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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Online Theory Exams Grades 1-5:
16th March 2021
Next UK Trinity Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 1-8:
Sat 8th May 2021

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ABRSM or Trinity: Which exam board for music theory?

ABRSM or Trinity Music Theory - Comparing the Exam Boards


abrsm v trinity 4The two main music theory exam boards in the UK are the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) and Trinity (Trinity College, London).

Both boards offer 8 grades of music theory exams, and Trinity also offers two levels of music theory diploma.

If you are unsure which board to focus on, the information on this page may help you to decide.

Update 2020: From August 2020 ABRSM changed over to digital grades for grades 1-5 music theory. Grades 6-8 and all Trinity theory exams remain as paper-based exams.


 1. ABRSM and Trinity grades are accredited at the same level.

The UK qualifications regulator, OFQUAL monitors the standards of all exam bodies in the country. Each exam is given an RQF (regulated qualifications framework) level, so that exams may be compared across different boards, and even across different disciplines.

The RQF levels for music theory grades are the same for ABRSM and Trinity. At each RQF level, a number of points are awarded. Grades 1-3 are all level 1 for example, but a the points awarded at level 1 increase in line with the grades.

TQT stands for "total qualification time" and is the estimated number of hours (including both with a teacher and independent work) needed to pass the exam.


Grade  Board  RQF  TQT  Equivalent to
1 ABRSM  1 20 GCSE F/G or 1
1 Trinity 1 20 GCSE F/G or 1
2 ABRSM 1 30 GCSE E/F or 2
2 Trinity 11 30 GCSE E/F or 2
3 ABRSM 1 50 GCSE D/E or 3
3 Trinity 1 50 GCSE D/E or 3
4 ABRSM 2 58 GCSE B/C or 4-6
4 Trinity 2 70 GCSE B/C or 4-6
5 ABRSM 2 90 GCSE A*-B or 7-9 
5 Trinity 2 90 GCSE A*-B or 7-9
6 ABRSM 3 130 A level
6 Trinity 3 130 A level
7 ABRSM 3 170 A level
7 Trinity 3 170 A level
8 ABRSM 3 210 A level
8 Trinity 3 210 A level
AmusTCL Trinity 4 900 1st year BA
LmusTCL Trinity 6 1800 3rd year BA 



2. The Pass/Fail marks are slightly lower for Trinity than for ABRSM.

Grades 1-8

Board Pass  Merit Distinction
ABRSM 66% 80% 90%*
Trinity 60% 75% 87%

*In the new online ABRSM tests (from 2020) the % required for a distinction is 86.6%



  Pass Distinction
Trinity 60% 80%


3. Some ABRSM grades are shorter exams.

Board  Grades 1-3  Grade 4 Grade 5 Grades 6-8 Diplomas
ABRSM  1.5 hours  2 hours 2 hours 3 hours N/A
Trinity 2 hours 2 hours 3 hours 3 hours 3 hours


4. The ABRSM exam centres are more numerous than Trinity centres across the UK and worldwide.


5. The ABRSM offers three exam dates per year (March, June and November) and Trinity offers two (May and November), in the UK.

*Covid update: the exam sessions on offer are currently unknown.


6. The Trinity music theory exam fees are slightly more than ABRSM

(Fees correct as of December 2019)


Grade  ABRSM Trinity
1 £29 £31
2 £31 £33
3 £34 £37
4 £37 £40
5 £40 £43
6 £44 £47
7 £37 £51
8 £50 £56
AmusTCL N/A £107
LmusTCL N/A £150


7. The ABRSM syllabus is more traditional than Trinity. 

The early grades for both boards focuses on broadly the same areas: notation, scales, keys, time, performance directions, intervals and triads.

At grades 6-8 the boards diverge considerably. The ABRSM board follows the traditional curriculum of figured bass and Classical harmony (Baroque to late Romantic). Trinity only includes very basic figured bass (grade 6), and unlike ABRSM it does include non-diatonic key systems/scales, such as modes, pentatonic and whole tone. 


8. The ABRSM syllabus is narrow and focused, the Trinity syllabus is broad and comprehensive.

Trinity covers non-diatonic harmony even in the early grades. In addition, composition skills are tested at all grades (ABRSM dropped composition from grades 1-5 in 2018). Trinity covers a wider range of practical techniques (including ostinato, sequences and imitation) and requires a knowledge of form and basic orchestration. The question types will vary from paper to paper.

ABRSM at grades 6-8 requires a detailed knowledge of style, in particular Baroque (trio sonatas at grade 8), SATB (grades 6-7) and piano-style writing. The same types of question will appear in each paper.


9. The ABRSM syllabus is quite different between grades 1-5 and 6-8. The Trinity syllabus is graded gradually to build on skills throughout grades 1-8 in a similar way.

ABRSM grades 1-5 are knowledge based. The candidate is required to understand basic music literacy and is not tested on any practical skills. Broadly speaking, the same skills are tested at each grade, with some minor extensions of facts as the grades increase. Each grade increases in complexity in terms of key signatures and time signatures.

At grades 6-8 there is a seismic shift, to a paper where 50% is now skills based (writing harmony, creating bass lines, writing a composition, filling out the gaps in half-written piece of music etc.) Most students find the gap between grades 5 and 6 enormous. 

Trinity is quite different in that the emphasis is on learning plenty of new knowledge with each grade, rather than focusing more on key/time signature complexities. Harmony is introduced much earlier than with the ABRSM, and builds up the candidate's abilities much more gradually. There is no enormous gap between any two grades. The balance between practical skills and theoretical knowledge remains mostly the same, as the grades increase.


10. Pre-requisites.

The ABRSM requires a pass at grade 5 theory as a pre-requisite to taking grades 6-8 in a practical subject (other alternatives are also available). They will accept Trinity Grade 5 Theory instead of ABRSM. 

The ABRSM requires grade 6 music theory for candidates for the DipABRSM Teaching diploma. Trinity grade 6 is also accepted.

There are no pre-requisites to taking any grade of music theory exam with either board.


11. Content by Grade 5

  ABRSM  Trinity
Clefs Treble, bass, alto, tenor Treble, bass, alto , tenor
Composition From grade 6 only, instrumental only All grades, for instruments and setting words to text
Form The phrase & cadence, chorale, piano pieces, trio sonata Sections, strophic, binary, verse & refrain, suite, chorale, sonata form, concerto, etude, Lied, mazurka, nocturne
Harmony Grade 1: Chord I
Grade 4: IV and V
Grade 5: II, inversions, cadences
Grade 6: all triads, SATB style, modulation, V7
Grade 7: all 7th chords, Neapolitan 6th, suspensions
Grade 8: Augmented 6ths, borrowed chords
Grade 1: Chord I, chord symbols
Grade 2: 1st inversion, circle of 5ths
Grade 3: Chord V, 2nd inversion, perfect cadences & progressions, SATB style
Grade 4: Chords IV and V7, modulation, Plagal cadences
Grade 5: Chord II, imperfect cadences
Grade 6: all triads, diminished 7ths, basic figured bass
Grade 7: all 7th chords, suspensions
Grade 8: Serialism, chromatic chords
Instruments Grade 4: standard orchestral instruments
Grades 5-8: extended symphony orchestra
Grade 3: violin, cello, flute, bassoon
Grade 4: viola, double bass, guitar, descant recorder, oboe, horn
Grade 5: Bb clarinet, Eb alto saxophone
Grade 6: treble recorder, A clarinet, Bb soprano sax, Bb tenor sax, Eb baritone sax, Bb trumpet
Grade 7: Eb tenor horn, tenor trombone, bass trombone, timpani
Grade 8: cor Anglais, Bb cornet, tuba
Key Signatures  Grade 1: up to 2 sharps/flats, Grade 2 = 3, Grade 3=4, Grade 4=5, Grade 5=6  Grades 1&2: 1 #/b, Grade 3=2, Grade 4=3, Grade 5=5 
Orchestration  N/A String quartet, orchestral scores, close/open scores 
Scales  Major, minor harmonic and minor melodic, chromatic Major, minor harmonic, melodic and natural, pentatonic, Aeolian, Dorian & Mixolydian modes, whole tone, chromatic 
Style Recognising and writing: Baroque, Classical, Romantic
Recognising: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th C
Recognising and writing: Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th C, Rock/Blues
Time sigs  Grade 1: simple, Grade 3: compound, Grade 5: irregular Grade 1: simple, Grade 3: compound, Grade 4: irregular
Transposition  At octave/treble to bass by Grade 3, Grade 4:alto clef, Grade 5: tenor clef and for transposing intruments.   At octave/treble to bass by Grade 3, Grade 4: by 4th/5th and for transposing instruments, Grade 5: at any interval