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The Ultimate Guide to Piano Exam Syllabuses: Which One Is Best for Your Students?

By Sean Wales | Exams

Apr 26

piano exam syllabuses

Piano Exam Syllabuses

There is an abundance of piano exam syllabuses out there. It can be confusing and overwhelming when choosing which exam your students should sit. The language is hard to understand and it’s difficult to get your head around all of the various requirements, especially when you have multiple students sitting different exams.

Some are based around traditional syllabuses, with classical repertoire, scales and other technical exercises. Other more modern syllabuses test rock, pop and jazz skills. Many piano exam syllabuses have vastly diverse repertoire lists and contain varying technical works.

While some students enjoy traditional piano exams covering a range pieces from different historical periods, others prefer to do a more modern syllabus; one which features innovative repertoire choices and encourages improvisation.

So, how do you choose which exam syllabus is best for your student?

Our Ultimate Guide to Piano Exam Syllabuses is here to help.

It will simplify a wide range of piano syllabuses from reputable piano boards such as AMEB, Trinity and ANZCA. This post will explore the repertoire and technical requirements for these syllabuses, highlighting similarities and differences.

This guide will help you make a well-informed and confident decision about which piano exam you should consider for your students.

At the end of the post, you will also find a link to download our Ultimate Piano Exam Guide as an easy-to-read table. This is a handy resource if you have any questions about piano exam syllabuses in the future.

Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB)

AMEB is arguably Australia’s most well-respected and well-known musical board. Their piano exams are thorough, their repertoire lists varied and their technical work quite intense. This post will explain each of their three piano syllabuses; Piano, Piano for Leisure and Rockschool. You can also check out Tim’s podcast on AMEB piano exams; click here to listen.

Piano

The AMEB Piano syllabus is what many Australian students have become used to in their education. It is a well-structured syllabus which explains all of the repertoire and technical requirements.

AMEB has three levels for all of their piano exams. For today’s post, we will focus on Level 1 (Preliminary to Grade 4) and Level 2 (Grade 5 to Certificate of Performance).

  • For Level 1, students must play three pieces chosen from three lists created by AMEB. From Grade 2, students are required to choose one extra list piece to perform.
  • For Level 2 exams, students must prepare four pieces plus two extra lists.

AMEB publishes their lists on the syllabus and also publish syllabus books for each grade. Their repertoire lists are extensive and cover a wide range of historical periods.

In terms of technical requirements, AMEB has implemented substantial technical work for students in their piano syllabus. Sight reading, general knowledge and aural tests all feature in an AMEB Piano exam.

Students must also prepare plenty of scales and arpeggios. All of the requirements are specifically outlined in the syllabus, with scales in later grades becoming faster, played staccato as well as legato and so forth.

While the technical work is quite intense, it does allow teachers to help their students become technically sound. An AMEB Piano exam taught alongside other creative methods can be a positive and motivating experience for your students. Just make sure your student does not get stuck on the exam express!

For more information on the AMEB piano syllabus and to buy a copy, please click here.

Piano for Leisure (PFL)

The PFL syllabus is alternate to AMEB’s Piano syllabus involving a reduced amount of technical work and fewer pieces to prepare, often in a more modern style.

Students play three pieces for each exam and there is no extra list requirement. The pieces are generally more modern and ‘fun’ to play.

Importantly, students have an ‘own choice’ option for their exams. This can be an own composition, as long as it is in line with the chosen grade’s difficulty.

When it comes to technical work, students can choose between aural tests or sight reading for exams at all levels. There is a general knowledge aspect to the exams and scales and arpeggios also feature. While for the Piano syllabus you must have a pass mark in the relevant theory exam to pass Grade 6, there is no such requirement for the PFL syllabus.

Check out AMEB’s website for more information on the PFL syllabus.

Rockschool

Rockschool is a new syllabus the AMEB are offering in Australia. See this post for a more in-depth analysis of a Rockschool exam by Stuart Storer, one of seven Rockschool examiners in Australia: How Do Rockschool Piano Exams Work?

Interestingly, Rockschool exams include backing tracks for some of their pieces and some innovative technical work.

From Debut (equivalent to Preliminary) to Grade 5, students choose between doing sight reading and the improvisation/interpretation exercise. Improvisation consists of a chord progression and a backing track, with the student invited to improvise based on the chords.

Rockschool Piano Improvisation Example Grade 3

Example Improvisation and Interpretation Exercises – Grade 3. Republished with Permission. Click to Enlarge.

From Grade 6 to 8 this is replaced with a ‘Quick Study’. A student uses a lead sheet, which involves aspects of sight reading, to improvise over a backing track. The student chooses which stylistic category (Pop and Rock, Jazz, Blues and Soul or Film and Musical Theatre) of their Quick Study.

From Grade 6 to 8 students must choose a ‘Stylistic Study’ which falls under the technical requirements. This is a study based on the above-mentioned categories and is pre-prepared. It is played to a backing track and these can be found in the relevant grade book.

In terms of repertoire, students choose three pieces from the Rockschool Grade Books. Up to two pieces may also be chosen outside of the books, this is referred to as a ‘Free Choice’.

Rockschool also offers a Performance Certificate for all grades, which is made of five pieces and no technical work.

Rockschool piano exams are innovative and creative and ideal if your student wants to explore a range of genres, styles and improvisation.

Click here to see the Rockschool website.

Australian and New Zealand Cultural Arts (ANZCA)

ANZCA is another popular exam syllabus completed in Australia. Their exams are known to feature a wide variety of piano genres and styles and encourage creativity and improvisation.

ANZCA exams include three initial grades which you may not have seen before. In order of difficulty, they are; Introductory, Preparatory and Preliminary. A student only needs to play two pieces for Introductory and three pieces for the other two levels.

Both exam syllabuses discussed in this post include a free choice option starting from Grade 1. A free choice can be a student’s own composition, as long as it is deemed by the teacher to be of an appropriate difficulty.

For more information on all things to do with ANZCA exams, tune into Tim’s podcast: TTTV016: ANZCA Piano Exams with Tony Betros.

Alternatively, you can also check out ANZCA’s website by clicking here.

piano exam syllabuses

Modern Pianoforte

For a Modern Pianoforte exam, up until Grade 3 students choose three pieces. The pieces are chosen from categories; Pop and Rock, Blues, Boogie and Ragtime. ANZCA has created modern lists that invite students to explore a range of piano styles.

Another interesting point for ANZCA exams is the ’embellishment’ requirement. From Grade 3, students must embellish their pieces in some way; prior to Grade 3, embellishment is simply encouraged.

This is basically putting an individual twist on a piece; some kind of creative interpretation.

In terms of technical work scales, chords and arpeggios all feature in exams, but not in the same quantity as AMEB. Students must complete aural tests and general knowledge from the Introductory level and sight reading is introduced at Preparatory exams.

Interestingly, starting at Grade 2 students have the choice between sight reading or improvisation. The improvisation exercises are similar to sight reading. Students look over some chord symbols and a melody in the 30 seconds preparation time, before creating their improvisation.

Classical Pianoforte

The Classical Pianoforte syllabus is of a similar structure to the Modern syllabus. It starts with Introductory, which requires only two pieces to be performed, then the Preparatory and Preliminary grades.

Students can choose their repertoire from the syllabus, which outlines different lists. The syllabus introduces a free choice option from Grade 1, with students able to choose any classical or modern piece, as long as it is of an appropriate difficulty.

When a student reaches Grades 4 and 5, they must perform four pieces. These are chosen from three lists and then they are required to do a free choice piece. This is equivalent to the extra list piece we see in AMEB exams.

For Grade 6 to Grade 8, the syllabus includes a ‘List D’, and students may replace this with a free choice option.

There is no improvisation technical work in the Classical syllabus. Students must perform scales, chords and arpeggios depending on the level of difficulty. As well as this, examiners test general knowledge, sight reading and aural skills.

To pass Grades 6 to 8, students must have also passed a minimum of Grade 5 in music theory.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)

We will be looking at two of ABRSM’s popular exam syllabuses; Piano and Jazz Piano.

ABRSM’s syllabuses are extremely easy to read, which is also helpful. However, for most of their exams, there doesn’t seem to be a wide variety of pieces to choose from. Each list contains about six pieces. Click here to see Tim’s podcast on ABRSM exams.

Piano

There isn’t too much different about an ABRSM Piano exam, except that it starts at Grade 1, with no ‘Preliminary’ or equivalent exam. You choose three pieces from three lists which are outlined in the syllabus. There doesn’t seem to be a free choice/extra list option. However, the three lists do cover a variety of composers and periods.

There is a prerequisite for entry for exams from Grade 6: students must have completed ABRSM Grade 5 (or above) in Music Theory, Practical Musicianship or any solo Jazz subject.

Technical work includes aural tests and scales and arpeggios which become quite challenging in the later grades. Broken chords feature in exams up until Grade 2. Surprisingly, there is no general knowledge test for ABRSM Piano exams. This is covered by the theory requirement in the later grades.

Interestingly, when it comes to sight reading, students may practise their short piece in the 30 seconds they have to prepare. In other exam syllabuses such as AMEB, students strictly cannot practise their sight reading piece.

You can download the ABRSM syllabus on their website.

Jazz Piano

The ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus is more creative and innovative. It consists of five grades (1-5).

Students must play three pieces for each exam, chosen from three categories; Blues, Standards and Contemporary Jazz. Each list is made of only five pieces, so there isn’t a huge amount of choice. But the repertoire does allow students to learn how to play various styles of piano and approach improvisation.

Scales, arpeggios and broken chords all feature in the Jazz Piano syllabus. They are based on a jazz style, played in straight 8s or swing. Scales also feature modes, such as dorian, mixolydian and pentatonics, while broken chords could be based on Major or Minor 7s.

Aural tests are also in the syllabus, as well as a ‘Quick Study’ exercise. This is similar to sight reading. A student must play either by sight or by ear a short phrase, and improvise a response to it.

The Jazz Piano syllabus seems to invite creativity in students, and are unique in that they encourage students to explore a range of modes and a swing rhythmic pattern in its technical work. This could be a good option for a student wanting to explore jazz, improvisation and expand their music vocabulary.

Have any questions about ABRSM’s Jazz Piano syllabus? Head to their website by clicking here.

Trinity College London (Trinity)

London-based Trinity College exams are another we will look at today. They have a range of piano syllabuses including, Piano, Rock and Pop and Piano Accompanying.

We will go into detail about the Piano and Rock and Pop syllabuses. For more information on the Trinity exams, check out the podcast Tim recorded earlier this month.

Piano

The Trinity Piano exams, on paper, seem to consist of fewer requirements than the ones previously outlined.

From Initial (Preliminary) to Grade 3, students choose three pieces from one list. It consists of only about 10 pieces, so the choice isn’t very wide. They do offer some alternatives for each grade as well. For Debut and Grade 1, you may also choose to do one Duet piece.

After Grade 4, pieces are split up into two lists, with one piece being chosen from each list. The third piece for the exam may be from either of the lists, or an original composition.

The technical work requirements differ quite a bit for Trinity exams. There are scales, arpeggios and broken chords. Interestingly, musical knowledge only features from Initial to Grade 5. Also, from Initial to Grade 5 students only need to choose two technical exercises out of the following options: Sight Reading, Aural, Improvisation and Musical Knowledge.

From Grade 6 to 8, students must complete a sight reading exercise, and choose between the improvisation or aural tests. Sight reading may also be practised during the 30 seconds preparation time.

The Trinity exams are interesting in that they give you a choice between technical exercises. It is exciting to see a classically based exam including improvisation and the option to play an own composition. However, the lists do seem quite limited, especially in comparison to the AMEB lists.

For more information, check out the Trinity College London website.

Rock and Pop

The Trinity Rock and Pop syllabus has some creative features to it.

Each exam consists of three pieces. The first piece must be chosen from the relevant Rock and Pop book. The second can also be chosen from the grade book or other Trinity books or can be an own choice song. The own choice piece can be an original composition or arrangement, as long as sheet music is presented to the examiner.

The third song is known as a Technical Focus (TF) song. In the grade books, two of the pieces are highlighted as a ‘TF’ song, designed to develop certain technical skills. Students must select one of these for their exams.

There isn’t much in the way of technical work for a Rock and Pop exam. Students have a choice between the Playback exercise, which is similar to sight reading but the student gets to hear the recording as well as see the music, and Improvising. The latter involves reading a chord chart and improvising over a backing track they have never heard before. Students may practise both technical exercises before the examiner assesses them.

There are no aural tests, general knowledge or scales. Interestingly, some group exams are possible.

See the syllabus for more information.

St Cecilia

Pianoforte

St Cecilia has quite a well-constructed beginner series of exams for your younger students. These start at Beginner Grade then Junior Grade and finally Preliminary Grade. The exams are thorough, including scale and triad exercises, general knowledge and ear tests. Also, the three pieces are chosen from extensive lists. These provide plenty of options so your student is playing music they enjoy.

For exams from Grade 1 to 8, students play four pieces. These are chosen from categories which cover a Study and pieces from the following periods; Baroque, Romantic, Classical and 20th/21st Century. Again, the lists are long with plenty of choices.

Scales are required in all of the exams and chords in the early grades. Arpeggios are added at Grade 2. From Grade 1 to 4 general knowledge questions are based on the chosen scores. From Grade 5 to 8, students must choose one of their pieces to analyse, including a discussion on the stylistic characteristics of the time period the piece is from. A relevant theory certificate can actually exempt a student from this section of the exam.

St Cecilia also runs exam syllabuses for Piano Duet, Digital Piano and Modern Piano, as well as Concert/Recital Certificates.

Click here for more information.

piano exam syllabuses

Guild of Music (GoM)

The GoM piano syllabus was interesting to read, but also quite confusing. They run three syllabuses; Classical Pianoforte, Pianoforte and Modern Pianoforte. All are based on the same syllabus, and to satisfy the requirements for a certain exam you must choose pieces from certain lists.

For example, to satisfy a Classical Pianoforte exam you must choose three or four pieces from lists 1-5. To satisfy a Modern Pianoforte exam you must choose one or two pieces from lists 1-5 and the rest from list 6 (Modern). It can get confusing, so read the syllabus closely.

The GoM piano syllabus has six lists: Studies, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th/21st Century and Modern. In terms of repertoire, from the Introductory level to Grade 6, students play three pieces with one own choice piece allowed. From Grade 7 to Proficiency (similar to Grade 8), students play four pieces.

The beginner grades again differ to the other exam boards; the first three ‘steps’ are Preparatory, Elementary and Preliminary.

All of the syllabuses technical work requirements are the same. Students must do sight reading, ear tests, answer general knowledge questions as well as perform scales, arpeggios (broken chords in the early grades) and chord progressions.

You can view the Guild of Music piano exam syllabuses by clicking here.

The Royal Conservatory Of Music (RCM)

Finally, Canada gets a look in on this mega-list of piano syllabuses. The RCM runs a range of challenging, traditional piano exams, and could be an option for your more studious students. You can see Tim’s podcast on RCM piano exams with Elaine Rusk here.

Piano

The Piano syllabus certificates are separated as follows:

  • Elementary (Preparatory-Level 4)
  • Intermediate (Level 5-8)
  • Advanced (Level 9-10)
  • Diplomas

In Elementary, the first two grades are known as Preparatory A and Preparatory B. These are designed to give students an insight into what piano exams are like. They include three pieces, ear tests, technical tests and sight reading.

For Levels 1 and 2, students choose three pieces from three lists; Baroque and Classical, Romantic, 20th and 21st Century and Inventions. The lists from Levels 3 to 7 are; Baroque, Classical and Classical-style and Romantic, 20th and 21st Century. For Levels 8 and 9, students choose four pieces from the following lists; Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Post-Romantic and 20th/21st century.

Level 10 is unique and quite a difficult syllabus. Students choose five pieces from the lists; Works by J.S. Bach, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic/Impressionist/Early 20th Century and 20th and 21st Century.

There is an option for all exams from Levels 1 to 10 to substitute a piece with another that features in a higher grade’s syllabus. For example, students can swap a List B Level 1 piece with one that features in List B for Level 2.

There is also a ‘Teacher’s Choice’ option; this is a piece that is not listed on the Piano Syllabus, but is of appropriate length, difficulty and musical quality.

The last substitution option is a ‘Popular Selection List’. Students from Levels 1 to 9 may swap one of their pieces with a Popular Selection piece. These lists are available online.

Memory

Interestingly, RCM marks a student’s ability to perform a piece by memory. From the Preparatory levels to Level 7, candidates would receive two memory marks for each piece performed by memory. From Level 8 to 10, the examiner will actually deduct a student one mark for each piece which is not played by memory. This is certainly a difficult syllabus to prepare for.

The RCM Piano syllabus examines ear tests and sight reading, as well scales and chords. Arpeggios are introduced at Level 4.

Finally, the RCM includes a unique technical exercise which hasn’t featured in any of the other exam syllabuses. This is an ‘Etude’, required for exams from Level 1 through to 10. These are published in the relevant grade book and are pre-prepared pieces. These focus on specific technical aspects. An etude may also be substituted for another etude that features in a higher grade or with a Teacher’s Choice or Popular Selection List piece.

RCM exams seem to examine a wide variety of technical abilities as well as your students’ versatility at the piano and may suit teachers who value memorisation.

Here’s a link to their website, if you would like any more information on the RCM piano exam syllabus.

Get Your Free Summary Download

I’ve put together a spreadsheet that has all the information you need on the above piano exam syllabuses.

We will update it as piano boards change, add or remove anything from their syllabuses. It is a great resource to refer back to when you have any questions about piano exam syllabuses.

Conclusion

So, how can you use our Ultimate Guide to Piano Exams?

Hopefully, it can help you choose which of the many piano exam syllabuses is best for your student. If you want a classical exam, you know exactly where to look. If you want a jazz, rock, pop or other modern examination, you know what your options are.

From my research, I can confidently conclude that if you are after a classically based exam, then AMEB’s Piano syllabus and ABRSM (or RCM in Canada) are hard to look past. They are designed to help your students become technically sound and their lists are extensive.

However, make sure you use exams alongside other creative teaching methods. Having your students pass one exam a year without exploring improvising, creativity, chords and popular repertoire, may lead to a drop-off in piano practice. Your student could be on their way towards a premature end to their piano education.

When it comes to modern exams, ANZCA has a well-respected syllabus. Trinity Rock and Pop is another sound option too, having less technical requirements. The AMEB’s Piano for Leisure is also a fantastic option as it allows your students to engage with modern music and play an original composition, if they wish.

Also, keep in mind the Rockschool piano syllabus. These are now offered in Australia, and provide students with the opportunity to explore a variety of genres and styles. I also really like that they have included improvisation in their technical work.

Questions?

What do you think about all of these piano exam syllabuses? Which one is your favourite? What would you recommend to fellow teachers?

I’d love to know your thoughts, leave them in the comments section below.

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About the Author

Sean is one of Tim's former students and a University of Melbourne graduate. He studied a Bachelor of Arts, majoring Media and Communications and Italian, and is currently working as a cadet journalist for Fairfax Media.

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