An epic review (with music audio clips) of ABRSM’s hotly anticipated foray into pop music!
I’m holding ABRSM to a high standard so I’m quite critical, but I do also look for what there is to enjoy in these books. Listen to this episode to find out if you should buy them for yourself or recommend them for your students!

A brief bulletpoint summary of my review:

  • 2 books:
    • Book 1, ABRSM Initial Grade to Grade 3 (20 songs)
    • Book 2, ABRSM Grades 4 & 5 (16 songs)
  • The songs have been arranged in more of a ‘classical’ style than a ‘pop’ style. The classical style is very ‘horizontal’- ie little emphasis on chords and vertical thickness with more emphasis on simple counterpoint. This means the songs can sound quite clunky and IMO are not the best way to arrange pop music that sounds good at the lower grades.
  • The Rockschool syllabus and exams from the examination board RSL Awards are a much better choice for people interested in learning and playing the pop style- but:
    • Each Rockschool grade book only has around 6 pieces
    • Most Rockshool arrangements are made to be played with a lavish backing track, with only 2 songs per book as solo piano arrangements. This makes each book expensive with limited choice if the purpose is to learn a graded solo piano arrangement of a pop song.
  • However, these pop arrangements could be useful for students ultimately wanting to mostly develop classical skills with some fun ‘good enough’ superficial pop arrangements on the way for variety
  • Obviously, these books are very useful for students looking for pop arrangements at specific grades to use in exams, or looking for a curated collection of arrangements that start easy and become progressively more challenging
  • When arranging pop music for beginners and any level below grade 8, there is always the challenge that notating the melodies in pop music usually makes the rhythms very challenging to read. This means they are challenging to play, or they need to be simplified down which doesn’t sound great
  • The ABRSM arrangements are very short, which IMO would make them disappointing to perform. But then you get a lot of pieces in each book
  • It’s really important to choose songs which will work well arranged for solo piano, and I’m not always convinced the right choices were made
  • It’s very commendable for ABRSM to branch into pop music, making piano accessible to more people, and representing a a more diverse group of music creators than typical classical composers!
  • Copyright for pop music can be very expensive and problematic, so it’s great to see ABRSM team up with Hal Leonard and produce content which is typically more expensive to produce
  • The world of pop music is heavily image-led, so I’m critical about the lack of images, graphic design or photography in these books
  • Who is this book for? If kids/teenagers, then there are too many old irrelevant songs here with an off putting lack of images/photos. If for adults, there are too many contemporary pop songs
  • From [28:55]- a breakdown of pieces from Book 1 with audio clips
  • From [50:30]- a breakdown of pieces from Book 2 with audio clips
  • The audio that accompanies these books is very easy to access from the Hal Leonard website, and there’s a handy online player on the website that allows you to loop within each song and change the speed which can be useful for practising



All audio clips of arrangements from the ABRSM books are from the Hal Leonard website which you have access to when you buy the book

All audio clips of arrangements from the Rockschool syllabus are from the recordings you have access to when you buy the books

My review of the Rockschool Rock/Pop Syllabus:

The intro/outro music is my jazz arrangement of the Rachmaninov Adagio from Symphony #2, you can watch the whole thing here if you like: