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Why and how did ABRSM begin?

5 years ago


As we celebrate our 125th birthday, historian David Wright goes back in time to reveal the 19th century origins of graded music exams and of ABRSM itself.

Candidate receives certificateMusical attainment has been an outstanding feature of Britain’s cultural environment from Victorian times, and graded exams have played a notable part in this. Placing such high value on graded exams may seem very odd to those who consider that music is only about great composers and their works. But the richness of a nation’s musical life depends upon a great many factors, educational, social and economic, as well as artistic.

In my recent history of ABRSM I try to explain the significant contribution that graded exams and their syllabuses have played in shaping the musical qualities and technical prowess of generations of musicians, since the first entry of 1,141 candidates for the two grades being offered by ABRSM in 1890.

An international cultural influence

The graded music exam system has proved to be a highly effective educational tool. The succession of grades develops people both culturally (in the way that they absorb critical values from the music they study) and technically (by carefully progressing their development as executants).

But what is so distinctive about graded music exams (and something now usually overlooked), is that their structure and contents have exported a very particular British educational model across the world. Indeed, for a long time the exams of all the major British music exam boards – despite their competitive rivalries – shared a common approach. For they all tended to agree about the range of elements considered indispensable to make the ‘all-round musician’. So from the earliest grades pupils found themselves studying theory, aural tests, scales and technical exercises. In other words, the graded exam system formulated an approach to music education that involved much more than just the learning of pieces or songs.

As graded exams spread (originally across what was then the British Empire), so their impact on music education has been felt right across the world, a transmission of British cultural influence through musical values that parallels the influence exerted by the BBC’s World Service through the medium of broadcasting.

ABRSM scholars from Canada and the West Indies

ABRSM scholars from Canada and the West Indies

New benchmarks

How, and why, did graded exams begin? Exams in music were part of a process which in the Victorian era saw the gradual social transformation of music teachers from being seen as rather dubious ne'er-do-wells into diploma-bearing professionals. Oxford and Cambridge had helped raise the standard of secondary school education in the 1850s with a system of ‘local’ exams (exams taken locally but marked by members of the universities) and the idea of the university validation of public exams quickly caught on.

The authority of the university-based examiners gave the exams status, and made them objective benchmarks of educational attainment that reflected on the quality of teaching and learning in schools. The original graded music exams followed their example, and until 1933, when the progression of eight grades was formally established, the upper ABRSM exams (Grades 6–8) were referred to as ‘Local Centre Exams’ and the lower ones as ‘Local School Exams’.

At the end of the 19th century, the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM), collectively known as the Royal Schools, and Trinity began to establish themselves in the public’s mind as the nation’s musical authorities, and the exams they offered gave music a new status. Seeing music as an ‘examinable’ subject, just like any other school subject, helped change the Victorian mindset. These exams identified music lessons and the process of learning to sing or to play an instrument as constituting a serious educational experience rather than a dilettante activity.


Trinity College first offered practical exams in 1879, two years after beginning theory exams in ‘Musical Knowledge’. By 1890, Trinity’s exams were attracting considerable support, and in that year it examined 16,000 candidates in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The RAM had launched ‘Local Exams’ in 1880, but they were not well managed and attracted relatively few candidates. Rumours that the RCM (founded in 1883) was about to begin its own scheme of ‘Local Exams’ held out the prospect of the two chartered Royal Schools being rivals rather than partners.

In May 1889 the Academy’s new Principal, Alexander Mackenzie, arrived at the RCM for an informal and confidential meeting with George Grove to suggest that the College and the Academy should form an associated examining board and jointly run local exams. Mackenzie and Grove had a cordial friendship, and were near neighbours in the London suburb of Lower Sydenham , and undoubtedly this helped to surmount a degree of institutional rivalry. It was also clear to everyone that it would be far better all round for the two ‘Royals’ to be seen to be able to work together for the betterment of British musical life.

In November 1889, an astonishingly short time, the organising committee was able to announce the details of the exam scheme and the first ABRSM syllabus. That this was all possible reflected the logistical genius of the ABRSM’s first secretary and administrator, George Watson, who played a significant role in establishing the RCM. Crucial to the success of the scheme were the Honorary Local Representatives, ABRSM's eyes and ears on the ground, who had responsibility for all the local arrangements.

A positive force for the future

Candidate and examinerABRSM’s musical authority was immediately evident to the public eye because of its star-studded cast of examiners from the staffs of the Royal Schools. Hypothetically, a particularly luckless candidate might have faced both Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford (until 1933, the senior exams had two examiners), but there were others equally impressive, such as Walter Alcock, Ebenezer Prout and the pianists, Franklin Taylor and Ernest Pauer.

The exams were not for the faint-hearted: as well as the entry fee equivalent to some £172 in today’s money, they also had to pass a theory paper before proceeding to the practical exam, in which the pass rate was 48%. But the exams were widely greeted as a positive force, and laid the foundations of the very much expanded scheme run by ABRSM, and used by thousands of teachers and students, 125 years later.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural HistoryDavid Wright was formerly Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music. His book, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History, is available in paperback from or in hardback from Boydell and Brewer.

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