and has different abilities. For example, some children are aural learners rather than sight-learners (ie. they prefer to listen and play rather than read and play), then you may have to find an exam that balances both components so that some note-reading is there but also gives the child some room for improvisation. There are also children who don’t mind either, or who just prefer Classical music, then a Classical exam might be more suitable.

The most important thing is for you to sit down with your child’s music teacher and discuss about it – What’s the end objective that you are trying to achieve? Hopefully it’s not the paper chase or the grades/scores, but the love of the music!

If a child grows up loving what he/she is playing, and has a teacher who can nourish his/her soul in the process of learning, don’t you think that’s better compared to a child who stops playing the piano the moment he finishes his piano exam?