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How do we mark exams?

ABRSM exams avoid the potential bias of instrument specialism by:

  • applying universal, non-instrument-specific criteria
  • focusing on the musical outcome, not the technical means behind it!

The marking criteria

The tables below show the marking criteria used by examiners (in all exams except Singing).

Marking principles

In each element of the exam, ABRSM operates the principle of marking from the required pass mark positively or negatively, rather than awarding marks by deduction from the maximum or addition from zero.

In awarding marks, examiners balance the extent to which the qualities and skills listed below (broadly categorized by pitch, time, tone, shape and performance) are demonstrated and contribute towards the overall musical outcome.

Total marks

Practical graded music exams are marked out of a total of 150, with:

  • 100 marks required for a Pass
  • 120 marks required for a Merit
  • 130 marks required for a Distinction

A Pass in each individual section of the exam is not required to pass overall.

Pieces

Grades 1-8

Mark

Pitch

Time

Tone

Shape

Performance

Distinction
27–30

  • Highly accurate notes and intonation
  • Fluent, with flexibility where appropriate
  • Rhythmic character well conveyed
  • Well projected
  • Sensitive use of tonal qualities
  • Expressive, idiomatic musical shaping and detail
  • Assured
  • Fully committed
  • Vivid communication of character and style

Merit
24–26

  • Largely accurate notes and intonation
  • Sustained, effective tempo
  • Good sense of rhythm
  • Mainly controlled and consistent
  • Good tonal awareness
  • Clear musical shaping, well-realised detail
  • Positive
  • Carrying musical conviction
  • Character and style communicated

Pass
20-23

  • Generally correct notes
  • Sufficiently reliable intonation to maintain tonality
  • Suitable tempo
  • Generally stable pulse
  • Overall rhythmic accuracy
  • Generally reliable
  • Adequate tonal awareness
  • Some realisation of musical shape and/or detail
  • Generally secure, prompt recovery from slips
  • Some musical involvement

Below Pass
17-19

  • Frequent note errors
  • Insufficiently reliable intonation to maintain tonality
  • Unsuitable and/or uncontrolled tempo
  • Irregular pulse
  • Inaccurate rhythm
  • Uneven and/or unreliable
  • Inadequate tonal awareness
  • Musical shape and detail insufficiently conveyed
  • Insecure, inadequate recovery from slips
  • Insufficient musical involvement

13-16

  • Largely inaccurate notes and/or intonation
  • Erratic tempo and/or pulse
  • Serious lack of tonal control
  • Musical shape and detail largely unrealised
  • Lacking continuity
  • No musical involvement

10-12

  • Highly inaccurate notes and/or intonation
  • Incoherent tempo and/or pulse
  • No tonal control
  • No shape or detail
  • Unable to continue for more than a short section

0

  • No work offered
  • No work offered
  • No work offered
  • No work offered
  • No work offered

Other exam elements

Scales and arpeggios and sight-reading

Grades 1-8

Mark

Scales and arpeggios

Sight-reading*

Distinction
19–21

  • Highly accurate notes/pitch
  • Fluent and rhythmic
  • Musically shaped
  • Confident response
  • Fluent, rhythmically accurate
  • Accurate notes/pitch/key
  • Musical detail realised
  • Confident presentation

Merit
17–18

  • Largely accurate notes/pitch
  • Mostly regular flow
  • Mainly even tone
  • Secure response
  • Adequate tempo, usually steady pulse
  • Mainly correct rhythm
  • Largely correct notes/pitch/key
  • Largely secure presentation

Pass
14-16

  • Generally correct notes/pitch, despite errors
  • Continuity generally maintained
  • Generally reliable tone
  • Cautious response
  • Continuity generally maintained
  • Note values mostly realised
  • Pitch outlines in place, despite errors
  • Cautious presentation

Below Pass
11-13

  • Frequent errors in notes and/or pitch
  • Lacking continuity and/or some items incomplete
  • Unreliable tone
  • Uncertain response and/or some items not attempted
  • Lacking overall continuity
  • Incorrect note values
  • Very approximate notes/pitch/key
  • Insecure presentation

7-10

  • Very approximate notes and/or pitch
  • Sporadic and/or frequently incomplete
  • Serious lack of tonal control
  • Very uncertain response and/or several items not attempted
  • No continuity or incomplete
  • Note values unrealised
  • Pitch outlines absent
  • Very uncertain presentation

0

  • No work offered
  • No work offered

* Includes Transposition for Horn, Trumpet and Organ (Grades 6–8) and Figured bass realization for Harpsichord (Grades 4–8).

In these cases, of the total 21 marks, 12 are allocated to Sight-reading and 9 to Transposition (or Figured bass realization), and one combined mark is recorded.

Aural tests

Grades 1-8

Mark

Aural tests

Distinction
17–18

  • Accurate throughout
  • Musically perceptive
  • Confident response

Merit
15–16

  • Strengths significantly outweigh weaknesses
  • Musically aware
  • Secure response

Pass
12-14

  • Strengths just outweigh weaknesses
  • Cautious response

Below Pass
9-11

  • Weaknesses outweigh strengths
  • Uncertain response

6-8

  • Inaccuracy throughout
  • Vague response

0

  • No work offered

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