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Our history

The ABRSM story

Over 130 years ago, Sir Alexander MacKenzie, principal of the Royal Academy of Music joined together with Sir George Grove, director of the Royal College of Music, to create a new examining body: an impartial and expert organisation to promote high standards of musical education and assessment.  

Launched in 1889, ABRSM’s first Board included musical luminaries Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir John Stainer, Sir Walter Parratt, Sir Charles Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry alongside MacKenzie and Grove. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) was actively involved as President and hosted annual meetings at his home, Marlborough House. 

An ambitious first syllabus for the inaugural exams of 1890 aimed at "a standard so high that the certificate granted may be regarded as a distinction worthy of attainment" - a founding premise that has been kept through the years.  

The first local centre exams took place at 46 centres in the UK, and the two grades – initially named simply 'Junior' and 'Senior'- were completed by 1,141 candidates. Demands were soon made for a syllabus that supported the needs of pupils younger than those capable of attempting these grades and two school exam divisions were introduced, ‘Lower’ and ‘Higher’ to precede the more advanced grades, ‘Intermediate’ and ‘Advanced’.  

These school exams were later extended downwards to include 'Elementary' and 'Primary', and a 'Final' category was introduced to precede the LRAM, ARCM and LRSM professional diplomas (which were subsequently replaced or subsumed by the professional Diploma, Licentiate and Fellowship qualifications). 

The aural scheme was introduced into Practical exams in 1920, and the modern system of eight graded tiers was implemented in 1933. It was at this point that 'The Associated Board' became 'The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music’. 

Originally, ABRSM's panel of examiners was drawn mainly from the Royal Schools' teaching staff and prominent members of public musical posts. The noted composers Sir George Dyson, Sir Arthur Somervell, Sir Frederick Bridge and Ralph Vaughan Williams all served as ABRSM examiners in the early 20th century. 

From the very beginning, ABRSM had a duty imposed by the Charter of the Royal College to promote 'the cultivation and dissemination of the art of Music in the United Kingdom and throughout the Dominions'. By 1892, the University of the Cape of Good Hope had invited ABRSM to conduct exams in the Cape Colony. 

By 1895, Australia, New Zealand and Canada were all receiving visits from ABRSM's examiners. Exams were introduced to Malta in 1903 and the West Indies in 1907. By 1948, ABRSM had representatives in South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Malta, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Cyprus, Singapore and Kenya. 

Exams offered by ABRSM rapidly grew in popularity during the 20th century. Annual entries numbered 30,000 by 1914, and its mandate was extended to include the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in 1947. By this time, candidature had topped 100,000. By 1981 ABRSM was examining more than 460,000 candidates a year. 

In 1999, ABRSM launched a Jazz Piano and Ensembles syllabus, and supplemented the new programme in 2003 with the introduction of Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, Trumpet and Trombone assessments. 2004 also saw the introduction of the Music Medals programme for group-taught learners.  

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