Hey there! Are you stressing about the AP® Music Theory exam? You shouldn’t be because our team here at Fiveable has you covered! We have all the study guides and test prep content you could ever need!
If you’re worried about the exam itself (which definitely seems a bit overwhelming at first), then you have come to the right place. This discussion will be focusing solely on the AP Music Theory Free Response Questions (or FRQs) and how you can ace them!
Before we get into some top tips on how to do your absolute best on this portion of the exam, let’s take a look at what the Free-Response Question section includes. (Spoiler alert: it’s a lot!)
The AP Music Theory FRQ section is comprised of 7 questions, in which you will have 1 hour and 10 minutes to complete. These 7 questions will be worth 45% of your overall score. After the FRQ (written) section, there will be two passages that you will have to sight-sing. You will have 10 minutes to submit both (more info on that later).
The first two FRQs you will encounter will involve melodic dictation. This is when a short, simple melody is played, and you will have to accurately write the corresponding notes and rhythms. One example will be in treble clef, and the other will be in bass clef. The concept of melodic dictation may sound overwhelming, but with some practice and our top tips, you will be an expert in no time!
Start with what you know! Listening to the melody holistically and trying to copy it down will be overwhelming, and you will forget the details. Just take a deep breath, and write down what you can. Getting some of it is better than getting none of it if you can’t get all of it!
Notice the details. Is there an anacrusis (pick-up note)? What clef is it in? What is the meter, key, tonality? If it’s in a minor key, listen for whether it is natural, harmonic, or melodic minor.
Listen carefully for the steps and skips if you can’t decipher the notes themselves. Listening for the cadential progression of the melody could also help you if you get lost.
Don’t start writing right away! The melody will be played multiple times. The first time you hear it, just listen to it. Then, sing it back softly to yourself. Having the melody in your ear will work better as a reference for yourself as you begin to notate. The other times the melody is played can be used to spot-check the tricky parts.
Work backward! There’s no rule that you have to work linearly, left to right. Maybe it works for you to write down that last measure first, and then go back to the beginning. That’s ok! Do whatever works best for you!
Harmonic dictations will be the third and fourth questions within the FRQ section. It is similar to melodic dictation, but instead of listening to a melody, you will listen to a four-part chorale, and be expected to fill in the soprano and bass lines. The roman-numeral chordal analysis (including inversion) will be included, as well.
Use the information given to your advantage! The prompt gives you the key, so it is not a bad idea to quickly write out a reference for yourself complete with the chords within that key. Make sure you know implied harmonies—it will be really helpful here!
There are a few ways you could approach harmonic dictations. The first method is vertical listening. First, you would focus on familiar patterns on top and on bottom, or listen to the chords in full to recognize the cadences. Then, listen to the bass the second time to confirm the progression. Focus on the soprano line the third tip (bonus tip: contrary motion!) The fourth and final time the audio is played, use it to double-check any problem areas, and otherwise fill in the rest.
Another method would be to flip the process described above and to listen linearly. Focus on the bass line first, then the soprano line, and fill them in accordingly. On the third time the melody is played, listen for chord quality (major, minor, any sevenths or accidentals?), and then fill in the blanks with the fourth time played for reference.
Need a little midway freakout? Me too. Don't worry, we'll get through this!
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The fifth FRQ is figured bass. Using part-writing rules, you will fill in the tenor, alto, and soprano lines based off of a given bass line and (roman-numeral) chord progression. There is no aural stimulus, so you are able to take your time within each line. Keep in mind that the entire section is timed, however.
Here’s some top tips for how to succeed on figured bass:
Before you begin: take notes! Write out the chords and progressions for your own reference as you work through the sample.
Start with the melody! Using the bass line and recommendation of contrary motion, write the soprano part before the alto or tenor lines. This is easier than having to undo the middle parts in order to keep within part-writing rules.
With the soprano line completed, go in and fill in the alto and tenor lines accordingly. It does not matter whether you write line by line or chord by chord, whichever works best for you!
Make sure to double-check your work before moving on to ensure that you haven’t broken any part-writing rules.
The sixth question within the FRQ section takes figured bass to another level. Based on only a roman-numeral chord progression, you will have to write all four lines; bass, tenor, alto, and soprano.
Here’s the recommended process:
First, write out the chords for each roman numeral. This will act as a reference for when it comes to filling it all of the parts. Make sure to double-check the key signature!
Start with the bass line. Pay attention to the inversions of the chords, and this should be easy-peasy. Plus, then the rest of the question will just look like a figured bass exercise.
Similar to figured bass, move on the soprano line (melody) after writing out the bass line. After that is solidified, fill in the alto and tenor lines using part-writing rules and the chords you wrote out as a reference.
Double-check for those pesky parallel fifths and/or octaves and you are good to go!
For the final FRQ, you will be asked to write a bass line based off of a given melody. You will also want to write in the chord symbols to show the harmonic structure and cadences.
It might be easier to start out by writing chord stacks and identify the given cadences. From there, fill in the cadences for the rest of the section based on the melodic phrases. Before you start writing out the bass point, remember to consider an appropriate harmonic rhythm, and to pay attention to chord inversions!
Once you have all your references ready, start to write out a counterpoint bass line. Beware of parallelism, and remember that contrary motion is a safer bet than similar motion. When you have finished this and double-checked your work, then you’re all done with the written FRQ section!
Last, but certainly not least, you will have to submit a recording of yourself sight-singing two melodies. One will be in a major key, the other in a minor key. Similarly, one melody will be in treble clef, and the other will be in bass clef. Note that you do not have to sing either melody at the written pitch; if the melody is properly transposed (i.e. all intervals are sung correctly), you can still receive full points.
Sight-Singing Top Tips:
Choose a syllable to sing on, and stick to it. If you know solfege, that may help you navigate larger intervals. If not, you may want to consider using numbers or a neutral syllable, such as “la”. The word you sing on will not affect your score.
Slow and steady wins the race! Don’t rush through the melody at the sacrifice of accuracy! If going slower gives you more time to be more accurate, both with rhythms and intonation, your score will thank you for it later!
Rhythm matters too! Many students will become flustered as the aspect of singing the right notes that rhythm is completely disregarded. Don’t do that! The point is to assess your understanding of notation, both pitch-wise and rhythmically.
The free-response section of the AP Music Theory exam is a beast. There are a lot of different skills you are expected to master, and it can definitely be overwhelming. Do not, and I repeat DO NOT, freak out. The best thing you can do is practice, practice, and then practice some more. Make some mistakes and learn from them, so by the time you get to the exam you know what to do and what not to do. Use these tips to guide you, and you’ll figure it out in no time. You got this!