The story is fairly common: someone has a blowout singing voice, enters any of the talent competitions we so love to watch on the telly, lands a fat recording contract and superstardom is just a few studio sessions away.

That’s how the world got to know pint-sized powerhouse vocalist Angelica Hale; she was all of nine years old at the time.

Taking an alternate route, one may upload videos of themselves (or their child) singing to any popular website or app and… you guessed it, superstardom is but a few thousand ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ away.

That’s how Justin Bieber got his start, at the tender age of 13.

We are all undoubtedly grateful for joy the Justins and Angelicas of the world have given us, and in no small measure blown away by their vocal talent.

But the world of singing is not populated solely by vocalists blessed with perfect pitch and raw vocal power. The majority of singers – classical, theatre and even popular work hard at their craft.

They spend hours in the classroom learning music theory and a staggering amount of time following the teaching of voice coaches and taking lessons with singing tutors.

Singers of this stripe prove themselves and the cultivation of their talent through graded singing exams, not in epic battles televised for the world to see.

Each of these eight graded exams serves a specific purpose in the incremental and consistent development of singers in the UK and around the world.

If you are a student contemplating a future as a vocalist or the parent of a child with an awe-inspiring voice, this article will prove the need to formally cultivate and test that ability rather than leaving your future singing career to chance.

It’s time to learn about singing exams and music grades.

How Graded Exams Got Their Start

In the late 19th Century, two leaders from two different Royal Music Academies in the UK came together to create a body that would formally test music students, including singers.

Those two gentlemen had grown increasingly frustrated with ‘for-profit’ enterprises that, more often than not, certified singers of any calibre – or no calibre at all, as long as the right amount of money changed hands.

Classical theatre demands qualified singers
Imagine a classical theatre performance with actors unqualified to sing! Image by brunapazini0 from Pixabay

Sirs Alexander MacKenzie and George Grove wanted to provide an arena where students of music could find legitimate, objective standards of achievement in music, graded by examiners who were unswayed by silver in one’s palm.

Thus, the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools for Music) and graded exams were born.

Initially, there were only two certifications to be had: Junior and Senior. They were roughly equivalent to today’s Grades 6 and 7.

Soon, the Associated Board (as it was then known) faced pressure because those exams were too advanced for younger musicians and singers to qualify for, let alone competently achieve.

The argument was that, by the time the youngest vocalists were of sufficient age to test at those levels, they would have learned so many bad singing practices that they would fail or be disqualified from formal assessment.

Soon, a new division, Lower and Higher, was introduced.

Over time, the Associated Board incorporated further divisions and new exams – for instance, the aural exam was introduced 31 years after the initial testing scheme was developed.

In 1933, the organisation took on the name we now know it by: the ABRSM. That same year, it adopted the eight-tier, graded testing system that is still in use today.

In this brief look back, we see the importance of having graded exams for singers at every level, from the youngest and least skilled to the most fully developed singers who have spent years honing their craft.

What if your singing performance is already so far advanced that you could comfortably skip a grade?

Graded Exams at a Glance

You might have picked up on us twice revealing the number of exams but, in case you were just skimming the article rather than reading in-depth, here it is, stated unequivocally:

There are eight graded singing exams in the UK.

Young singers should learn both practical and theoretical aspects of music
Younger singers should take lessons that focus on teaching good singing technique so they can easily pass the lowest singing grades Image by klimkin from Pixabay

With that being made clear, let’s now throw a bit of mud in the mix: there are three major testing boards in the UK. Besides the ABRSM, you could test your singing skills through Trinity College of Music or the London College of Music (LCM).

Technically speaking, if you hope to enrol (or are already enrolled at) either Trinity or LCM, you should take your graded exams with them and if you intend to study singing at any of the four Royal colleges of music in the UK, ABRSM is the board for you.

However, those guidelines are not set in stone. After all, if we’re talking about a very young vocalist – say, the same age as Ms Hale was when she competed onstage, s/he could hardly be expected to enrol at university any time soon.

For that reason, the three major boards are united in presenting roughly equivalent levels of singing grades with much the same requirements and standards.

At each level, candidates are expected to:

  • performance of segments from 2-3 pieces chosen from approved lists and accompanied on the piano
  • sing at least a portion of a traditional piece, without piano accompaniment
  • demonstrate sight-reading capability appropriate for their level
  • complete an aural exam
  • undergo supplementary tests as indicated by each grade’s and examining board’s syllabus

These supplemental tests may be anything from vocal exercises like arpeggios and ‘viva voce’ to improvisation and answering questions about music theory.

Every candidate has the chance to get a distinction at every grade.

Taking a Closer Look at Graded Exams

As alluded to in the earlier segment on the history of graded exams, the lower levels are generally meant for novice singers while the higher grades are targeted to vocalists with a bit more knowledge and experience.

Accordingly, the exams get progressively more challenging.

So that you can know what to expect at every level, we now break down the singing grades – not individually but in blocks, so that you can see what musical skills are targeted at roughly each level.

Grades 1-4

According to historical standards, performance at these grades would be considered lower-level, meant for singers with just a little formal training.

There is no great difference in the challenges posed from one grade to the next in this bloc. However, the selections from the song lists that students add to their repertoire are increasingly difficult from one level to the next.

If you anticipated going from Grade 1 to Grade 4 in a single bound, you should be aware that the ordeal will be significantly more demanding and the supplementary exams will prove more complex.

Furthermore, Grade 3 candidates will sing accompanied pieces for six minutes but Grade 1 students are only required to sing for four minutes and Grade 2s will sing for five minutes. The selections’ intricacy grows according to level.

The most obvious difference between these lower grades is the musical theory portion of the exam.

For instance, Grade 1 candidates should know notation basics, simple time signatures and major keys and scales. By contrast, Grade 3 examinees will be tested on technical musical aspects such as simple and compound time signatures, major and minor scales and keys, and rhythm writing.

Sheet music will reflect more elaborate notation
As you pass each graded exam, your syllabus will reflect more advanced musical elements Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

Grade 5

This grade is the proverbial line in the sand that distinguishes serious vocal artists from those who, till then, might have just been playing with the idea of a future as a singer.

Grade 5 is a prerequisite to higher-level graded exams so, if your career aspirations revolve around attending the Royal College of Music or London College of Music – schools that favour Grade 8 singers, you must take this exam.

The practical components remain the same: accompanied pieces, a traditional piece from your own repertoire, sight-reading and aural tests but the Music Theory exam is much more technical and goes much deeper into the subject, drawing on knowledge tested in the lower grades.

Grades 6-8

Even at these higher grades, the practical elements remain, albeit ever more complex and challenging.

Gone are the relatively simple melodies; your repertoire will include selections from the likes of Bach, Handel and Liszt. The more-than-generous three lists you were permitted to choose songs from has now expanded to five.

The technical elements of your music theory exams are also more difficult.

You will test on harmonic vocabulary and modulation, score reading and continuation of a melody for which the opening will be given.

Note: the theory syllabus does not change for Grades 6-8.

Each singing grade addresses practical and theoretical music elements that every student needs to study and master.

Much like learning any new skill from languages to engineering, musical students must fully understand and be able to demonstrate knowledge of the most basic concepts before they can move on to more advanced ideas.

The eight graded exams for singing ensure that each vocalist does just that.

Now, maximise your potential for success on your singing exams with these tips!

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.