The AP Music Theory exam is an excellent option for serious students of music to put their skills to work. While this particular exam has historically been considered one of the more difficult ones, each year more and more students earn scores of 3 and higher.
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In this post, we are going to introduce you to the basics of this exam, share some tips for scoring well, and talk about why a student would choose to take this exam.
Students will have 1 hour and 20 minutes to complete the multiple-choice section. This section consists of 75 questions and is worth 45% of the total exam score.
The questions will involve both written and aural theory. For the aural theory questions, a musical excerpt will be played. Following this, the student will answer a question about the melody. The questions usually relate to the following:
These questions test a student’s ability to identify key signatures, scales, arpeggiation, intervals, major/minor chords, and tonic/dominant chord patterns.
Tempo and meter
These questions mainly test knowledge of time signatures and rhythm patterns.
Elements of phrasing
Embellishments, cadence, motive, and form (examples: AB, ABA, Rondo form)
Identifying errors in rhythm and pitch
These aural theory questions require the student to identify a rhythm or pitch error in a melody. Students are given the correctly written excerpt, and must follow the music to identify the error.
For the free-response section, students will have 1 hour and 20 minutes to complete a series of nine exercises, which comprise 55% of their total score. These questions encompass both written and aural theory, but aural theory is heavily emphasized. Not only will a student’s rote knowledge of theory pay a role here, but their creativity and ability to improvise will as well. Here are the topics included in this section:1
Writing down melodies and harmonies from dictation
Students are given the starting pitch on a staff. This note will not have a stem, as students will need to provide the exact rhythm after listening to the dictation prompt. Following this, a melody is played between 3-4 times. Students will have between 5 and 8 minutes to write down the played melody verbatim on the staves provided.
Part writing from Roman numerals (includes tonic and dominant notation) and figured bass
A four-part melody will be played. Following this, students must write the soprano and bass lines on the treble and bass lines, respectively.
Composition of a bass line/harmonization of a melody
This is a written theory question, and it is worth two points for each measure or phrase the student completes. The first 3-5 measures of both the treble and bass line of the melody will be provided for reference, with a little chord analysis below. Afterward, only the treble line is provided. At this point, the student will have 20 minutes to write a bass line harmony.
Students are a shown two written musical excerpts. Often, one will be on the bass clef, and one will be on the treble. (Alto and tenor clefs are not covered in detail on this exam).
AP Music Theory Sub-scores
Written and aural theory are equally important for the serious music student. However, they are very different skills. Written theory primarily tests a student’s ability to analyze a score. Aural theory tests a student’s ear, including their ability to identify pitch and rhythm. Because the two do not perfectly correlate, the composite score for the AP Music Theory exam will include a sub-score for each.
How hard is it to score a 4 or 5 in AP Music Theory?
Part of the reason the sub-score system is necessary is that not every student who takes this exam is going to have absolute pitch. Ear training is critical to scoring a 4 or a 5 on this exam because those questions are consistently the most difficult for students. In fact, for six years straight, Total Registration’s annual analysis of AP exam scores noted aural theory as being students’ weakest point nearly every year:
- 2011: Sight-singing (questions include the starting pitch)
- 2012: Melodic dictation
- 2013: Roman numerals
- 2014: Melodic dictation
- 2015: Roman numerals, melodic dictation
- 2016: Melodic dictation, multiple-choice questions with a listening prompt.
(An update: According to Total Registration, in 2022, AP Music Theory students struggled the most with Unit 5: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function. Check out the stats for yourself here.)
This trend could be one reason why the amount of 3s, 4s and 5s has remained fairly consistent each year. On average, 19% of students earn scores of 5, and 17% score 4s. This exam is one where students who have perfect pitch or extensive ear training have a clear advantage. These skills are difficult to acquire, but with consistent practice, it is certainly possible to develop a high degree of relative pitch.
When studying, make sure and focus heavily on Roman numerals, sight-singing and transposition, and dictation skills. One reliable way to study dictation is by listening to a piece and following its sheet music. As you listen to the piece, follow along as closely as you can. If you lose your place, start over from the beginning and try again. Do this as many times as you need to to get to the point where you can follow the entire piece on either the treble or the bass line.
Why take the AP Music Theory exam?
Naturally, students who are planning to enter a university music program will benefit from this. Many universities require music students to complete one or two semesters’ worth of both written and aural theory. Further, many universities also require second- or third-year students to take a barrier exam. Barrier exams, which are somewhat common in fine and performing arts fields, essentially determine whether a student will be permitted to their course. If a student cannot pass their barrier exams after a set number of attempts (usually 2-3), then they may not continue on that course of study.2
High-scoring students may not only earn course credit for a semester of theory, but there is a much better chance that they will be able to pass the barrier when the time comes.
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Here are the free-response questions from the 2016 exam, less the sight-singing questions. There are two dictation and part writing questions each, in addition to one question each covering figured bass, voice leading, and freely-written bass line composition. ↩
Louisiana State University, for example, conducts barrier exams at the end of a student’s second year. If a student has not taken all the expected classes at the time, or they do not pass their exam after two attempts, they are considered as "not making satisfactory progress." ↩