How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 2 RSS

Learning / 25/11/2018
How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 2

How to get on target for a music exam distinction: Part 2

What is a distinction mark?

Gaining a distinction in a music exam is a great achievement. A distinction means that the candidate's marks have attained a high percentage when measured against pre-determined criteria:

  • ABRSM - A distinction mark is 86% or higher
  • Trinity College London - A distinction mark is 87% or higher 
  • London College of Music - A distinction mark is 85% or higher 

What weighting do the supplementary tests carry?

In Part 1 we considered how to prepare the pieces, which carry the highest percentage of the overall mark. However, the supplementary tests still represent a considerable proportion of the marks so the response to these needs to be excellent too. The relative weighting varies according to which board you have chosen, as follows:

  • ABRSM - Performance 60% Supplementary tests 40%
  • Trinity College London - Performance 66% Supplementary tests 34%
  • London College of Music - Performance 60% Supplementary tests 40%

Which board offers which supplementary tests?

The ABRSM supplementary tests are scales and arpeggios/broken chords, sight reading and aural tests. For Trinity, aural is one of two tests chosen from four at Grades 1–5: sight reading, aural, improvisation and musical knowledge. At Grades 6–8, the Trinity candidate must do sight reading but may choose either aural or improvisation. Aural tends to be a more popular choice than improvisation.

The London College of Music supplementary tests comprise technical work or study (candidate's choice), viva voce (similar to Trinity's musical knowledge), sight reading and aural.

Scales, arpeggios, broken chords

These are played from memory. The first priority is accuracy of notes, including precise intonation where appropriate (wind instruments as well as string instruments). The higher the grade, the faster the technical work is played, but accuracy and musicality should never be sacrificed for the sake of speed. 

A confident response is needed in all technical work, meaning that each item should be started promptly and played fluently, with a well-focused tone and even timing. The playing should be musically shaped, having a sensitive, 'real music' feel for phrasing, achieved by a slight crescendo ascending followed by a subtle diminuendo descending. Scales and arpeggios could be said to need more musical shaping if all the notes are relentlessly forceful (or equally timid) in tone.

A special note on scales and arpeggios for pianists

Good fingering for pianists is essential. Although examiners do not mark fingering accuracy, sensible choices make it easier to play fluently and unwise fingering can prevent effective control of tone and legato. It's easier to learn scales and arpeggios by understanding the keys and by memorising fingering patterns and, in my experience, students who continue to read the notes from a book tend to find the essential memorisation process more laborious.  Pianists have the advantage of being able to see the notes of each scale on the keys and these visual cues are helpful for memorisation. Referring to a video can both promote accuracy and demonstrate a good hand shape, and practising with a backing track can help with musical shape and fluency, as well as being great fun:


A special note on technical work for singers

ABRSM singers are not required to do technical exercises or studies but, instead, perform an unaccompanied song that needs to reflect the idiom appropriately and 'tell the story'. This applies to both classical singing exams and musical theatre singing exams.

Trinity singing candidates are required to offer vocal exercises or Vaccai exercises or unaccompanied folk song.

London College Classical Singing candidates offer Vaccai exercises in Italian or German and unaccompanied folk/traditional song. An alternative Popular Music Vocals syllabus is also available in which the candidate performs scales, broken chords and riffs. Here's an example of a grade 4 Vaccai exercise:

The study

A study is included in some exams because it requires a whole range of technical skills. A good technique is one that appears effortless to the onlooker and produces musical results without physical injury to the musician. Technique has to be well-taught and practised and there are tutor books devoted to this for most instruments. Bear in mind when using technical exercises that the whole point of them is for a teacher to explain the correct technique for practising each exercise - practising with poor technique could result in repetitive strain injuries.

Technique encompasses mental as well as physical preparation. Notice the poise shown by young Daniil Trifonov, playing the Opus 25 Etudes (Studies) by Chopin in a competition in 2011. Even at this tender age, extensive performing practice enabled Trifonov to focus and concentrate to a formidable degree and prepared him for a career as a concert artist.

To gain a distinction mark in a study, the candidate's performance will show authoritative control of the technical difficulties within the study, as well as communicating the musical meaning, detail and sense of phrase at an appropriate tempo. The acquired ability, through practice, to concentrate and focus even when someone is listening will help exam candidates to do their best in the study.


Aural skills are examined to test and to promote musical understanding and perception. To gain a distinction in the aural tests, the candidate will demonstrate musical memory and give mainly correct, prompt responses to questions about specific elements of music such as tempo, dynamics and structure. At higher grades, the questions increasingly relate sound to theory and notation, for example ABRSM singing from notation and Trinity spotting differences between a score and the examiner's performance of it. London College begins relating notation to sound as early as Grade 2, in which candidates are asked to identify and describe note values in a bar from a passage they just heard.

Comparing Trinity College, ABRSM and London College aural tests:

  • All three boards test similar musical concepts but with slightly different methods and emphasis.
  • ABSRM requires sung responses with appropriately increased difficulty at each grade. 
  • Trinity College requires no sung responses.
  • London College requires minimal sung responses.
  • Only Trinity uses a single phrase or piece of music around which several questions are focused. ABRSM uses different musical extracts or phrases for each of the individual elements being tested and London College does the same except at grade 8.

The aural tests can be challenging for many music students and parents to understand but clear explanations are given, with examples, in the E-MusicMaestro free Guides to Aural.

Every healthy child is born with an innate predisposition to respond to sound but no-one acquires sophisticated musical perception without focused listening and, above all, practice. Teachers do their best to cover the principles of aural during lessons but they rightly prioritise teaching their students to play or sing.  Until relatively recently, most students have been unable to practise at home, meaning that they were dependent on the short time devoted to aural in lessons. Now it's possible to develop and improve aural skills by practising online. The online aural training resource recommended by teachers is E-MusicMaestro Aural Test Training.  It's an interactive programme that teaches as well as tests, by giving explanations as to why a particular answer is the right one. Aural Test Training subscribers are parents, adults students, teachers, and schools that value music education highly. 

The remaining supplementary tests, Sight Reading, Musical Perception/Viva Voce and Improvisation will be discussed in Part 3, the final article in this series.

Sandy Holland

Title photograph by Annie Spratt

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