ABRSM Piano Syllabus 2021/22: Publication Review

Alongside my review of the new repertoire selections for the 2021/22 ABRSM Piano Syllabus, the Board have also published a number of other new publications. In this blog post, I will be looking at:

  • Scale Explorer for Piano
  • Piano Star Duets
  • ABRSM Piano Scales and Arpeggios
  • Teaching Notes on ABRSM Piano Pieces
  • ABRSM Specimen Sight-Reading Tests Initial Grade
Scale Explorer for Piano series of books

Scale Explorer for Piano

To accompany the changes to the scale requirements, Alan Bullard has written three new books, Scale Explorer, to accompany each of Grades 1-3. They are designed to:

  • Establish finger patterns by breaking each scale or arpeggio into small sections
  • Offer tips and hints to encourage students to remember the characteristics of each scale
  • Provide short pieces based on scale and arpeggio patterns
  • Give opportunities for students to compose and improvise using the scales and arpeggios being studied
  • Include charts to help with scale practice and revision

These books are packed full of exercises to help students prepare the scales and arpeggios at each grade. Each key is targeted through a number of different approaches, and by the end of each section, students will have a sound understanding not just of key, but of the scale, arpeggio and associated finger patterns too. I am thrilled that ABRSM haven’t deliberately tried to make these books child-friendly with colourful illustrations etc. The material is clearly presented and therefore accessible to all age groups, including adults.

Perhaps one downside, as is always the case with such books, is that they are aimed primarily at those preparing for ABRSM exams, so the content of each book covers the requirements of that particular grade. Whilst they may prove useful outside of the exam framework, this does limit their use somewhat. Perhaps ABRSM missed a trick in not aligning each book to particular keys? If ABRSM ever decided to offer the section for each key as an individual download with studio licence, they could be used far more widely.

Piano Star Duets book

Piano Star Duets

For the first time, ABRSM will allow a duet option at Initial Grade, and Grades 1-3. This book, which also accompanies ABRSM’s successful Piano Star series provides 26 duets from early beginner to Grade 2 level. Whilst a number of these duets are included on the new ABRSM Piano Syllabus for 2021/22, this will prove a useful volume of duets for more general use.

Edited by David Blackwell and Karen Marshall, the book includes a mixture of original pieces and arrangements. Composers of original works include, amongst others, Heather Hammond, Nikki Iles, Mike Cornick, June Armstrong and Alison Matthews. The book also includes a number of games, as well as tips for duet playing.

Whilst the music has universal appeal, as I have said previously about the series, it is a shame that the titles of the works themselves, and the illustrations, make this a book which is primarily limited to younger children.

Piano Scales and Arpeggios books from 2021

ABRSM Piano Scales and Arpeggios

A full comparison of the changes to the scale requirements will appear on the ABRSM website soon. Along with these changes, ABRSM have produced a new set of books, including one for the new Initial Grade. I provide only a brief summary of the main changes here:

Initial Grade

Initial Grade features C major and D minor, one octave, hands separately, along with C major in contrary motion, also one octave. Arpeggios are introduced for C major and D minor in the form of the tonic triad only. Whilst I think these are useful, I prefer LCM’s approach which requires the three notes of the tonic triad played separately, followed by the chord itself. I’m not sure of the rationale between choosing C major and D minor as the key foci at Initial Grade, but they should be easily accomplished by players at this level.

Grade 1

The C major scale, two octaves, hands separately, has been removed in favour of one octave, hands together; however, G major, F major and D minor scales remain, two octaves hands separately. The D major scale is no longer required. Broken chords have been dropped entirely, and G major and A minor arpeggios are now required, both one octave, hands separately.

Grade 2

There appear to be fewer changes at Grade 2. A minor scale, two octaves, hands together is now required; however, the D and A major scales, and E and D minor scales, all previously hands together, are now only required hands separately. E major in contrary motion has been dropped, as have the broken chords. Arpeggios in the keys of G major and D minor have been removed, but an E minor arpeggio added.

Grade 3

E major scale has been removed, but included as a contrary motion. B major has also been removed, and B flat and E flat majors are now only required hands separately. G minor has been removed, and B and C minors are now required only hands separately. A major and minor in contrary motion no longer appear at Grade 3. Chromatic scales on A flat and C have been replaced by a chromatic scale in contrary motion beginning on D. A D major and E minor arpeggio have been added hands together.

Grade 4

B and A flat major scales are now required only hands separately, D flat major has been removed, and F# major is now required hands separately. C# and G# minor scales have been dropped, and F minor is now required only hands separately. F major and D minor scales in contrary motion have been removed, and rather than any note, the chromatic is now required starting only on F. The arpeggio changes reflect those of the scales.

Grade 5

The previous expectation that all major and minor scales will required at Grade 5. has been removed. Only A, E, B, F# and D flat majors are required, along with F#, C#, G#, E flat and B flat minors. Staccato scales of A flat major and F minor have been introduced, and the previous two groups of contrary motion scales have been replaced by D flat major and C# minor. The two chromatic scales in contrary motion have been replaced by a single one beginning on F# (LH) and A# (RH). A diminished 7th on B is now required.

Grade 6

At the higher grades, the focus is on four keys at each of the three grades. At Grade 6, the focus is on D, F, A flat and B, with both major and minor scales, contrary motion scales, and arpeggios being required. This means that candidates no longer need to choose groups at any of Grades 6, 7 or 8. Separate staccato scales are no longer required, and the staccato scale in thirds is now introduced at Grade 7. Chromatic scales are now required only starting on G# and B, and the chromatic scale in contrary motion is no longer included. Dominant 7ths now are introduced at Grade 6 in the focus keys, and they are required to resolve on the tonic. Diminished 7ths now start on G# and B.

Grade 7

The key focus at Grade 7 is D flat, E, G and B flat, and the requirements are as for Grade 6; however, scales a third apart are now required only in these four keys. The legato scale in thirds is now in G major, as is the staccato scale in thirds. Staccato scales in sixths no longer appear. No similar motion chromatic scales are required; however, the chromatic scale in contrary motion is retained, though beginning on C# (LH) and E (RH).

Grade 8

The key focus at Grade 8 is C, E flat, F# and A. Requirements are similar motion, contrary motion, a sixth apart and arpeggios in these keys. Scales a third apart are no longer required. The legato scale in thirds is now in the key of E flat major and the scale in staccato sixths is introduced here rather than Grade 7. A whole tone scale is required on both E flat and C. A chromatic scale a sixth apart replaces the third apart one in the current syllabus.


Overall, these changes represent a significant shift in thinking. On the face of it, the number of scales at each grade has been reduced. This is most notably felt at Grades 6-8. I was surprised to see that broken chords had been removed completely. A number of requirements appear a grade earlier or later.

I don’t really know what the rationale is behind these changes. Many learners, and some teachers, will no doubt welcome the overall reduction in the number of requirements at each grade. The focus on particular keys at the higher grades brings ABRSM closer to Trinity’s approach. Some of the changes I find odd. The focus is still predominantly on introducing keys by increasing number of accidentals; however, from a technical and pianistic point of view, this is not necessarily the most logical approach. E major has long been one of the easiest scales for pianists to accomplish, and this has been demoted from Grade 2 to Grade 3.

I hope that in time ABRSM will allow us to better understand the rationale behind these changes.

Teaching Notes on ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces

Teaching Notes on ABRSM Piano Exam Pieces

Presumably due to the expansion of the repertoire lists to include 30 pieces at every grade (270 pieces in total), the Teaching Notes on Piano Exam Pieces book is slimmer volume this time round.

The book provides teaching notes on only those pieces included in ABRSM’s books of Selected Pieces. Nine pieces are covered at each grade with useful insights provided by Sharon Gould, Julian Hellaby and Anthony Williams. For each piece, notes are divided into three areas:

  1. Musical context
  2. Technical challenges
  3. Performance and interpretation

As ever, there is much of value here for teachers. Whilst the book cannot, and indeed, doesn’t seek to cover everything, the suggestions here offer useful starting points. As I say, the volume is slimmer, and the notes somewhat shorter than previous years, but nevertheless, it’s an indispensable guide for teachers using the new ABRSM Piano Syllabus.

Piano Specimen Sight-Reading Tests Initial Grade

ABRSM Initial Grade Specimen Sight-Reading Tests

There’s little to say about this, other than that it joins the existing suite of specimen sight-reading tests for Grades 1-8. A total of 35 examples are included. Whilst no parameters are listed in this book, tests would appear to be:

  • Using the first five notes of C major and D minor
  • 4-6 bars in length
  • Hands separately, 2-3 bars in each hand individually
  • Using a mixture of staccato, legato, piano, forte
  • 2/4 and 4/4 time signatures


Overall, there are some useful publications here, and these reflect the changing requirements represented in the new syllabus. It is quite hard to judge the changes to the scale requirements without knowing the rationale behind these, though I understand the Board consulted widely. Similarly, the Initial Grade sight-reading book would have benefited from a clear indication of the parameters.

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