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School of Music

Piano Competency Exam and Placement Test Information

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  • All BM and BME students must pass a piano competency.  This can be accomplished one of two ways.   
    1. Passing the piano competency exam (MED 302). 
    2. A passing grade in the fourth semester class piano course (MED 202).

Option 2 requires that the student take a piano placement test (further information regarding the placement tests is included below). Upon completion of the test, a student will be placed into the appropriate course based on their skill level.  Choosing this option may require the student to complete MED 101, MED 102, and MED 201 (first, second, and third semester class piano).  A student must receive a passing grade in order to advance to the next semester of class piano, and they must pass the mid-term and final juries in these courses.

  • Transfer students have the opportunity to either attempt the piano competency exam, or to take the piano placement test prior to the beginning of their studies at USM. ​ The competency exam and placement test are offered on the date listed on the Transfer Student page.

(Some transfer students may have already passed a piano competency exam at the college ​or university from which they are transferring.  Further information regarding the steps they should follow is found at the bottom of this document).

  • Freshmen have the opportunity to take the placement test during the first week of classes of the fall semester (Dr. Ellen Elder, Assoc. Prof. of Piano and Class Piano Coordinator, will visit the MED 101 classes during the first week of the fall semester and administer the test to students who have prior piano background).
  • Students can opt to take the piano competency exam at any time. However, all students are required to register for class piano until they complete the competency exam requirements.

The majority of students benefit greatly from taking the four semesters of class piano.  The MED 201 and 202 courses cover advanced concepts which are on the competency exam, including open score reading, hymn playing with four voices, harmonization and transposition with left-hand accompaniment styles, and collaborating with another instrument/voice.  These concepts can be very challenging for students to prepare on their own, so the classes can help them with this material. 

  • Advisors should help ensure that students enroll in class piano every semester until completing MED 202 (fourth semester class piano), or until they have completed the competency exam (MED 302). Only students with considerable piano background should attempt the competency exam.  
  • Students attempting to take the piano competency exam should contact Dr. Ellen Elder at  She can provide the specific competency exam materials for their practice (these materials are also provided during the class piano courses). The exam is offered five times throughout the year (mid-term and final exams week during the fall and spring semesters, and the end of July).  
  • Students should register for the competency exam (MED 302) during the semester in which they intend to take the exam.
  • Students must attempt all eight portions of the exam on their first attempt. Only students who have completed four semesters of class piano may take portions of the exam.

If all eight portions are not passed, the student will be allowed to perform just those parts at the retake of the exam.  If the student does not pass the remaining parts at this sitting, they will continue to take the exam until all parts are passed.


Piano Competency Exam

  1. Play all Major and harmonic minor scales, one octave, hands together, ascending and descending.
  2. Play all Major/minor chord progressions (I vi 6/3 ii V6/5 I) and (i VI 6/3 ii dim. V6/5 i), hands together.
  3. Prepare two vocalizations suitable for warming up a choir, one moving by step, the other moving by skips.  Be able to play each of them both ascending and descending chromatically, starting on any pitch.
  4. Harmonize a melody by adding chord symbols or Roman numerals, using at least four different chords.  Prepare at least three different bass patterns.  Playing blocked chords on the downbeat is not an acceptable choice.  Transpose this melody up a major second, up a perfect fifth, and down a minor third from the original key.  Students will pick up the selected melody for the exam from Dr. Elder one week prior to the exam.
  5. Read a four-part open score, playing at least two parts simultaneously, in the appropriate ranges/registers for a choral or instrumental work.  The students will be asked to switch voice parts at selected cadences throughout the performance of the open score.
  6. Perform two solos from contrasting style periods.
  7. Perform a four-voice version of a hymn, chorale, or patriotic song.
  8. Perform an accompaniment to a simple art song or instrumental work at a reasonable performance tempo while the professor plays or sings the solo line.

Piano Placement Test

Students should prepare the following items for placement into MED 101, 102, 201, or 202:

  • MED 101--beginning class piano, for those with little to no experience.  No placement test required.  Offered only in the fall.
  • MED 102--for placement into MED 102, please prepare all 14 Major/minor white key scales, 1 octave, hands together, with correct fingerings (harmonic form only for the minor scales).  Offered only in the spring.
  • MED 201--for placement into MED 201, please prepare all 24 Major/minor white and black key scales, 1 octave, hands together, with correct fingerings (harmonic form only for the minor scales).  Offered only in the fall.
  • MED 202--for placement into MED 202, please prepare all 24 Major/minor white and black key scales, 1 octave, hands together, with correct fingerings (harmonic form only for the minor scales).  Offered only in the spring.

If students have questions about the piano competency exam, or need scale fingerings for their practice, they should contact Dr. Ellen Elder at ellen.elderFREEMississippi.

If a student is interested in majoring in piano, they should contact keyboardfacultyFREEMississippi.

If a student has already passed a piano competency exam at the college ​or university from which they are transferring, that exam must be comparable to USM's Piano Competency Exam Requirements found above.

The student must provide the name and email address of the professor who administered the exam. Dr. Ellen Elder will contact that professor for the following:

  1. A description of the items on the exam (details regarding the specific items performed).
  2. The grade earned, if applicable. These students should send the name and email address of the professor at their previous institution to Dr. Ellen Elder at ellen.elderFREEMississippi.

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