How many grade exams are there for playing an instrument?

I came to know that there are around 8 grades to qualify you as a professional guitar player. How are these grades decided and what is the syllabus? I dint find much information at one place. Any pointers will be helpful.

This is because Im preparing for my grade 1 guitar exam and want to know what lies ahead.

  • I edited your question to cover all instruments, since the answer is not different for a guitar.
    – slim
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 11:03
  • 2
    What is a "grade 1 guitar exam", and what organization offers this exam? You need to provide specific details.
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 16:30
  • it is this : trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=1057
    – GamDroid
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 13:59
  • My intension was to get a brief idea about what all is there in music exams wrt guitar in order to go forward with the grade exams.
    – GamDroid
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 14:07
  • The answer may well be different for guitar grades, as there are at least 2 bodies that are set up specifically for guitar qualifications, Rockschool and Registry of Guitar Tutors.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 18:18

3 Answers 3


The most widely recognised music examining body worldwide is The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: ABRSM. Although based in the UK, they operate worldwide.

There are a number of other examining bodies, including:

  • Trinity Guildhall
  • London College of Music Examinations
  • Victoria College of Music
  • The National College of Music London
  • Australian Music Examinations Board
  • New Zealand Music Examinations Board
  • The Royal Conservatory of Music
  • University of South Africa - Directorate Music
  • Vienna Music Examination Board (Wiener Musik-Prüfungskommission)

Many (but not all) boards follow the same structure and approximate standards as ABRSM, and it is ABRSM exams which I describe here.

There are 8 grades for theory and 8 grades for practical (that is, performance). Most people alternate between theory and practice exams as they work up through the grades.

Theory exams are entirely written. Practical exams involve performing in front of an examiner, and (as an illustration) consist of exercises, sight reading, and performing a practised piece.

It is not the case that Grade 8 qualifies you as a professional musician.

Many music colleges require Grade 8 as a minimum entrance requirement; by that logic Grade 8 is only the beginning of your musical study.

Many professional jazz/folk/rock/pop musicians have no exam qualifications whatsoever.

ABRSM syllabuses are available online.

I don't believe there is any formal arrangement whereby examining bodies recognise each other's qualifications, but it doesn't really matter since someone who thought they had the skill level could jump straight in and do a Grade 8 exam without doing the preceding grades, as long as you pay the examination fee.

  • 1
    I'm from the USA, and I took a look at the Grade 8 exam for saxophone just as an example. Passing that exam would indicate a better-prepared student than probably 95% of those entering undergrad, but it would not (or at least should not) be sufficient for graduating with an undergraduate degree in music.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 21:52
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    Just looking at the syllabus doesn't tell you how well something has to be played for a UK grade 8 exam. There are some really difficult pieces on any grade 8 syllabus, but the standard of playing required to pass is very low. If you play most of the right notes you will pass. You don't need to get all of the dynamics or phrasing. Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 13:38
  • I would guess that user5956 actually has taken several of the ABRSM exams in order to state what he/she does so unequivocally,From all my experience as pupil and tutor, I have to disagree.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 24, 2013 at 13:03
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    Many music colleges say that grade 8 is a minimum requirement but someone applying from a country where there are no grade exams can still be accepted because everyone has to audition. Because of the high levels of competition it is quite usual for music college applicants to be a long long way above grade 8 as they usually pass it at least 4 years before the audition, and some of these will have taken grade 8 only two years after starting to learn the instrument. One adult I know took and passed grade 8, 6 months after starting a second instrument. These are easy exams. Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 11:57
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    @Andrew, don't worry. The ABRSM examinations are valid credit for entry into a UK university. Our top universities do not use a points system, but for those that do credit ranges from 5 points for a pass at Grade 6 up to 75 points for a distinction at Grade 8. Comparing this to our 16 - 18 year old qualification A Levels (cf NEWTS in Harry Potter) E is worth 40 points and A* 140 (actually more, but it's complicated). That shows Grade 8 is not considered equivalent to a university degree.
    – dumbledad
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 7:05

UK grade exams go from grade 1 to grade 8. They don't give general music qualifications because what they test is very narrow and because there is no time limit on how long anyone has to learn the pieces for the exam. Grade exams are therefore only qualifications in relation to one another because they can't be compared to any other music qualifications and they don't lead to anything except another grade exam. How it works is that grade 5 is better than grade 4 but not as good as grade 6. The top one grade 8 leads to a diploma but it doesn't lead to entry to music college. That is decided by audition.

Most people who are thinking of studying music at music college will have passed grade 8 with distinction by the time they are 14, leaving 4 more years of study before they have to audition so entry standards are much higher than grade 8. Children as young as 10 also pass grade 8 with distinction.

Professional musicians look on grade exams as being elementary exams that people beginning to play an instrument take. Grade 8 is nowhere near professional standard. In the UK there is no qualification for professional musicians although most of them will have studied at college for a minimum of 4 years. I am not a professional player but even I regard grade 8 as an exam for beginners.

You could look on the grade exams like this grades 1 to 3 elementary exams. Grades 4 to 5 intermediate elementary exams, and grade 6,7 and 8 advanced elementary exams.

I am not at all keen on adults taking these exams, because the same music and study books are used for all ages. Also these exams do not test ensemble playing.

  • I really think that instrumental teachers should not patronise adults by suggesting that they take grade 1. These grade exams were all originally designed to be take by school children. Grade 1 is the kind of exam that a child under the age of 7 might take. I can imagine that it wouldn't be impossible for a 5 year old to pass on an instrument like the violin. Some children pass grade 8 with distinction at age 11. These exams don't lead anywhere and aren't qualifications in general music making. Commented Mar 23, 2013 at 14:05
  • Sadly there is a lot of misinformation about grade exams. One is that grade 8 is an advanced exam because it says so on the syllabus. This should be read as advanced elementary. All the grade exams only examine the basics. Following grade exams there are diplomas, the highest of these is a very, very long way below professional standard. Some people take the bottom teaching diploma and start teaching these are the teachers who don't understand that grade exams are elementary exams taken by beginners. Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 0:03
  • Grade exams cannot be used as standards in ensemble playing because they don't test that. It is quite possible for someone to pass grade 8 and be unable to play in an ensemble with people who have just started to learn to play. it is also possible for someone who has passed grade 8 to be unable to play any of the other pieces on the grade 8 syllabus without practising them for several months. So what a grade exam does measure is just a set of pieces and exercises on one particular day. The standard achieved then need not be transferable to any other pieces. Commented Mar 25, 2013 at 12:11
  • Look at Rockschool exams.They test ensemble playing, as in bass, gtr, kbds drums.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 31, 2013 at 13:07
  • I looked at the Rockschool exams and I agree they do test ensemble but I don't think the Trinity/Guildhall ones do. I would be interested to know what standard the Rockschool ones are because it says qualifications, the Trinity/Guildhall, ABRSM and London College of Music exams are only qualifications in relation to other grade exams not in general music performance, and the standard of playing required to pass is extremely elementary. Commented Apr 1, 2013 at 1:07

You need to specify what sort of guitar playing you want to qualify in : classical, acoustic, electric etc.There are other schemes out there (in U.K.) Rockschool is mainly for electric and R.G.T. is for all, including bass.In RGT there are the standard 8 grades, followed by 4 diploma style exams, which will definitely take you to professional level, grade 8 being a start point rather than an end target.They also diversify into performer or teacher, with different expectations for each.It's about as specific as can be with these exams.

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