How to get a music exam distinction Part 3

Everyone who takes a music exam hopes to achieve a distinction and this needs careful preparation of the supporting tests as well as the pieces.


Sight Reading

Sight reading is playing or singing a previously unseen piece. Sight reading is tested in practical music exams because it is an important skill for a classical musician. In ABRSM and Trinity exams, the candidate has thirty seconds to prepare the piece before playing it, whereas London College gives up to one minute. Dyslexic candidates may apply for extra time.

This is the typical difficulty of a Grade 1 piano sight reading piece, also showing 30 seconds timing and then a demonstration.

E-MusicMaestro piano sight reading covers all the notes, rhythms and keys that could possibly be found in a sight reading test at the early grades.

A distinction mark is awarded for fluent, accurate sight reading, with a confident sense of key. Students often imagine that getting the notes right is the principle priority, which sometimes results in a hesitant reading. Rhythmic accuracy, a stable pulse and sense of metre are just as important as notes and, for a distinction, the musical detail will be included too.

Here are some quick tips on how to practise sight reading and how to approach it in the exam:

  • Check the key signature and confirm by looking at the final note, which will be the key note.
  • Check the time signature.
  • Find the right starting position for the first note.
  • Read the music in little chunks, looking for note patterns, like scales. Don’t say the note names to yourself – it’s not necessary.
  • Look for repeated rhythm patterns – rhythms are just as important as notes!
  • Notice performance markings, such as the suggested speed and loud/quiet dynamics.
  • Run through in your head how the piece might sound, keeping a steady pulse while imagining the feeling of playing the correct notes (pianists – if any hand position changes are needed, move your hands at the right time to each new group of notes).
  • Try out the piece slowly (pianists use both hands, not right and left hand separately).
  • Finally play the piece at a speed you can manage, keeping a steady pulse, without stopping even if you make a mistake.
  • Look ahead a little as you play and aim for fluency – if you are uncertain of a note, miss it out … or make it up!

And here’s some more detailed advice.

Musical Perception / Viva Voce

An advantage of choosing musical perception/viva voce is that the student can prepare carefully with a teacher who knows what sort of questions might be asked about the pieces played in the exam. It is a pleasant option because it allows the candidate and examiner time to talk about the music. However, an articulate response is required, so this may not be the best choice for a candidate for whom English is a second language.

As the pieces become more complex at higher grades, so do the questions. A typical question at lower grades might be to name and explain elements such as key and time signatures and note pitches. At grade 5 the candidate may be asked about musical structure, style and period.

Trinity gives the musical knowledge option only up to grade 5 whereas London College offers viva voce at later grades too, where the candidate may be asked about melodic, harmonic, structural and stylistic features of a piece.

To gain a distinction, candidates will show an accurate response, using correct terminology. They will demonstrate understanding of, and engagement with, the music they have performed.

Here are the current viva voce requirements for London College.

And here are the requirements for Trinity College Musical Perception.


Improvisation is available only for Trinity College. The requirements become increasingly challenging through the grades in length, musical styles and harmonic complexity. Improvising is a rewarding skill to teach and learn, making it a worthwhile option.

The candidate chooses from the following stimulus options:


The stimulus includes a notated piano part with chord symbols from which the candidate improvises as the examiner plays the piano. The performance here is fluent and shows the correct number of bars, it uses the chords indicated and it is played confidently. At the higher grades, a more vivid characterisation of the tango style would be desirable, as would some development of the motif.


The candidate improvises unaccompanied in response to a notated melodic fragment. For a distinction mark, the improvisation will last for the specified duration and should develop the stimulus appropriately without too much direct imitation of it.


The candidate improvises a solo on a notated chord sequence. Distinction performances will be accurate in length and in chord sequence. The improvisation need not be technically complicated but should be stylish and poised. The chord option is an opportunity for candidates who enjoy jazz and this video gives some ideas on how to start.

The role of musical talent in gaining a distinction

Think of talent as potential – a seed to be nurtured. Outstanding achievement is the outcome of perseverance, practice, support and guidance, as demonstrated in the life of violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who overcame a disability to become a world-class musician.