ABRSM marking criteria – how to get the best result

The trick to getting a high mark in your ABRSM exam is to be confident in all aspects of it, and knowing what the examiner is looking for.  Many people focus on the 3 pieces – which is fine; the pieces make up the biggest chunk of the exam.  However, it’s worth bearing in mind that they only make up 90 of the 150 available marks – leaving 60 (2 fifths!) of the marks to the supporting tests.

This post goes through the ABRSM marking criteria, to explain how to get the best mark possible for each section of the exam.  It focuses mainly on the supporting tests, as many people tend to focus on the pieces and there is so much advice and fantastic teaching out there already for students to learn how to play their pieces musically.


Sight reading

Sight reading should most definitely not be left until you are ready to sit an exam.  It should be practised on a regular basis, as it is a crucial part of being able to learn new pieces and enjoy playing new music.  Please have a read through my post here on how to help students improve their sight reading: https://todayscellist.com/cello-sight-reading-how-to-help-students-prepare-for-their-exam-and-in-general/

The sight reading part of the exam involves an examiner giving you a short piece of music that you haven’t seen before – they’ll give you 30 seconds to look through it and prepare, and then ask you to play it for them.

Marking criteria for sight reading:

As long as you attempt the tests, you’ll get a score of at least 7 (out of 21). Criteria for a pass or above is:
Pass (14-16) – ‘cautious presentation’, ‘continuity generally maintained’, ‘note vaules mostly realised’, ‘pitch outlines in place, despite errors’
Merit (17-18) – ‘largely secure presentation’, ‘adequate tempo, usually steady pulse’, ‘mainly correct rhythm’, ‘largely correct notes/pitch/key’
Distinction (19-21) – ‘confident presentation’, ‘fluent, rhythmically accurate’, ‘accurate notes/pitch/key’, ‘musical detail realised’

Sight read as often as you can.  The more you do it, the more fluent you will become, being able to recognise patterns and include the finer details (dynamics etc).


Scales/arpeggios etc

There are many reasons why scales (and arpeggios, broken chords, chromatics etc) are important to musical development.  Here are just a few:

  • Intonation – help to play in tune.  Since the patterns are the same for every scale, string players can usually tell when their intonation isn’t quite right!
  • Improve technique – they are great for practising shifting and other left hand techniques
  • Improve tone – as scales are repetitive, they are great exercises for listening to the tone students are making
  • Recognising patterns (ie becoming a better sight reader!) – tonality is a huge part of of music – and recognising what key a piece of music is in, and being able to play the notes in this key – is fundamental to becoming a good musician.


Marking criteria for scales

As long as you attempt the tests, you’ll get a score of at least 7 (out of 21). Criteria for a pass or above is:

  • Pass (14-16) – ‘Cautious response’, ‘generally correct notes/pitch, despite errors’, ‘continuity generally maintained’, ‘generally reliable tone’
  • Merit (17-18) – ‘Secure response’, ‘largely accurate notes/pitch’, ‘mostly regular flow’, ‘mainly even tone’
  • Distinction (19-21) – ‘Confident response’, ‘highly accurate notes/pitch’, ‘fluent and rhythmic’, ‘musically shaped’

For me, the keywords that stand out here are ‘confident’ and ‘musically shaped’.  For all scales and related exercise, always aim for a starting dynamic of about mf – crescendo as you get to the higher notes and descrescendo as you finish.  As long as the tempo is even, you’ll sound confident and this is an adequate musical shape.


Aural tests

This is the part of the exam that is sometimes left until last minute (I know I myself was guilty for not preparing my students as much as I could have when I started teaching – especially if the student’s pieces or scales were taking more time than I’d expected to get up to standard!).  But aural tests represent a huge part of being a good musician – being able to keep a steady beat, repeat phrases of music, and being able to appreciate and identify different aspects of a piece of music.

Marking criteria for the Aural tests:

As long as you attempt the tests – even if your answers are completely wrong! – you’ll get a score of at least 6 (out of 18).  Criteria for a pass or above is:

  • Pass (12-14) – ‘strengths just outweigh weaknesses’ and ‘cautious response’
  • Merit (15-16) – ‘Strengths significantly outweigh weaknesses’, ‘Musically aware’, ‘Secure response’
  • Distinction (17-18) – ‘Accurate throughout’, ‘musically perceptive’, ‘confident response’

There are so many resoures available to practice aural tests outside the lesson – the one I usually point my students in the direction of is http://emusicmaestro.com/auraltests/, also viewable on youtube (search for emusicmaestro).

It is definitely worth listening to and analysing new pieces of music on a regular basis, long before your exam – keeping in mind the requirements for the grade that you are working towards.



The importance of this part of the exam goes without saying.  Choose 3 pieces that are contrasting.  Learn and perform each piece as musically as you can!  A good teacher will give you all the advice you need 🙂


Final words

The key is to make sure that you are practising all aspects of the exam on a daily basis – this is also the best way to build up your all-round musicianship.  Scales, sight reading and aurals are all key elements in becoming a good musician and enjoying making music – so please make sure you give at least as much time to these as you do perfecting a piece of music!

Cello sight reading – how to improve this important skill

For some cello students, sight reading is the dreaded part of the exam. I always encourage my students to sight read as much as possible and make it a part of their daily practice. Cello sight reading doesn’t need to be scary – it’s an important skill that it’s worth taking the time to develop, … Read moreCello sight reading – how to improve this important skill