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Piano Exams and Systems

By Nicholas Trevatt - January 01, 2013

When we were young and working through our piano exams there were very few choices on what type of exam and what examination board.
Over the last decade these examination boards have evolved their syllabi in an attempt to stay relevant and meet an increasingly diverse set of public needs. So, it's important for you to know the basics so you can compare apples with apples, so to speak.d to use. The choices were purely classical, either through the Australian Music Examinations Board, or the London based colleges of Royal Schools or Trinity College. Today, it's a different story with more examination boards and more types of exams on offer than ever before and with various levels of requirements and standards.

Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB)

The Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) tradition extends back to 1887 and is the most well-recognised and widely-used examination system for music in Australia with up to 95% of students and teachers using AMEB for music exams. We use the Australian Music Examinations Board for a whole lot of reasons including:
  • A large syllabus with a wide range of repertoire
  • An impressive depth of highly-qualified examiners with extensive examiner training and mentorship programs resulting in more consistent and accurate results
  • The only examination body with formal links to major Australian universities and Ministers for Education
  • Internationally recognised and respected by prestigious institutions such as Cambridge University
  • 6 practical examination sessions throughout the year for better timed exams

Other Examination Boards

Other highly-respected examination boards with international reputations include Trinity College London (TCL) and the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). These boards, along with the AMEB, have similarly spaced, labelled and graded exams.

Although there are a few other examination systems used in Australia, they do not share the depth and breadth of examiners, syllabi, history or reputation as the aforementioned boards.

AMEB Piano Exams (Classical)

For longer than anyone can remember the AMEB has been providing a classical piano syllabus that identifies the finest repertoire and provides a rigorous framework for graded development. It has been, and continues to be, a tried-and-true, reliable system for achieving excellence.    - Dr Michael Barkl

The Piano Challenge

Classical syllabuses such as AMEB's pianoforte version is aimed at the earnest student who wants to develop a comprehensive range of skills by focussing on pieces in the classical repertoire.  The higher difficulty of pieces and technical requirements in this strand demand:

  • Strong technical skills
  • A refined touch with exact control and highly-tuned fine-motor coordination
  • A mature emotional and expressive connection with the music
  • A highly-developed ear
  • A strong set of mind skills that will help your child in all areas of academic and personal life. Here are just a few of the important skills a student will develop learning classical music:
    • Observation of complex and minute details visually and aurally
    • Memory
    • Problem-solving
    • Adaptation
    • Spatial-temporal reasoning
    • Following detailed instructions
    • Goal-setting, motivation, time-management and self-discipline

Love Classical Piano Music!

Learning classical music isn't just about the mental benefits though, but for the joy, excitement and emotional connection that it evokes in the listener and performer.  Let's not forget this fundamental aspect of classical music as it was one of the main reasons composers wrote their music and why we play and teach such amazing music.

Piano Repertoire Flexibility

AMEB exams consist of 3 to 4 main list pieces which must be drawn from the extensive list of pieces in the syllabus.  Although there are hundreds of classical pieces to choose from there is also a small selection of Jazz pieces on list C or D such as Feelin Good by Brian Bonsor which can used in exams.  In addition to the main list pieces, grade 2 to 7 exams require two extra list pieces to be presented and these can be selected from any source as long as they are of a similar standard.  This allows the student to choose other styles of pieces such as popular classics, jazz, or contemporary arrangements during the course of their musical studies.

Treviano Studio specializes in teaching the classical style but we also enjoy the variety that the Piano for Leisure syllabus provides.

Piano for Leisure Exams

The Piano for Leisure syllabus is a less strenuous and perhaps more encouraging strand for those students who enjoy playing but do not want the pressure of a high-level examination.  Designed for students with busy schedules, the Piano for Leisure exams have a lower set of requirements but maintain a high standard in performance.  It explores popular repertoire including well-loved standards from the classics, jazz styles and arrangements of movie themes and popular songs and caters to a wider variety of tastes and interests.

So, what are the main differences in terms of workload between the pianoforte and leisure syllabuses? The following table shows a side-by-side comparison of the main differences. Requirements are based on a grade 6 level in both strands.

Compare Classical Piano and Piano for Leisure

  Pianoforte (classical) Piano for Leisure % Less Work for Leisure
Scales 41 scales and arpeggios
Legato and Staccato
13 scales and arpeggios
Legato only
70% less
Pieces 6 Pieces 3 Pieces  50% to 65% less
Ear Tests
Sight Reading
Both Choose One  50% less 

It's clear that there is significantly less preparation needed for the Piano for Leisure exam. In fact, we would suggest that between 50% to 70% less time would be required in practice. For time-poor students or students who just want to chug along at a leisurely pace the Piano for Leisure strand would be a good choice. Just remember that lower exam requirements demand less practice and depending on your particular needs this may or may not be the best choice.

Contemporary Piano Exams

* Treviano Studio does not offer lessons for the CPM syllabus

Courses such as AMEB's Contemporary Popular Music (CPM) are designed for the contemporary popular musician rather than the classical one.  Think along the lines of songs by current artists rather than pieces from the great classical composers.  The CPM syllabus focuses on creativity and musical exploration and includes:

  • Set works
  • Free choices
  • Aural skills
  • Improvisation
  • Music reading using standard notation and chord charts
  • Musical spontaneity
  • Original compositions and arrangements
  • Pre-recorded backing tracks using styles such as Rock, Metal, Blues, Jazz, Pop, Swing and Latin American.  

There is less emphasis on technical facility and note reading and more focus on the harmony, keys and scales commonly used in contemporary music.  If you want to play in a band or be a pop star then CPM would be worth checking out.


There can be a tendency to ignore good technical development and note reading within this strand of learning.  This can lead to frustration when a student wants to play music that has not been recorded or is technically demanding.  Having good technique and note reading skills is never something you will regret having and classically-trained pianists are renowned for impressive technical ability.  So, a combination of extra technical and sight reading work with CPM is recommended.