In many parts of the world, beginner musicians are taught and examined using a syllabus that is divided into "grades". It is a well known shorthand for ability level ("I play a bit of piano", "Oh really, what grade are you at?").

Related question: Instrument grade exams

In essence, you would typically be expected to pass a Grade 8 exam, before considering applying for music college.

Apparently this is all alien to American contributors to this site.

Is there a structured system of music teaching and assessment, that is ubiquitous in the USA? How do the ability levels compare to European/etc. grades?

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    I must say this amazes me. I have lived my life in the USA. I have never heard of this. I'm 47 years old, have a college music degree from an American university, I work with a professional orchestra, and I've travelled around the world quite a bit. I had no idea that there was such a thing as an instrument grade exam or levels for grading musical achievement, much less that this has anything to do with applying for music college. Yes, this is totally alien to me.
    – user1044
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 23:39
  • You should probably reference ABRSM in your question. I'd guess that what throws us most for a loop is really just the terminology of "grade" and "exam". In the US, the word 'grade' is reserved almost exclusively for the K-12 public education system, and rather than take 'exams', individuals participate in a yearly 'festival' to be 'evaluated' at whichever 'level' (1-6) has been deemed appropriate by the teacher (at least in New York). Strong de-emphasis on competition, ratings, and failing.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 5:01
  • @NReilingh I chose not to mention ABRSM because although they're big and international, there are lots of other boards that use the same 8 grade structure, and I feel the linked question explains that best.
    – slim
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 10:36

7 Answers 7


Great question; I've always wondered about other states, but here's mine:

I'm a resident of New Hampshire, so it's not necessarily representative of the larger states. We've got nothing like that for individual instruments instruction. Piano and strings might be the exception, but I don't consider any of the methods ubiquitous or even regularly agreed upon.

The closest thing we've got is the NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) manual, which defines solo pieces into six grades for each instrument. However I take exception to many of their grading choices, and newer pieces are not regularly assimilated into the lists. Many Northeast all-state, etc. festivals use these grades.

Music colleges, especially music education programs, have WIDELY varying criteria, which at smaller schools can even vary by instrument and year. There are some college music programs that have students with abilities I've seen in high schoolers. (That doesn't address their teaching ability, though.) Unfortunately, I've seen some college students who would have had a call to the parents about taking the horn home, if they were in a high school band of mine!

On the other hand, larger schools, especially in or near larger cities, may be auditioning hundreds of people, and can afford to be quite selective, even for non-performance majors.

As for the United States not having a ubiquitous graded system like that; I think it has a lot to do with the musical culture here. Unfortunately, as shown by so many schools cutting music; there is very little emphasis on music and the performing arts in general. Most students receive very little music class after elementary school, if at all, and many school schedules make it difficult for students to take regular performing art courses. Even in the elementary grades, students receive very little classroom time in music class, sometimes only a half hour per week. They get as far as screeching on recorders, and then move on to middle school.

In europe (and it could be an outsider's "grass-is-greener" effect) it seems that music and art are more densely woven into the culture, and therefore the school system.

I'll be interested to see whether residents of other states have any widely-used systems!

  • As an aside relating to the NYSSMA manual. I looked up the ABRSM syllabus for trombone (my most familiar), and many/most of the grade 8 pieces I recognize are on the NYSSMA level 6 list. The others I recognize, I would consider just a touch more difficult than the NYSSMA level 6, although usually on a musical level, not technical. For example: The Sulek Sonata (ABRSM GR. 8) is very difficult rhythm/counting/ensemble-wise, but technically not very challenging. I don't believe it's on the NYSSMA list at all. Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 14:31
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    The music teaching in British schools varies from county to county. However the same exam boards are used whether you learn at school or through private lessons; whether as a child or an adult.
    – slim
    Commented Jan 26, 2012 at 15:00
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    As you mention, NYSSMA is used by a number of states and is the basis for many more. The next most widely recognized is likely TMEA (Texas Music Educators Association).
    – NReilingh
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 4:45

In Texas. we have Theory exams by TMEA, which is graded. There are fixed dates each semester, and you hve to enroll through a TMTA teacher. My son is going to take his first one in Spring, because we are out of town on the November date. His new teacher, on the first day, just asked him a few questions from a previous year's test question, and he could answer all questions. This was part of the overall assessment she was doing of his piano skills, as he is her new student. She then recommended to me that he should take the exam as he is ready. The link below might be helpful. https://www.tmta.org/student-activities/student-affiliate-activities/theory/


I have taken Unisa and Trinity College of Music exams. Both very compregensive. I looked for opportunities in the USA, and truly love preparing my piano students for the NFMC and NGPT performance and theory tests.

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    It isn't clear that this answers the OP question. I would suggest at least explaining what the NFMC and NGPT are, maybe providing links. Some discussion of the tests offered by the NFMC and the NGPT, their ubiquity in the US, whether they are graded by level, how they compare to ABRSM style systems, etc. would be helpful.
    – user39614
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 0:28

My son is in the Piano Guild - American College of Musicians, which has its home in Texas I believe. Every year he has to learn a certain amount of pieces (and play from memory) - Classical, Romantic, Baroque, a sonatina, and several contemporary pieces - or other - to round out the number (District is 4 pieces, State is 7, National is 10, and International is 15). He also has to learn the associated scales for each piece. Testing is done once a year with a touring judge that visits our testing site. I'm not sure how this compares to the ABRSM, but to me it seems pretty thorough. The judging is done in private, just him and the judge, and he is graded on 26 different items. Each main level, District, etc... has 8 sub-levels but he only did 2 in District and now he is in State, so not sure how he will progress from there. He and his teacher decide at the beginning of the year which sub-level he will attempt.


As a youngster growing up in England, music was a very important subject in school. Way more than in USA, sad to say. I took theory of music exams and piano forte examinations from the Royal School Of Music in London.l reached Grade 7. After this I played for fun.... I thank my parents for instilling the love of music ...... I know of no one here in USA who takes piano lessons that include being examined by a piano examiner unknown to student. Everything seems easier over here. But how can you tell what standard to go on here in USA? Exams are important and critical to playing. You need to know how good you are ......


I have personally witnessed students ages 5-15 taking RC of Music exams who play by rote. They simply learn the 5 pieces needed to pass the exam; and that's just about what all of them do: PASS. This method kills the joy of music,severely hampers any personal growth in the student and most end up quitting after they realize they can't even begin to read the easiest pieces at the next level(there are 6 grades of difficulty of pieces within each level.) Moreover,the exams cost $ to take and are at the time-table of whomever the judges may be for that area. Personally, there needs to be some push in the US to create recitals, honors, etc. for young people . We should not have to rely on other countries for Programs that do not fit our culture. And, more importantly, this is NOT education of any kind; let alone pay for it. There are no short cuts to learning any intellectual endeavor!

  • We have the "recitals, honors, etc. for your people" (actually for amateur musicians of any age) in the UK as well. Many towns have annual "music festivals" (not to be confused with the commercial events with the same name, like Glastonbury etc) providing (usually) friendly competition at all levels in music, dance, etc, with professional adjudicators. The mission statement of the National Federation of these festivals is "to provide 1 million performance opportunities per year", primarily for children and young people. federationoffestivals.org.uk
    – user19146
    Commented Oct 20, 2015 at 3:16
  • I'm reluctant to turn this into a discussion, but it's horses for courses. Some people like learning pieces by rote. Some people like chasing qualifications. This happens in every field. Some people enjoy maintaining a garden; others enjoy winning gardening competitions. Some people enjoy programming computers. Others enjoy passing exams and getting certificates.
    – slim
    Commented Oct 21, 2015 at 10:22

We don't have any kind of grading system. Even if one is available, I know literally zero people who have done grading exams.

Each state has a governing body for school competitions. It's not completely the same in each state, but generally there's:

  • All-state band and orchestra. For this, a few excerpts are picked, usually difficult etudes from some standard etude book. Depending on the size of the state, this may be broken into different tiers. In Texas, we had "region" first, and an all-region concert for those who made it. Then they went on to "area" (no concert), then state. I imagine that less populous states have fewer layers.
  • Solo and Ensemble competition. Students pick from a list of approved pieces, which are divided into difficulty tiers. To get the top commendation, you have to pick the most difficult tier and get top marks. We also had to memorize it, though I know that other states don't all have that requirement.

So there's a little wisp of a grade level in there.

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