Kate Sundquist 7 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the Music Theory AP Exam

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The College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum are challenging courses for high schoolers designed to emulate a semester-long college course. Students who perform well on standardized AP exams can earn college credit. AP courses exist across a broad range of disciplines, such as math, physical and life sciences, and the fine arts. The Music Theory AP exam is one of the least common exams taken among self-studiers and enrolled students alike. In 2016, only about 19,000 of the 2.6 million students taking AP exams took the Music Theory AP exam. If you are interested in taking the Music Theory AP exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

In the Music Theory AP course, students learn to recognize, understand, and describe the basic materials and processes of music that are heard or presented in a musical score. You can expect to practice and develop musical skills while building your understanding of music composition and theory. You will also develop your music vocabulary through class discussions and written analyses of listening selections. Although there are no prerequisite classes for enrollment in the Music Theory course, you do need to be able to read and write musical notation. It is also strongly recommended that you have at least basic performance skills in voice or on an instrument.

The Music Theory AP exam takes place over two hours and 40 minutes. It is comprised of two sections. The first section lasts one hour and 20 minutes, is made up of 75 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 45% of your total score. These questions are based on aural stimuli or analysis of printed music scores. The second section is the free-response section, which also lasts for one hour and 20 minutes and accounts for 55% of your score. This section includes nine exercises and accounts for the remaining 50% of your total score. Free response questions include melodic and harmonic dictation, part writing from roman numerals and figured bass, composition of a bass line, harmonization of a melody, and sight singing (which will be recorded digitally starting in 2017).

In 2016, 59.6% of students who took the Music Theory AP received a score of 3 or higher. Of these, 18.2% of students received the top score of 5 with another 17.3% scoring a 4. Only 14.4% of students received a score of 1 on the exam. Generally, students performed equally well on their aural subscores as they did on their non-aural subscores. 

Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Though a score of 3 is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found here

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the exam can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Start by taking a practice test, called a formative assessment, to test your understanding of the material. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Because the test materials consist of both a written test and digital sound files, it can be difficult to find paired practice material, but the College Board Music Theory AP website does provide one complete test with included sound files from the 1998 exam administration. Alternatively, you can find more recent test sections with sound files available here

Once you have taken some kind of formative assessment, score it to identify the areas you already understand and those in need of improvement. It can be helpful to have a friend help to score your free response essays, as these artistic interpretations are more subjective than the multiple choice section. From an accurate formative assessment, you will get a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.

Step 2: Study the material

The Music Theory AP course teaches the mastery of pitches, intervals, scales and keys, chords, meter, and rhythm. You will need to apply this mastery towards complex and creative tasks such as:

  • melodic and harmonic dictation
  • composition of a bass line for a given melody, implying appropriate harmony
  • realization of a figured bass
  • realization of a Roman numeral progression
  • sight singing of simple melodies

You will also need to apply your knowledge to the analysis of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form in repertoire drawn mostly from the Western European Common Practice style, but also including jazz, 20th century works, and world music.

As well as studying theoretical applications of your knowledge, you will also need to refine your aural skills. You should listen to musical works attentively and analytically, while developing your musical memory and ability to articulate responses to formal, stylistic, and aesthetic qualities of the musical pieces. 

Finally, you will need to work on your own musical performance. This will include singing, keyboard, and whatever your primary instrument of choice is. You should especially focus on sight singing, as this is always a part of the free response section.

For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you should consider using a commercial study guide. Because the AP Music Theory course remains one of the less popular courses amongst students, there are not many choices of high quality commercial study guides. One solid option, though, is Barron’s AP Music Theory with MP3 CD, 2nd Edition. This study guide consistently receives high reviews for its effective summary of the material and test taking strategies specific to the Music Theory AP exam. It comes with two full-length exams including both aural and non-aural sections. In addition, the sound files on the CD go beyond the practice tests to provide examples and exercises for the subject review chapters.

There are also a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. One has even posted a series of study materials and instructional videos.

Finally, another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one – their quality varies widely.

Step 3: Practice Multiple Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of another practice exam.

Keep in mind that the questions based on aural stimuli will test your listening skills and knowledge about theory largely in the context of examples from actual music literature. These questions will ask you to identify pitch and isolated rhythmic patterns, detect errors in pitch and rhythm, or identify “processes and materials in the context of music literature representing a broad spectrum of genres, media, and styles.” This includes melodic, harmonic, and tonal organization, meter and rhythmic patterns, instrumentation, texture, and formal procedures.    

Questions not based on aural stimuli emphasize score analysis. These skills include small scale and large scale harmonic procedures, melodic organization and developmental procedures, rhythmic or metric organization, texture, or formal devices and procedures. These questions might also cover music terminology, notational skills, and basic composition.      

The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple choice questions along with explanations of their answers. There are additional questions available in commercial study guides. As you go through these, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Section

The free response section of the Music Theory AP is unlike most other AP exams in its emphasis on aural skills and your own sight singing performance. It can be most closely compared to foreign language exams rather than other theory courses.

The first two free response questions will focus on melodic dictation. These questions will ask you to notate a melody after listening to it several times. You will always be told ahead how many times the melody will be played (usually three or four, depending on its length). Make sure to read the directions carefully so that you know how many chances you’ll have for listening. As you listen, pay particular attention to major and minor modes, treble and bass clefs, diatonic and chromatic melodies, and simple and compound meters.

Questions three and four in the free response section will focus on harmonic dictation. These questions will most commonly ask you to notate the soprano and bass voices of a harmony after listening to it several times. As in the melodic dictation questions, you will always be told ahead how many times the harmony will be played and you should keep this in mind while undertaking your notation. In this section pay attention to the notation of soprano and bass lines and the harmonic analysis in a four-voice texture.

Question five will ask you to part write from a figured base. There is not typically any listening involved on this question. Instead you are given the opening chord and the proceeding bass line. You are then asked to realize the figured bass in four voices within a traditional voice-leading procedure. For each chord you will need to write the Roman numeral that appropriately indicates its harmonic function.

Question six similarly asks you to write a four-voice progression in traditional voice-leading procedures, as indicated by the Roman and Arabic numerals. There is no aural component of this question.    

Question seven is a little more open to your own artistic interpretation and asks you to compose a bass line for a given melody. Again, there is no aural component. Instead you will need to write an appropriate cadence at each phrase ending, give melodic interest to the bass line, and vary the motion of the bass line in relation to the soprano using only the written progression to guide you.

The last two questions on the exam ask you to sight sing a given melody in pitch and accurate rhythm with a steady tempo. For each melody, you will have 75 seconds to practice and 30 seconds to perform the melody. You will hear the starting pitch for each melody at the beginning of the 75-second practice period. These questions demand perhaps the most distinct skill set of any AP question. Luckily, there are many rehearsal materials available, including a series of video tutorials

Step 5: Take another practice test

As you did at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the Music Theory AP Exam will be administered on Monday, May 8 at 8 AM.   

For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

If you feel like you need more help on the AP Music Theory exam, or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about information about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.