An ABRSM exam is an exciting challenge for candidates and we do everything we can to make the experience positive and rewarding. Our examiners aim to put every candidate at ease and to create an atmosphere in which they can give their best performance.
Before the exam | During the exam | After the exam
How long does an exam take?
A Grade 1 exam lasts for around 12 minutes. As the grades get higher the exams gradually become longer, with Grade 8 taking around 30 minutes.
Timings vary slightly depending on the instrument and grade, and any arrangements we have made for candidates with access needs or who need an interpreter.
In the exam room
When candidates go into the exam room the examiner welcomes them and confirms their name. Candidates will see everything for their exam in place – a piano, a chair for performers who sit while playing and a desk where the examiner sits to listen and write the mark form.
Sometimes there are two examiners in the room. One is there to run and mark the exam and the other is there as an observer. This is an essential part of our training and quality assurance processes. If there are two examiners present, this will not affect the marking or results and the steward on the day will explain this to candidates before they go into the room.
During the exam there may be short pauses between pieces or songs and sections. This is nothing to worry about – the examiner will just be writing comments on the mark form.
About the piano
The piano at the exam venue might be an upright or a grand. All pianos at ABRSM exam centres are of consistently good quality and are tuned and checked before any exams take place. Examiners also try out the piano at the start of the day and then play it during the aural tests in every exam. This means they know what it feels like to play a particular piano and what candidates will be experiencing in their exams.
In the exam room candidates can spend a short time getting comfortable and settled before the exam begins. This might include adjusting the piano stool or putting the music stand in the best place – something to think through before the day. The examiner will help with adjusting or moving things if necessary and will also give candidates the opportunity to warm up by playing or singing a few notes.
For many instrumentalists, learning how to tune their instrument is an important part of learning to play. Tuning is also an important part of setting up before the exam. Candidates can usually check their tuning before going into the exam room, so they only need to do final tuning to the piano at the start of the exam. For some instruments and grades the teacher or accompanist is allowed to help with this (see the syllabus for details).
Examiners cannot help with tuning or adjusting instruments. However, if a candidate needs help, and it is not available, examiners will do what they can. They might offer to change the order of the exam – doing the aural tests first, for example – to give time for help to arrive. Or, if possible, they might change the timetable so the candidate can take the exam later in the day, once help has been found.
Singers and instrumentalists playing accompanied pieces must bring an accompanist with them. Examiners cannot accompany a candidate as this would affect their ability to mark the exam and we do not allow recorded accompaniments (except in Jazz exams). However, if an accompanist is unavailable or late, examiners will do what they can to help by changing the order of the exam or, if possible, the timetable to give time for an accompanist to arrive.
The order of the exam
Candidates can do the elements of the exam in any order. This is something that candidate and teacher can decide together before the exam.
Candidates with an accompanist usually begin with their pieces or songs. The accompanist goes into the exam room with them and leaves after the pieces or songs. If candidates decide to begin with a different section of the exam, they should tell the steward who can then call the accompanist at the right time.
Candidates playing the guitar, harp, percussion or keyboard instruments often prefer to begin with scales and arpeggios, as this provides an opportunity to warm up and, for pianists, try the instrument.
In the exam, candidates perform pieces or songs chosen from the repertoire lists in the syllabus. The syllabus also includes additional information about many aspects of this exam element, such as exam music and editions, interpreting the score (fingering, bowing, metronome marks and realising ornaments), repeats and page turns.
Before the exam begins examiners need to know which pieces or songs a candidate is going to perform, so they can be checked against the syllabus and listed on the mark form. As the Singing repertoire lists are much longer than the lists for instrumental exams, we ask Singing candidates to have their songs written down on a piece of paper ready to give to the examiner. It helps if candidates include the name of each song, the composer and the number from the syllabus list, such as A2 or B1. We provide pre-printed slips for this at the back of syllabus booklets and on our website, or candidates can use a piece of paper. Instrumental candidates are welcome to do the same for their pieces, or they can simply tell the examiner what they are going to play.
During longer pieces examiners may ask candidates to stop playing, once they have heard enough to make an assessment.
For this section, examiners ask candidates to play a selection of the requirements for the grade. Examiners usually ask for at least one of each type of scale and arpeggio pattern listed.
We publish guideline speeds for scales and arpeggios on this website, in our syllabus booklets and in our books of scale requirements. However, speed is just one aspect of playing scales. Candidates need to achieve a balance between speed and the other qualities listed in the marking criteria, such as accuracy, evenness of tone and regularity of flow.
Instead of scales and arpeggios, singers perform an unaccompanied traditional (folk) song of their choice, from memory. Candidates can sing the song in any key. If they need to they can play the first note or key-chord on the piano before they perform the song.
Candidates have half a minute to look at and try out the sight-reading before they begin the test. Examiners explain this when they hand over the music. Nothing is assessed during this preparation time and candidates can play or sing any part of the test out loud. The important thing is that they feel comfortable using the time in a way that suits them. This is something that teachers and candidates can plan before the exam.
For this element of the exam, examiners go to the piano to play the tests and ask the candidate some questions. The aural tests only take a few minutes but tell examiners much about candidates’ listening skills and musical awareness.
Where tests involve a sung response, examiners listen for the pitch and not the quality of the singing and candidates can choose to hum or whistle if they prefer. During this section examiners assess a candidate’s overall response rather than awarding separate marks for individual tests.
After the aural tests, examiners return to the desk to write their comments on the mark form.
What about mistakes?
Examiners understand that candidates can make mistakes in an exam which they might not have made in lessons or practice. Examiners also recognise when candidates recover well from a mistake, and they take this into account in their marking.
In most cases, exam results match teachers’ expectations but sometimes teachers might be surprised by a candidate’s result. This might be because they are comparing it with the singing or playing that happens in lessons, whereas examiners can only mark what they hear on the day. At the heart of a graded music exam is a live performance to an examiner and being able to perform in this situation is an important part of taking an exam.