Piano CM Levels

by Eleanor McKenzie Google
Adults can also enroll in the Certificate of Merit program.

Adults can also enroll in the Certificate of Merit program.

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The Certificate of Merit (CM) is a total musicianship program developed by the Music Teachers Association of California (MTAC). The program provides a guide for music teachers and helps them develop and gauge student proficiency. The program started in 1934, and as of 2011 has enrollment figures of around 29,000 annually. Although it originated in California, the CM program is available in other states.


CM levels start with Prep and progress to level 10. Theoretically, students progress through each grade by taking an annual exam to assess their progress. The practical exam is between 10 and 30 minutes long, depending on the level, with additional time for a theory and ear training test. The three practical parts of the exam are technique, repertoire and sight-reading. Students earn one point for each part of the evaluation passed, which is equivalent to four points per year. When a student achieves 12 points they are given a trophy. Students at Level 3 and above who are exceptionally talented are asked to perform at an Honors Recital.


The goal of the CM program, throughout each level, is to provide teachers and students with a systematic method that develops every aspect of piano playing including performance, fingering technique, sight reading and knowledge of music theory and history. Each level is set to provide a practical goal for the student that helps them focus and progress steadily. The program doesn't just train students to become proficient players, however; it also aims to encourage appreciation of music and the enjoyment of sharing music with others.

Starting Age

Teachers at the South Bay music school think that seven years old is a little young to begin the program, although a child of that age who already has at least one year of experience and is musically gifted can cope with the first exam. Students who want to gain the High School Senior Medallion should start the program by ninth grade at the latest and achieve CM level 7 by 12th grade. The Senior Medallion is awarded to students who pass the CM exams every year from 9th to 12th grade; these students are also eligible for the MTAC Honors Recital. Each year MTAC selects several hundred honors students to perform at its annual convention.


The CM program is primarily aimed at students wishing to play classical piano music and may not be the best option for students who are more interested in jazz and rock styles or don't have the musical ability to pass the CM exams. The National Piano Guild Auditions offer an alternative test program that has 22 levels to suit all ages and abilities, starting at age five.

About the Author

Based in London, Eleanor McKenzie has been writing lifestyle-related books and articles since 1998. Her articles have appeared in the "Palm Beach Times" and she is the author of numerous books published by Hamlyn U.K., including "Healing Reiki" and "Pilates System." She holds a Master of Arts in informational studies from London University.

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