AP Music Theory Exam: Your Questions Answered

October 27, 2020
By AdmissionSight

AP Music Theory Exam: Your Questions Answered

The AP Music Theory Exam is one of the more obscure AP Exams given the specialized-nature of the material. While most high school students have taken an in-depth history or biology course, for example, not as many have dedicated the same amount of time towards an equally thorough music course. This makes the AP Music Theory Exam an unlikely candidate for self-studiers. It’s advisable that you’ve not only taken the AP course beforehand but also that you fared well and finished with an excellent grasp of the material. In order to succeed, you’ll need to have a thorough knowledge of music theory and an ability to write and read basic voice and musical notation or impressive performance skills with an instrument of your choosing. AdmissionSight has put together the following guide to assuage any concerns you might have about the AP Music Theory Exam. We explain the importance of the exam, what you’ll find on it, and how best to prepare. Let’s get started!

Pencil and music sheet

When is the AP Music Theory Exam?

All AP Exams are administered on one day and during one time-slot for the entire year, making it paramount that students correctly identify the time of the exam. In 2021, the AP Music Theory Exam will be held on Wednesday, May 12, at 12:00 pm. Whenever searching for information regarding the time of the exam, be sure to double-check the associated year as the AP Music Theory Exam is administered on different days each year. Visit this page for a detailed list of the upcoming 2021 AP Exam schedule and all related fees. Make sure you give yourself ample time to make it to the exam and plan out your route ahead of time.

 What does the AP Music Theory Exam contain?

In short, the AP Music Theory Exam assesses a student’s ability to apply skills and concepts learned in the AP Music Theory Course. Before you take the exam, you should be comfortable producing, describing, understanding, and recognizing the fundamental processes and elements of notated and performed music. Furthermore, the AP Music Theory Exam will test your ability to apply various concepts through composition, dictation, sight-singing, score analysis, and aural analysis.

Music sheet, headset, a guitar and a pen on a table

 What is the format of the AP Music Theory Exam?

The AP Music Theory Exam is designed to assess your understanding of the primary learning objectives and skills outlines in the AP course. The test is broken down into two sections and takes two hours and 40 minutes to complete – making it one of the shorter AP Exams. The test is comprised of 2 sight-singing tasks, 7 free-response questions, and 75 multiple-choice questions. The first section of the AP Music Theory Exam is all multiple-choice and all other question formats fall into the test’s second section. We’ll provide a more in-depth breakdown of the test’s sections below.

Section 1: Multiple Choice

The AP Music Theory Exam’s first section eats up an hour and 20 of the test, is comprised of 75-multiple choice questions and makes up 45% of your overall score. Between 41 and 43 of the questions use aural stimuli to assess your listening skills and test your understanding of music theory. The remaining 32 to 34 questions rely on musical scores in a printed format to test your understanding of formal procedures or devices, texture, metric/rhythmic organization, developmental procedures, melodic organization, and score analysis. Only 10 to 12 of the questions are independent while the remaining 13 are grouped together in sets of 4 to 6 questions. The music used for questions on the AP Music Theory Exam comes from a wide array of genres and periods including contemporary (pop, jazz, or world music), 19th or 20th century, romantic, classical, and baroque. Both vocal and instrumental music is used.

Multiple-Choice Type # of Questions Timing
Non-Aural 32-34 35 minutes
Aural 41-43 Around 45 minutes

Section 2(a): Free Response

The second portion of the AP Music Theory Exam can be broken down into two smaller parts. The first of which starts with four questions in a free-response format. One of these questions focuses on melodic dictation while the other two center around harmonic dictation. This portion of the exam lasts roughly 25 minutes. Afterward, you’ll have 45 minutes to finish answering the other three free-response questions that focus on melodic harmonization, part writing from Roman numerals, and part-writing form figured bass.

Section 2(b): Free Response: Sight-Singing

The latter portion of the AP Music Theory Exam’s second section includes two questions, takes 10 minutes to finish, and comprises 10% of the overall score. This sight-singing portion of the free-response questions requires you to record and sing two diatonic melodies. They can be brief – between four and eight bars. Students have a minute and 15 seconds to rehearse each melody and then 30 seconds to perform each.

What are the passing rates of the AP Music Theory Exam?

Exam 1 2 3 4 5
AP Music Theory 12.9% 23% 25.8% 18% 20.3%

Of all the students that took the AP Music Theory Exam in 2019, 64.1% ended up receiving a passing score – which is defined as 3 or higher. Roughly one-fifth of the test-takers received the highest score of 5. On the lowest end, just shy of 13% of students scored a 1 on the test. It’s essential to bear in mind that the advanced standing and credit derived from the AP Music Theory Exam scores are wholly dependent on the school which you hope to attend. In other words, the colleges that you’re applying to will determine whether you receive credit for your AP course. Although a score of 3 is widely considered the standard passing mark, some schools don’t count it as sufficient for providing credit. You can visit the College Board webpage for more information regarding the specific regulations regarding AP credit at varying colleges.

What are the best ways to prepare for the AP Music Theory Exam?

Test your skills – The best way to kick off your preparation for the AP Music Theory Exam is by testing your current knowledge of the material that’s covered on the test. This not only gives you a better understanding of what you’ll need to study in greater depth but you’ll also become more familiar with what’s covered on the exam by browsing sample material. There are many sources providing sample questions, but it can be tough to find a complete sample test that includes both written and listening portions. Fortunately, the College Board site does offer a singular, comprehensive AP Music Theory sample test with sound files that were previously administered on an older exam.

Piano and music sheet

After you’ve completed a diagnostic test, it’s important to take inventory of the areas in which you were knowledgable and the areas in which you need improvement. The multiple-choice section of any sample test should be fairly easy to score since the answers are objective. However, you might have to ask for help from a teacher or friend to score the free-response portions since these are open to artistic and subjective interpretation. This sample test is a good way to start that makes it easier to target your studying in problem areas and provides you with an initial benchmark against which you can measure your progress.

Study the material –  Now that you have a better idea of where you stand in terms of the subject matter, you can dive into actually studying relevant material. The AP Music Theory Exam requires students to master topics such as rhythm, meter, chords, keys and scales, intervals, and pitches. You’ll need to be able to apply these skills to creative and complex tasks, including:

  • Composition of bass lines for any given melody while implying appropriate harmony.
  • Harmonic and melodic dictation
  • Realization of Roman numeral progression
  • Realization of figured bass
  • Sight-singing simple melodies

Improve listening skills: In addition to reviewing the theoretical applications of the subject matter, it’s also important to improve your aural abilities. Students can listen to musical pieces analytically and attentively with a focus on developing musical memory and to the skill of articulating a response to aesthetic, stylistic, and formal components

Practice your performance: Students will also need to practice their musical performances thoroughly. You should focus on singing, piano, and the primary instrument you choose to use. Since sight-singing is part of the final free-response question, you’ll also need to spend time working on this ability.

Playing a violin

Consult official sources: One of the best ways to study more efficiently is to only focus on the material that will show up on the AP Music Theory Exam. As one of the least popular exams and courses among the AP subjects, there’s a lack of high-quality study guides. The Barron AP AP Music Theory book is perhaps the best source. It includes two comprehensive exams with non-aural and aural parts.

Practice MC questions – When you’ve got the theory down, it’s smart to practice answering the types of questions you’ll find on the AP Music Theory Exam. After all, having an understanding of the material is only half of the battle. You have to be able to effectively apply it. Since multiple-choice questions comprise a majority of the exam, you should dedicate a decent amount of time to this type of question. Most AP Music Theory study guides should include some MC questions. Study.com is always a good place to begin your search.

Aural MC questions: Not all multiple-choice questions on the AP Music Theory Exam are all the same. The aural questions assess your listening skills and your understanding of music theory in the context of actual music literature examples. You’ll have to successfully recognize isolated rhythmic patterns and pitch, detect rhythm and pitch errors, or identify materials and processes in a broad array of musical styles, media, and genres. Formal procedures, texture, instrumentation, rhythmic and meter patterns, and tonal, harmonic, and melodic, organization are all included.

Non-aural MC questions: The multiple-choice questions not focusing on aural stimuli will test your score analysis skills. These abilities include formal procedures and devices, texture, metric or rhythmic organization, developmental procedures, melodic organization, as well as large and small scale harmonic procedures. Basic composition, notational skills, and music terminology might also be covered in these questions.

Rehearse free-response questions – The AP Music Theory Exam’s free-response section sets it apart from other AP exams due to its stress on aural skills and the addition of a sight-singing performance. In this way, it bears a slight resemblance to the foreign language exams.

Free-response questions 1 & 2: Students should prepare to focus on melodic dictation when answering the initial two free-response questions. After listening to a melody several times, you’ll be asked to notate it. The test will clearly state how many times you’ll be able to hear the melody, but it’s played 3 to 4 times typically. Pay close attention to the directions so you understand how many listens you’ll have. When the melody is playing, pay close attention to compound and simple meters, chromatic and diatonic melodies, bass and treble clefs, and minor and major modes.

Free-response questions 3 & 4: The third and fourth free-response questions revolve around harmonic dictation. Both questions typically ask students to listen to harmony several times before notating the bass and soprano voices. Just like in the first two free-response questions, you’ll be told beforehand how many times you’ll have to hear the harmony played. Be sure to take this information in mind when you’re making your notation. When answering these questions, you’ll want to pay close attention to the harmonic analysis within a four-voice texture as well as the notation of bass and soprano lines.

Free Response Question 5: For this question, students are required to part write based on a figured bass. Typically, there’s no listening portion involved. Instead, students are provided with an opening chord and the following bass line. Then, you have to work out the figured bass with traditional voice-leading in four voices. You’ll also have to provide the appropriate Roman numeral for each chord you write to clearly indicate the harmonic function.

Free-response question 6: Similar to the previous question, you’ll be asked to produce a four-voice progression using traditional voice-leading procedures with the indication of Arabic and Roman numerals. There isn’t an aural component to this question.

Free-response question 7: The seventh free-response question is open to interpretation more so than the previous questions. You’re asked to write a bass line after being provided a melody. Instead of being provided with an aural component, you’ll have to write a cadence for each phrase ending, provide melodic qualities to the bass line, and diversify the bass line’s motion in response to the soprano. The only tool you’ll have is the written progression provided on the test.

Free-response sight-singing: For the final two questions on the AP Music Theory Exam, you’ll have to sight-sing a melody in accurate rhythm, pitch, and with a consistent tempo. Students will have 75 seconds to rehearse each melody and 30 seconds for performance. These final free-response questions demand one of the most distinctive skills of any AP exam.

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