A guide to the best piano exam boards

20 March 2020
By Ellie Palmer
Don't know which board to take your exam with? Do not fear; we spoke to the three most successful boards who share their vision and views

It’s an experience that many of us recall only in nightmares: the thumping heart;  the sweaty palms; the apparent disappearance of everything we had painstakingly learned about scales and their key signatures from our mental filing cabinets. 

But those days are past! Over the course of this article, three of the top examination boards explain their concept of the exam in today’s world – ensuring that the exam-taking process, whether Grade 8 or diploma, or Grade 2 or below, can be an enjoyable and uplifting experience.



Who is ABRSM?

Established in 1889, ABRSM is passionate about music and music education. 

ABRSM’s mission is to inspire musical achievement. It does this by supporting music teaching and learning around the world in partnership with four Royal Schools of Music: the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music, and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

ABRSM is an advocate for music education. It provides assessments, resources and services to support teachers and learners – and in line with its charitable aims, sponsors a wide variety of music education organisations.

These range from leading youth orchestras and choirs to smaller specialist organisations that support a diverse range of learners.

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ABRSM's assessments

ABRSM provides internationally respected music assessments for learners of all ages and levels of attainment. Each year 700 examiners deliver over 600,000 assessments in more than 90 countries.

As a regulated awarding organisation ABRSM assessments are valued and trusted measures of musical progress.

  • Syllabuses are regularly reviewed to maintain standards and ensure they meet the needs of teachers and learners.
  • ABRSM’s graded piano syllabus is refreshed every two years and the Piano Syllabus 2021 & 2022 will be published in early June 2020.
  • This will feature a complete change of repertoire and scale requirements for all grades, extended and redefined repertoire lists, duets (up to Grade 3) and a new Initial Grade. 
  • In addition to the core classical graded music exams (Grades Initial to 8), ABRSM also offers practical graded exams in Jazz, Singing for Musical Theatre and Practical Musicianship.
  • Other assessments include Choral Singing and Ensemble exams. 
  • These are offered alongside a comprehensive Music Theory exam pathway which encourages developing musicians to learn about the way music works.

This understanding helps them to make music with greater awareness, confidence and sensitivity. 


For beginners and young learners

ABRSM recently launched a new Initial Grade for Bowed Strings and will be introducing it for Piano with the 2021 & 2022 syllabus.

This pre-Grade 1 exam follows the same structure, content and marking criteria as the graded exams making it a useful stepping stone to Grade 1.

The Prep Test is a relaxed introduction to the experience of taking an exam. There is no pass or fail and all candidates are rewarded with a certificate and helpful comments from the examiner.

This is complemented by the Performance Assessment, which offers a similar experience to learners at any stage of their development.


For advanced musicians

ABRSM’s letter-bearing diplomas provide a range of assessment options for advanced musicians:  

  • ARSM is a performance-only diploma open to anyone who has passed
    Grade 8. 
  • DipABRSM, LRSM and FRSM diplomas are available in Music Performance, Instrumental/Vocal Teaching and Music Direction.

Publications and digital resources

ABRSM is committed to creating balanced and diverse repertoire collections, and to commissioning new music and arrangements.

Its award-winning books support musicians at all stages of learning with collections of carefully selected and graded repertoire.

To further support learners with their musical journeys, ABRSM also offers a wide range of digital resources, from apps to help exam candidates with aural tests, sight-reading, music theory and scales, to a new online learning platform for electric guitarists. 


Teacher development

ABRSM understands that music teachers play a vital role in the delivery of effective and inspiring music education.

ABRSM supports music educators through a growing range of teacher development and education resources, helping teachers to widen their skills, knowledge and understanding while building successful, rewarding careers. 






LCME is the graded examinations department of the London College of Music, the largest specialist performing arts institution in the UK. Examinations are held worldwide. Its qualifications are unique within the graded examination sector in being awarded by a university. 

LCME is a diverse, forward-thinking community of learners, teachers, examiners and leading experts in its fields.

Since the college’s founding in 1887, it has welcomed all those with a passion for music and drama, inspiring generations of students to become performers, composers, teachers and informed listeners.

Founded on the principle of offering music education to all who wish to learn, from the beginning courses and upwards, LCME is open to all ages and backgrounds. 

Its emphasis on accessibility was unique in comparison with the other music colleges of the time. This ethos remains firmly in place as it continues to lead the way in developing exam provision. 


Diversity and inclusion

Examination boards play a part in shaping the culture of society. For young learners, the works they prepare for exams play a key part in shaping their expectations and aspirations of music and drama.

LCME is renewing the founding ethos of LCM by working hard to ensure its syllabuses are more diverse and representative of the people taking graded exams. 

LCME is committed to encouraging perspectives which are more reflective of the diversity within society. It strives to be relevant and of interest to people from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds.

LCME is proactively addressing the gender and racial balance among contemporary composers and authors within each of its syllabuses. Its work in this area is pioneering, providing a broader range of experiences reflecting the world in which its candidates recognise.


Qualifications and learning materials

  • Exams are offered across a wide range of subjects, catering for all levels of ability. The board offers qualifications in classical, contemporary and traditional music, drama, communication, spoken English, early learning and creative media. 
  • Qualifications range from introductory exams, through graded exams and diplomas in performance and teaching. LCME has pioneered the development of flexible examination formats, giving candidates in many subjects the ability to be assessed entirely or predominantly in performance.
  • Syllabuses contain a wide range of repertoire options, sometimes including an own choice element. LCME offers a variety of examination alternative options to the standard graded exam such as Leisure Play, where candidates perform three pieces plus an own fourth choice, but do not attempt any of the additional components of the exam.
  • Recital grades allow candidates to enter for a graded exam focusing entirely, or predominantly, on performance. Performance Awards are also available, assessed entirely via video submission. 
  • The graded exams in most subjects – including diplomas in music performance, music teaching and drama – are regulated by Ofqual, Qualifications Wales and CCEA.
  • In order to be regulated, qualifications need to meet stringent criteria related to exam content, delivery, assessment and reporting procedures. These measures provide additional value and confidence in that LCME graded examinations are of equal standing to other examination boards.



LCME wants its learners to love spending time with its publications.

It believes that books can be beautiful, special and rewarding in many ways, from the inventiveness of the content and the quality of the editing to the look and feel of the publication. 

LCME publishes a truly broad range of materials to assist learners in their development of performing arts. From printed music to theory workbooks and a whole host of drama and communication publications, LCME also provides downloadable digital versions of many of its books, making sure their publications are affordable and easily accessible to all. 




Who is Trinity College London?

Trinity College London is a leading international exam board and independent education charity that has been providing assessments around the world since 1877. With over 850,000 candidates a year in more than 60 countries worldwide, Trinity qualifications are specifically designed to help students progress.

In the UK, a network of more than 200 public exam centres are available for taking Trinity Music exams, or alternatively a Trinity examiner can visit private locations such as schools, if certain criteria are met.


Musicianship is key

Performance is at the heart of Trinity’s graded music assessments, with the belief that musicianship is most effectively demonstrated through practical performance.

The exams are numbered from Initial to Grade 8, with the Initial exam acting as an introduction to the exam system for new performers. With flexibility within each part of the exam and a wide range of repertoire to choose from, learners can perform to their strengths and gain recognition for their own unique skills.

In addition, there is no need to have passed Grade 5 Theory before taking a higher grade practical exam, though Trinity does offer a comprehensive Theory syllabus.


All styles, all levels

  • Pieces cover a wide variety of musical styles and periods allowing learners to progress in their own musical style. Candidates play three pieces in their exam, with the option of playing a duet (Initial to Grade 3) or even one of their own compositions.
  • Instrument-specific technical work has long been a hallmark of Trinity exams. The specially written exercises focus on key areas of piano technique, alongside a small number of scales and arpeggios.
  • Supporting tests encourage learners to develop broader musical skills. Candidates choose two options from sight reading, aural, improvisation or musical knowledge.
  • Performance diplomas provide a pathway to professional musicianship, focusing exclusively on the planning and performance of a recital. Offered at three levels (ATCL, LTCL and FTCL), candidates can choose pieces from the newly expanded repertoire lists, submit their own-choice pieces, or a mixture of both.


Repertoire matters

Peter Wild, piano syllabus consultant and senior Trinity examiner, explains: ‘Our pieces are selected for teachers to make choices with – in line with the depth and breadth of musical learning they deliver, their own musical experience and knowledge, and their personal values as musicians and educators.’

He goes on to say: ‘We chose music that learners enjoy playing and can play with confidence so that a music exam becomes a fulfilling experience and embeds a love of performing beyond the exam room.’

Pearse and Hannah are two piano students who were inducted to the TrinityTalent Class of 2018. ‘Since completing exams with Trinity, I have been exposed to styles of piano playing that I never had before.’ says Pearse, who has achieved Grades 4 and 5.



A full range of repertoire and exercise books are available to support teachers and students including Piano Exam Pieces & Exercises, the Raise the Bar series and Piano Stories which provides creative ideas for learning the early grade pieces in a beautifully illustrated format.

Further support is available at www.trinitycollege.com/piano-resources, with videos and articles exploring pieces and technical work, and a new video series showcasing creative approaches to learning to improvise.