Exams and assessment

Is this being  graded?! 

There are many exam and grading systems in the UK, and they can be useful for UCAS points and to have something to work towards, but you could also devise your own system to assess levels of proficiency and track the students’ progress!  

Picture of bookshelf

Is this being graded?!

The title of this post is perhaps a tad sarcastic, as an educator we generally prefer to foster a thirst for knowledge and learning rather than achievement and product. But you will get this question… You may not work in formal education, but you might still want to consider working within a curriculum based grading system and might be right for you to deliver or help coach towards graded examinations. These are useful to help structure your education, but can also be a marketing strategy, as it offers some security (and at times even the elusive UCAS points) for parents.

Creating Your Own Assessment Sheet

For your private practice, having your own assessment sheet and goal setting sheet can be really useful. You can split up categories and define what this means in your discipline, for instance:

  • Accuracy
  • Control
  • Quality of Sound
  • Awareness
  • Communication

Use your sheet to evaluate your student, or videos of musicians if you are still training!

  1. Where do they excel and where is improvement needed?
  2. What exercises could help?
  3. What is the time frame needed?
  4. How can you break it down?
  5. What Do You Assess in Music?

The assessment depends on your goals, but things to look for are:

  • Technical ability; co-ordination, skill, autonomy
  • Accuracy, correct notes, tempo, rhythm, structure,
  • Musicality; expression, style, mood, character, shape and mood
  • Quality of sound; consistency of tone, clarity, dynamics and projection
  • Communication; the intent, performance, emotive delivery
  • The lack of strain/tension; posture

As singing teachers, we also assess differently since we are working with a moving target – the voice; power/source/filter, but we will cover than in another blog.

There are several different types of grading systems in UK.

In the formal grading system, expectations vary, however this could help get an idea of formalised levels:

Grades 1 & 2: Beginning to show a feeling for different styles and a basic sense of phrasing. General awareness and basic posture and control of the instrument. Production of a good tone with some variety of dynamic, colour and articulation, expression and general accuracy.

Grades 3 & 4: Clearly demonstrated phrasing and feeling for different styles, expression and tempo, pitch, tonal contrast, rhythm and pulse. There will be secure knowledge of notes and rhythms, fluency and basic understanding of the musical language with a sound developing technique.

Grade 5: Understanding of musical interpretation and a sense of character and style. The phrasing and expression will appear natural with a committed performance, a greater range of tone colour, flexibility in variations within pieces and a firm grasp of rhythm and pulse in several tempos.

Grade 6 & 7: At this grade, musical maturity should start to develop, with increased stamina, tone, volume, colour, speed and good communication. Expressive playing with balance and technical control will be evident and consistent, with more difficult material.

Grade 8: Confident and committed performances with individuality, character and fluency. A high level of musicianship is expected, with interpretive imagination, balanced programmes and technical proficiency. (MusicTeachers.co.uk)

Overview of Music Grade Examination Boards

Similarities between examination boards :-

  • Ofqual accredited UCAS points for prospective university students. 
  • Examination boards tend to follow the 1-8 grading system. 
  • Majority of institutions(exc. MTB) offer entry level qualifications and higher level qualifications beyond grade 8. 
  • Students are examined on 4 core subjects(unless taking a performance only course).
  1. Performance  
  2. Technical (Scales & Arpeggios)
  3. Notation (Sight Reading or Improv)
  4. Listening 
  • A fee is charged for the examination costs(this varies among boards).
  • Examinations are generally weighted towards performance(again, this varies).
  • You can skip grades and there are no prerequisites to studying at any level(exc. ABRSM*).
  • Examinations take place within pre-allocated dates(w/ exceptions, see list on specific institution)

The Associated Board of Royal School of Music (ABRSM) :- 

  • First conceived in 1889, ABRSM has continued to develop and expand into what it is today, whilst maintaining its integrity through consistent levels of difficulty.
  • Global influence with ABRSM syllabus’ being taught in over 90 countries.
  • Currently consists of a partnership between Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
  • Generally focuses on classical instruments and repertoire w/ exceptions eg jazz is offered on several instruments up to grade 5.
  • Students must at least pass grade 5 theory before they are permitted to study practical grades 6 and above*.
  • Offers diploma beyond that of grade 8.
  • Examination periods are fixed dates which have to be booked within a two week ‘booking period’(see website).
  • Exams take place in public venues or at pre-approved private visits.
  • Provides scholarships and support internationally to areas where there are barriers to accessing musical opportunities. 
  • Wide range of resources and support available for both students and teachers.


Trinity College London :-

  • Established in 1877, specialises in communicative arts including music, drama, combined arts and English in over 60 countries.
  • Regarding music, emphasis is on performance as it is the institutions belief that “musicianship is most effectively demonstrated through practical performance”.
  • Institution offers a ‘Rock & Pop’ syllabus as well as ‘Classical & Jazz’.
  • Offers a selection of extra resources further to standard grade books. These include online content such as videos and also books.
  • Examinations are held in specific centres on predetermined dates; note exams generally need to be booked approx. 8 weeks in advance.
  • Offers teacher training courses as well as diplomas.
  • TCL benefits from registered charitable status.

Arts Awards

It’s also worth mentioning Trinity College’s Arts Awards, which are generally used more for community arts projects. If you are doing a bigger project, you can work with a local representative, you do not have to be qualified to deliver this yourself.

Ten things you should know about Arts Award

  • Arts Award’s unique qualifications support young people to develop as artists and arts leaders  
  • Arts Award is open to anyone aged up to 25, and embraces all interests and backgrounds  
  • Arts Award has five levels, four of which are on the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF)  
  • Arts Award is managed by Trinity College London in association with Arts Council England working with 10 regional Bridge organisations  
  • Since the Arts Award was launched in 2005, 430,524 awards have been achieved by young people (correct as of 1 January 2019).  
  • The programme develops creativity, leadership and communication skills. Through Arts Award young people learn to work independently, helping them to prepare for further education and employment  
  • Young people can achieve an award through any arts, media or cultural activity, such as music, literature, film-making or drama, and through technical and support roles such as arts marketing, stage lighting and web design  
  • Young people develop knowledge and understanding of their chosen art forms but art form skills levels are not set
  • Young people work with a trained Arts Award adviser who supports them to achieve their aspirations. The adviser will usually be a professional artist, teacher or youth worker
  • Young people work towards their Arts Award at an Arts Award centre. Any organisation which supports young people’s arts activities can register as a centre if it employs or links with an Arts Award adviser. A centre may be a school, arts gallery, theatre, college, youth club, library, museum or arts project 

RockSchool Ltd. (RSL) :-

  • Established in 1991 as an alternative to traditional examination boards, RSL became the world’s first grading exam syllabus for popular music. 
  • Focus on accessibility as opposed to elitism, “for the many, not the few”.
  • Delivers examinations in 40+ countries.
  • Similar to ABRSM, examinations are within a fixed date period.
  • Marketed as the most ‘industry relevant grades’.
  • Allows for ‘free choice pieces’ within examinations if they meet certain criteria.
  • Grade books have accompanying backing tracks to practice along to.
  • Provide a gateway for young learners using pre-grade 1 resources.
  • Also provides examinations in musical theatre and dance.
  • Provide vocational qualification syllabus’ for FE colleges in Level 1-3 courses in the creative arts. Also offers level 4 & 6 diplomas.
  • Provides Continuous Professional Development training for educators as well as the grading system.


London College of Music Examinations :-

  • Accredited by the University of West London.
  • Range of subjects/instruments leans towards classical rather than contemporary.
  • Offers qualifications other than grades and diplomas in specialist areas ie ‘communication’ has four levels, entry through advanced.
  • Teacher training courses are available. Also offers an option to become a ‘LCME registered teacher’(fee applicable) which offers support, listing and special discounts.
  • Examinations take place thrice per year, Spring, Summer and Winter.


London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art (LAMDA) :-

  • Established in 1861, LAMDA is considered the oldest drama school in the UK; the current president is Benedict Cumberbatch.
  • LAMDA is a world-class higher education provider, but has an equally reputable series of Ofqual accredited examinations specialising in drama.
  • Has the broadest range of drama related courses. Examples include; Shakespeare, speaking in public and miming.(Many courses are available as group exams)
  • Exams Level 3 and above provide students with UCAS points where applicable.
  • A directory of suitable teachers is available from LAMDA website.
  • Empowerment of learner is paramount; aside from achievement, LAMDA strives to promote “self-confidence and the ability to communicate clearly and present ideas”. 
  • Examinations happen throughout the year(see website for details) in either a public or private center.
  • To examine as a private center, an application must be submitted, followed by a center coordinator being appointed to ensure quality control standards.


Music Teachers Board (MTB) :- 

  • Providing a modern alternative to traditional examination boards. 
  • Allows for greater flexibility and aims to reduce pressure for both teacher and student. 
  • Examinations available all year round.
  • Emphasis is placed on making the learning experience enjoyable. 
  • Lessons, as well examinations can be conducted either in person or remotely without need for external examiners. 
  • Exams are validated using MTB App and photograph of signed exam cover. 
  • All elements of exam must be completed within one single recording.
  • Submitted examinations are marked by specialists in given instrument i.e piano student will be marked by a piano specialist.
  • Further to board selected pieces, students and teachers are given the chance to use ‘free choice pieces’ which need to be of a relative standard(criteria sheet available). A ‘free choice approval service’ is available if unsure whether a piece meets the required standards of a grade.
  • Institution offers no qualifications beyond grade 8.
  • Recognised by Ofqual as an official awarding body, UCAS points equivalent to other awarding bodies.


North & Midlands School of Music :-

  • Founded in 1991, the organisation is independent and self-funded.
  • Is NOT accredited by Ofqual, meaning no UCAS points will be earned from gaining qualifications from this institution.
  • Does not offer traditional grades 1-8, although offers alternative certificates.
  • Specialises in diplomas from associate to fellowship level.
  • Strives to offer great flexibility by allowing candidates to choose repertoire,(upon verification)venue and date & time.
  • Offers qualifications other than instrumental ones, such as dissertation or conducting.


Several other independent institutions which are not Ofqual regulated are listed below.

  • Victoria College Examinations.
  • Independent Contemporary Music Awards.
  • National College of Music & Arts.