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07 September 2017

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Trinity vs ABRSM - The new syllabus 2018-2020

Trinity vs ABRSM - The new syllabus 2018-2020

Compare the differences between Trinity vs ABRSM
Grade 1 Trinity Piano 2018-2020
This summer the new 2018-2020 piano syllabus was published by Trinity College London and out of curiosity I thought I'd take a look. I've always been an ABRSM person, took their exams many years ago and now teach their syllabus to my own students. However in this post I would like to point out some of the differences between ABRSM and Trinity College and I would be interested in your thoughts, so please leave a comment below. 

Gr1  Gr2  Gr3  Gr4  Gr5  Gr6  Gr7  Gr8

First of all, ABRSM is much bigger worldwide than Trinity College and by many it is considered better. Being bigger, it has more exam centres and so unless you live in a big city like London, you might find yourself having to travel a long way to take your exam. 


Regarding the exam itself, the biggest difference I noticed is in the supporting tests. In ABRSM as you probably know, you have to play three pieces, do scales, aural tests and sight reading. In Trinity there is a choice. You pick only TWO of the following four supporting tests: 

 Sight Reading; Aural; Improvisation; 
Musical Knowledge about a piece you are playing. 

This means that a student can focus on his strengths - for example if you really find the aural difficult, you won’t be penalised. Then again, does the ABRSM approach make for a more all round musician? Should everyone, for example, be able to sight read or is it a cop out to let the student decide if he wants to avoid sight reading through his entire studies on an instrument? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

The scales seem of a similar difficulty, but there are less of them in Trinity. Many students, especially in the higher grades feel inundated by the sheer number of scales they need to know for ABRSM. Is knowing the complete cycle of fifths both major and minor at Grade 5 piano a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?  
To make up for the fewer number of scales, Trinity College has additional Technical exercises, short little pieces which test things like tone, balance, coordination flexibility whereas ABRSM tests this in the main pieces. 

Then there are the pieces themselves. My first impression is that they are a little easier especially at the early grades. I’ve made some video recordings of both the new Trinity College Piano syllabus and that of ABRSM.  Have a listen and tell me if you think they are in fact easier than ABRSM. However, the difficulty of the pieces is not the only difference. In ABRSM you need to choose three pieces one from each of three lists A, B and C. In Trinity College, again you need to choose three pieces, but these can be ANY three from the whole book. There is even an option where one of the pieces is a duet, where your teacher would accompany you in the exam. You can even offer you OWN composition as an alternative to one of the pieces. The idea behind the ABRSM forcing you to play from three different lists, I guess, is that you will get experience of playing different styles of  music. In my opinion, although the Trinity option might be more popular with students, that of the ABRSM in the long run might produce better all round musicians. What do you think? 

So in summary, my initial little curiosity has opened up a lot of questions as to the PROs and CONS of these two examining boards so please leave your thoughts in the comments below.


  1. Hi, I was interested to read your comments about ABRSM v Trinity. I am an adult learner of piano, studying for grade 3. In the past I have done Trinity exams (1 & 2) however this year I have switched to ABRSM because of comments suggesting that Trinity may not be of the same standard. I would like to say that I enjoyed my Trinity exams.

    At grade 1 I took the option to play a duet, obtaining full marks for the piece. Being able to play a duet help settled my nerves and gave me more confidence than I may have had, returning to music exams after 30 years. I have to confess I did choose my strong points in the supporting tests which again was confidence boosting.

    I believe your assessment of the exams, regarding duets and sight reading is not wholly accurate. I believe you have the option of a duet up to grade 3 only and that sight reading becomes compulsory at grade 5 and above.

    I would recommend Trinity exams to anyone who was a bit nervous at the earlier grades for these reasons.

    I have gone for ABRSM this time round as my initial aim was to get grade 5 ABRSM. This is a personal goal. After that, who knows? The LCM syllabus is also very interesting and as you point out, a good musician will stand out for his/her quality of performance irrespective of which exam board they sat.

    I personally feel that a good teacher is far more valuable than any exam system. May I also add that I am enjoying your site immensely so far. Plenty of good information for a beginning pianist! Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your informative and interesting comments. It is true that duets are only offered at the lower grades, my post wasn't very clear on this. Regarding sight reading also your comments help clarify the situation, however at Grade 5 there is still an "option" around the sight reading element. Only at the very top grades is it compulsory. My opinion is that sight reading is a skill that should be learned from the very beginning.

  2. the major difference between the two courses has not been mentioned, in that ABRSM compels the student to take a grade 5 musical theory test in order to enter for grade 6 & above. This may well be too much for some students who may well be able to achieve a practical ability to grade 8.

  3. I have entered students for both ABRSM and Trinity exams for years and I believe they are both equally valuable but simply suit different kinds of students, and sometimes both are good for the same student, at different stages in their progress. There is no doubt that the ABRSM Grade 5 theory requirement and more rigorous scale requirement in the upper grades are a benefit to someone who wants to go on to study music at undergraduate level, but they can also be detrimental to someone who is playing at Grade 5,6,7 or 8 level for pleasure but is also doing A-levels or GCSEs and has limited time to practice. For them there is no downside to playing smaller numbers of scales, and there is a benefit to playing less scales but slightly more pieces (3 short technical exercises pieces for Trinity, in addition to the 3 main pieces).Requiring someone to practise hundreds of scales is unhelpful if they simply wish to play for pleasure - they can achieve a similar finger dexterity on a smaller number of scales, and if they are not going on to study music further, the hours spent on additional scales can feel like wasted time which they would rather spend enjoying a wider variety of pieces.

    In reality I have most of my students do Grade 5 ABRSM theory regardless of whether they go on to take Grade 6+ with Trinity, or with ABRSM, because it gives them a greater understanding of what they are playing, but it is good to know that it is still possible to progress into the higher practical grades without it (Trinity only), for students who are dyslexic or who would struggle with a formal written exam for other reasons. Widening of access can only be a good thing.

    The choice of Trinity or ABRSM at the lower grades is a matter for teachers to work out what best suits individual students, in particular what styles of pieces are motivating for them, because Trinity definitely offers a wider range of styles in general. I have two brothers working at Grade 5 level, one took Trinity Gd 5 piano, the other took ABRSM Gd 5 piano - both did ABRSM Grade 5 theory... it all depends on what motivates them, and on their future aspirations. You cannot say one exam board is better than another, only that one board may be better suited to a particular student.

  4. I did the ABRSM exams as a piano student myself. But now as a teacher I chose to enter my students for Trinity exams. I based this purely on the practical reason that, despite their more widespread global presence, the ABRSM practical exams are only offered once per year here in the Caribbean, whilst Trinity offers exams twice per year. I prefer the flexibility offered by the latter. If a student isn't fully prepared in time for one exam session, they can do it 6 months later with Trinity. With the ABRSM they have to wait an entire year, which many find discouraging.


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