Classical Guitar Grades: A Full Review of Major Board Exams


If you want to formally study the classical guitar you should consider one of the major, highly regarded educational institutions. Among the internationally well-recognized music schools are the following:

  • Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
  • Trinity College of Music, London (TCM)
  • Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada (RCM)
  • London School of Music Examinations (LCME)

These institutions award certificates for proficiency at various grades or levels. Typically, there are eight grades with even higher level professional studies possible. (The exception is RCM of Canada, which has ten grades.)

Grades not only assess a student’s ability to play pieces of repertoire suited to that grade but also other aspects of musicality like technical exercises, aural tests, sight-reading and the like. For all the differences in the curriculum of these major music schools, there are by and large remarkable similarities too.

Why bother with grades at all for the classical guitar? To serious students with definite career goals, passing grades is a way of making objective progress. It tells them where they stand and what remains to be accomplished. It is about earning their formal stripes, a recognized qualification.

To other players who may not be interested in the exams per se, the grade requirements (particularly, the repertoire material) is a good guide to gauge their own standing as a guitarist. If you can more or less play with comfort, say, the Grade 5 pieces from the ABRSM syllabus, then you must be more or less a Grade 5 player.

Yet others discover additional gems to their repertoire by going through the graded pieces that all the schools put out in their student publications that are also available freely to everyone in retail. 

The Boards take great pride in choosing the right sort of repertoire for each grade, with attention to different periods including contemporary composers. These publications are very worthwhile to those looking to extend their current repertoire.

Whatever the intent, a student of the classical guitar will find looking into the details of the graded curriculum of major schools profitable and rewarding in more ways than one.

ABRSM

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music conducts over 600,000 music exams each year in more than 90 different countries. ABRSM has influenced the founding and development of similar music examination systems in other countries, including The Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada and the Australian Music Examinations Board.

Like the other schools discussed here, ABRSM is a full-fledged music school that also happens to have a robust curriculum for the classical guitar, defined as the standard classical instrument fitted with nylon strings. Guitars with a cutaway body are permitted though. 

There are eight grades of exam for classical guitar and candidates may enter for any grade irrespective of age and without previously having taken any other grade. Although candidates for the higher grades (Grade 6, 7 or 8) must already have passed at least grade 5 in music theory.

Grade requirements

In the practical exams, candidates are assessed for:

  • Performance skills through pieces or songs
  • Technical skills through scales and arpeggios
  • Notation skills through a sight-reading test
  • Listening skills and musical perception through aural tests

There are a total of 30 pieces in the curriculum set under 3 Lists A, B and C. Each List has 10 pieces representing different styles or periods. List A has, for instance, a traditional Chinese piece and a traditional French piece; List B has classical composers like Sor, Carulli and Aguado; and List C has modern composers like Bernstein, Satie and Gary Ryan.

The student can choose any 3 pieces from the above 30 pieces taking care to choose one from each List. He or she can play from memory or from the score. Up to 2 of the 3 pieces (in early grades up to Grade 3) can be performed as a duet with an accompanist – perhaps the student’s teacher – on guitar or piano.

  • Total possible marks in each grade – 150.
  • Marks for 3 pieces – 90 (30 per piece)
  • Scales & arpeggios – 21
  • Sight reading – 21
  • Aural tests – 18

You require 100 marks to pass the exam, 120 marks to pass with merit and 130 marks to pass with distinction.

Pieces 

ABRSM’s publication Guitar Exam Pieces 2019 Grade 1 is available on their site as also elsewhere. This contains the scores for 9 of the 30 pieces in the curriculum, 3 from each List. The Amazon link for the publication, given below, also has an accompanying CD which has all the 30 pieces performed by guitarists like Laura Snowden and Gary Ryan in addition to the 9 printed pieces.

Guitar Exam Pieces 2019 Grade 1 With CD (Amazon link)

Higher grades don’t always have a single publication like the above. In Grade 6, for example, the 30 pieces are similarly in 3 Lists of 10 each:

  • List A – Renaissance composers like Bach, Dowland, Weiss and Cutting
  • List B – Classical composers like Carulli, Sor and Diabelli
  • List C – Modern composers like Brouwer, Gary Ryan, Ponce and Lauro

There is no compilation publication like for earlier grades. All 30 pieces have different go-to publications, which are helpfully listed on the site.

Scales and arpeggios

All scales – in different keys prescribed for different grades – have to be played from memory, evenly, ascending and descending and smoothly (legato). In the higher grades, the examiner may ask that the scales be played free stroke or rest stroke.

For the performance of scales and arpeggios in the exams, there are a couple of prescribed books to follow for the student: one for the lower grades and another for the higher ones. You can check the prices of these books at Amazon:

Guitar Scales and Arpeggios: Grades Books (Amazon link)

Sight reading

For Grade 1, there is a 4-bar reading of a new piece of music in the relatively simple keys of C, G or F (major keys) and Am or Em. Students get half a minute to go through the score and try out a test before playing for assessment.

On the other hand, for Grade 6, the keys are the more difficult Bb and F#m and the time signatures include 9/8, 5/8 and 5/4.

There is a prescribed book for sight reading that covers the needs of all the grades. You can check the price of this at Amazon if interested.

Guitar Specimen Sight-Reading Tests, Grades 1-8 (Amazon link)

Aural test

As part of testing musicianship, aural tests require a student to clap a beat, sing back a phrase, etc. There are prescribed books (with included CDs) for different grades.

You can check the different publications and their prices at Amazon if you’re interested.

Aural tests of ABRSM (Amazon link)

Taken together the ABRSM is a well put together curriculum supported by published material for all the 8 grades. The exams follow the traditional format of one-on-one student-examiner interaction in a room. The exams happen in many venues in over 90 countries in this format. No online exam is currently offered. That is probably its major limitation – if you live outside of those 90 countries.

Trinity College of Music (TCM)

TCM too offers 8 grades of proficiency. Additionally, after grade 8, interested candidates can progress to diplomas at Associate (ATCL), Licentiate (LTCL) and Fellowship (FTCL) levels. These assess higher skills in performance, teaching and theory.

Trinity’s graded music exams are open to all with no age restrictions. There is no requirement to have passed lower grades or theory exams. There are exam centers all over the world. No online courses are offered currently. 

Grade requirements

At every grade, students are required to prepare toward the different aspects of musicianship.

  • Repertoire pieces from a prescribed list
  • Technical work in the form of scales, arpeggios and studies
  • Supporting tests by way of sight reading, aural, improvisation and musical knowledge

Out of a total of 100 marks, playing pieces carry 66 marks (22 for each), technical work carries 14 marks and supporting tests carry 20 marks. An 87+ score is marked Distinction, a score between 75 and 86 is a Merit and it takes a minimum of 60 marks to pass.

Pieces

Students choose three pieces from repertoire lists. Up to Grade 5, pieces are selected from a single list, with no restrictions on choice. At Grades 6-8 at least one piece must be chosen from each of the two groups. In Grade 1, for instance, there is a consolidated list of 23 pieces from which the student chooses three. In Grade 6, a student chooses 3 pieces from a collection of 30 pieces.

An interesting aspect is that at Trinity, students can perform their own composition in place of one of the listed pieces, even starting with Grade 1.

Trinity is well known among classical guitarists generally for its grade publications of excellent repertoire pieces which are easily available. Below is the Amazon link to check some of them and their prices if you wish.

Trinity College Repertoire Collections for Grades

Technical work

Students begin with a technical exercise — a short musical passage based on scale, arpeggio or chord patterns. Up to Grade 7 they then choose either scales & arpeggios on the one hand or studies on the other — specially composed short pieces designed to develop and demonstrate specific guitar techniques. At Grade 8, candidates can select scales & arpeggios or concerto extracts.

Basically, a student performs relevant technical exercise from the Trinity-prescribed technique book that is relevant to the grade, mentioned below. These have to be performed from memory.

Again, Trinity has its own supporting publications for technical work: a couple of books, one for the lower grades and another for the higher ones. Check the Amazon links below to check the content and prices.

Guitar & Plectrum Guitar Scales, Arpeggios & Studies

Supporting tests

Trinity’s supporting tests evaluate skills of sight-reading, aural, improvisation and musical knowledge. Of the four skills, students have the option to choose any two to be tested on.

Aural tests are based on a musical extract played by the examiner. Students are asked to describe various features of the music such as dynamics, articulation, texture and style. Unlike other music schools, students are not required to hum or sing.

Trinity has a couple of books for lower and higher grades to train students on aural tests (including CDs). It includes sample questions and answers as also practice examples on 2 CDs. You can check the prices at Amazon:

Aural Tests Books 1 and 2 (with CDs)

A sight reading test assesses the ability to perform a previously unseen musical extract at a level approximately two grades lower than the exam being taken. Sight reading is an option up to and including Grade 5, but compulsory from Grade 6 onwards.

The Sound at Sight Guitar series of publications from Trinity (Amazon link) have a collection of sight-reading pieces graded to match exam requirements.

Improvisation tests the student’s ability to fluently create new responses to musical stimuli. Candidates can choose between three types of improvisation stimulus: stylistic (over a piano accompaniment), harmonic (unaccompanied, responding to chords) or motivic (unaccompanied, responding to a melodic line).

Musical knowledge test is for the lower grades (up to Grade 5) and tests knowledge of notation and the instrument. A sample Grade 1 question can be: What is the name of this note? And a sample Grade 5 question can be: What are the notes of the subdominant triad?

London College of Music Examinations (LCME)

LCME has 8 classical guitar grades plus two introductory levels, four performance diplomas and three teaching diplomas. Online submissions are possible with LCM exams. 

  • Recorded exam: performances submitted via video upload
  • Online exam: conducted in real time over a secure connection with an LCME examiner
  • Face-to-face exam: standard one-on-one examination at an exam centre

Grade requirements

The standard graded exams consist of a performance of three pieces plus supplementary tests:

  • Performance (3 pieces)
  • Technical work
  • Discussion
  • Sight reading
  • Aural tests

Performance involves three pieces including one from list A, and two contrasting pieces from list B at every grade level. Technical work refers to the performing from memory scales, arpeggios and other prescribed exercises at specified tempo.

Discussion is the ability to respond orally to questions from the examiner. At higher grades the student is expected to enter into a discussion with the examiner on aspects of the pieces performed. A knowledge and understanding of the historical and musical context of the pieces are also expected.

Sight reading, as with other schools, tests the performance of previously unseen music after a short preparation. Aural tests too are similar, where the student has to provide accurate musical or verbal responses to questions from the examiner through singing, clapping, etc as appropriate.

The weighting of the final score is performance 60%, technical work 15%, sight reading 10%, aural test 8% and discussion 7%. A 85% plus score is marked Distinction, a score of 75% to 84% is a Merit and it takes a minimum of 65% to pass the exam.

Performance (pieces)

LCM has more compact repertoire lists than other schools with fewer pieces. For instance, Grade 1 has the following two lists to choose the 3 pieces from:

List A (4 pieces total)

  • Beethoven Ninth Symphony theme (Ode To Joy)
  • Schubert Rosamunde, Entr’acte No. 3 
  • Brahms Lullaby
  • Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ‘Scene’ theme 

List B (8 pieces total)

  • Anon Greensleeves 
  • Logy Gigue 
  • Carulli Poco Allegretto Op.246 
  • Sor Andante, Op.31 No.1
  • Giuliani Ecossaise, Op.33 No.10
  • Diabelli Allegretto, Op.39 No.4
  • Skinner Scared Of The Dark
  • Kiselev Farewell Lady D

In Grade 6, on the other hand, at least 2 of the 3 pieces must come from this single listing of pieces below:

  • Dowland Preludium E minor
  • Sanz Canarios D major
  • J.S. Bach Bourree, from BMV996 E minor
  • Giuliani Maestoso, Op.48 No.13 C major
  • Carcassi Allegro, Op.60 No.23 A major
  • Tárrega Rosita D major
  • M.D. Pujol Preludio Tristón E minor
  • Skinner Jono A major

What’s interesting is the third piece, if preferred, can be totally outside the prescribed grade handbook and come from the supplementary list given below with the preferred edition that should be purchased.

  • Tárrega Adelita, from the Complete Early Spanish Editions (Chanterelle 1000) or from Opere per Chitarra Vol.3 (Berben 1533)
  • Moreno Torroba Romance de los Pinos (“Montemayor”), from Castles of Spain Volume 1 (Guitar Solo Publications GSP 74)
  • Tansman Alla Polacca, from Trois Pièces for Guitar (Eschig ME7176)
  • Lauro El Marabino (Caroni Music CAR2002)
  • Riera Valse, from Four Venezuelan Pieces, Ed. Duarte (Universal 29174)
  • Brouwer Un Dia de Noviembre (Chester CH61839)
  • J.L. Merlin Carnavalito, No.4, from Suite del Recuerdo (Tuscany Publications TPS007)
  • Belevi Prelude No. 5, from Preludes for David Russell (Edition Bafa)

And what’s even more interesting is the third piece can be a ‘free choice’ of the candidate’s own choosing, as long as it is of a similar technical level to the pieces in the grade handbook.

Overall, when it comes to repertoire, the LCM approach is the most flexible in the choice of pieces to play. In another aspect too, the LCM approach is commendable and that is with regard to handbook for students. For instance, take this LCM Handbook for Grade 1 (link to LCM book store).

Grade 1 LCM Exams Classical Guitar Playing

This is part of a progressive series of ten handbooks for candidates of classical guitar. This handbook covers all the material needed for the Grade One examination. It contains all the required pieces, scales, chords and arpeggios for the grade and also includes sections on musical knowledge, sight reading and aural ability – in fact, absolutely everything you need for this grade!

Compared with other schools with their multiple publications, this is a refreshing change of essentially having one handbook for a single grade.

Even for those who do not intend to take an examination, with the handbook’s wide extent of repertoire and related material, it provides a structured and comprehensive method of studying classical guitar.

Technical work

This has to do with basically scales and arpeggios as with other schools. The examiner will request a selection of some of the following at a Grade 1 level:

  • 1-octave scale: C major, A harmonic minor
  • 2-octave scales: G major, E harmonic minor
  • 1-octave arpeggios: C and G major; A and E minor
  • Open position chords: C and G major; A and E minor

It scales up in difficulty for higher grades. The examiner will request a selection of some of the following if you are in Grade 6:

  • 3-octave scales: F chromatic, F major, F harmonic and melodic minor
  • 1-octave C major scale in 3rds, 6ths, 8ths and 10ths
  • 2-octave scales in ANY key: major, harmonic and melodic minor
  • 2-octave arpeggios starting from ANY root note: major, minor, dominant 7th
  • Major, minor and dominant 7th chords with ANY root

As mentioned, all the preparatory work for this is all included in the relevant Grade Handbook. Convenient!

Discussion

Again, specimen tests are included in the grade handbook.

In Grade 1, for example, a student should be able to name, and explain the meaning of, notational elements in the music, name components like staff, bars and bar-lines, clefs, pitches of individual notes, rhythmic values, key and time signatures, etc. He or she should be able to explain which is their favorite piece and why.

In Grade 6 the student should be able to discuss their personal responses to the music performed, the extent to which they like or dislike it, or find it challenging and why. They should be able to identify melodic and harmonic features of the music like sequence, melodic inversion, circle of 5ths, pedal points, etc.

Sight reading

A Grade 1 student is expected to play a 4-bar melody in first position, in the key of C or G major, or A or E minor, in 2/4 or 3/4 time. Up to one minute preparation time is allowed to study the test before playing, during which the candidate may try parts of the test if they wish.

A Grade 6 student, on the other hand, plays an 8-bar piece, which may contain 4 note chords, ranging up to 5th position, with a key signature range of 2 flats to 4 sharps. Up to one minute’s preparation time is allowed to study the test before playing.

Through all its tests, LCM’s approach is one of consistency. It’s the same test really across all grades except the difficulty level goes up.

Aural test

In a similar fashion, the earlier grades deal with the simple identification of note values, sung responses, pitch recognition, etc. Higher grades involve identifying major or minor keys, identifying intervals, clapping back rhythms, identifying cadences, etc.

LCME Online Exams

The exam consists of the same components as an LCME face-to-face exam. The syllabus is the same and the expectations and goals are the same.

In association with the International School of Musicians (ISoM), LCM offers Recorded Exams. Performances are assessed according to the same standards and criteria as for LCME’s graded exams.

Royal Conservatory of Music Canada (RCM)

The RCM exams are held in Canada and the US across many centers. They are a popular and well-recognized grade system in Northern America. A key difference of this school is that the grades go up all the way to Level 10 rather than the more common 8 grades.

Completion of theory examinations is not required to obtain practical certificates for Preparatory to Level 4. Theory examinations at the higher Levels test knowledge of music theory and history, through an in-person written examination or an online exam. Theory examination is a must from L5 onwards.

Grade requirements

The assessment for grade certification for classical guitar is on three aspects:

  • Repertoire playing
  • Technical requirements
  • Musicianship

The Classical Guitar Syllabus, 2018 Edition lists the repertoire required for guitar examinations. The pieces are grouped in Lists. An early stage like Level 2 has 2 Lists, whereas the top Level 10 has 4 Lists. RCM also allows for what it calls substitutions – pieces out of the syllabus for the grade which the student can use for submission (with some restrictions).

Technical requirements has two aspects: prescribed etudes and scales and arpeggios. The etudes are part of the repertoire publications while scales and arpeggios are covered in a separate technique publication.

Musicianship covers, as with other schools, aural tests and sight reading. There are sample ear tests available online to help with a student’s preparation.

  • Total marks – 100
  • Marks for repertoire 56
  • Marks for technical requirements 24
  • Marks for musicianship 20

A score of 90 and above is ranked as First Class Honors with Distinction. Marks between 80 and 89 is First Class Honors and 70 to 79 marks is Honors. A minimum of 60 marks is required to pass.

Repertoire

As mentioned, early Levels have fewer Lists, while the later Levels have more. For instance, Level 2 has the following Lists:

  • List A: Traditional, Renaissance, and Baroque Repertoire
  • List B: Classical, Romantic, 20th-, and 21st-century Repertoire

While Level 10 has 4 Lists:

  • List A: Renaissance, Baroque, and Baroque-style Repertoire
  • List B: Classical and Classical-style Repertoire
  • List C: National Styles
  • List D: 20th- and 21st-century Repertoire

A unique thing about RCM is playing repertoire pieces from memory earns extra marks. And one of the pieces can be substituted. Substitutions can be selections from the corresponding list of the level immediately above their examination level.

For example, a Level 5 List A selection may be performed in place of a Level 4 List A selection. A similar etude can also be substituted from the next higher Level.

Substitutions can also be a piece or etude with a work not listed in the syllabus. It must be of comparable length, difficulty, and musical quality befitting the Level.

A hallmark of RCM exams is its rich classical guitar repertoire selections. There are ample and excellent pieces that feature on their Lists. Level 7, for instance, offers this wealth of options to the student:

  • 12 choices of Renaissance pieces in List A
  • 20 choices in Baroque pieces
  • 28 choices in Classical & Romantic pieces
  • 50 choices in 20th and 21st century pieces

The RCM publications for grade repertoire are popular among even those who do not intend to take exams. The Level 1 repertoire book for instance has over 30 pieces (as well as a dozen etudes) listed from which the student has to select two! There are etudes by Aguado, Carulli, Diabelli, Carcassi, Tarrega as well as modern ones by Sagreras, Shearer and Norbert Kraft.

Check the prices of the popular RCM repertoire (and etudes) collections of various grades at Amazon:

Classical Guitar Series, 2018 Edition: Repertoire and Etudes

Technical requirements

Etude selections for Preparatory to Level 8 are published in Classical Guitar Series, 2018 Edition: Repertoire and Etudes. Etudes need not be memorized, and no extra marks are awarded for memorization.

Technical tests (scales and arpeggios) are published in Classical Guitar Series, 2018 Edition: Technique. They must be played from memory, ascending and descending. Students must follow the fingering given in the prescribed text. The examiner will choose a representative sampling of items on the technical tests list and request diatonic, chromatic, and tremolando scales in either free stroke or rest stroke, using various right-hand finger combinations.

RCM Classical Guitar Series, 2018 Edition: Technique at Amazon

In Levels 7 and up, marks are deducted for students who use a cut-away guitar in the technical tests.

Musicianship

Ear tests include melody clapback, melody playback, and identification of intervals, chords, and chord progressions. Sight-reading tests consist of tapping the rhythm of short excerpts and sight playing of short passages.

______________

Phew, that’s the round-up then.

These music boards are internationally recognized for their high standards over the years. Some like the ABRSM and Trinity are particularly popular in the East in places like China, Japan and Malaysia. Trinity has always had strong traditional ties with India over decades. RCM, as we’ve seen, is hugely popular in the US and Canada.

A notable omission from this review in terms of a major board with decisive international influence is the AMEB, the Australian Music Education Board. Unfortunately, the website does not list their syllabus and materials, so it is difficult to compare and contrast with other institutions.

As mentioned, for classical guitar players who are interested in finding new repertoire, the content-rich publications from these organizations carry excellent repertoire pieces, worthy of serious consideration.

For serious students who wish to pursue an academic career, these Boards offer very thorough and viable programs via their elaborate grade systems. Not all of them offer online exams yet, but some do.

Taking a leaf from these major Boards that have set the standard, many other modern institutions have begun offering similar graded systems of teaching and evaluation to communities of their own. The New York based Classical Guitar Corner Academy, for instance, offers a graded system for international guitarists which is purely online based.

For a review of online lessons possible for learning the classical guitar today, do check out my article on 5 online courses for classical guitar. It compares some leading and innovative online learning opportunities on the web today. 

Happy learning!

Nylon Plucks

Narayan Kumar is a passionate classical guitarist and an online research buff. He is also one half of the online classical guitar duo DuJu who put out guitar duets regularly on their YouTube channel. Read more about Narayan.

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