Hey-o! If you are starting to get just a little bit nervous about your upcoming AP® Music Theory exam, you have come to the right place! Here at Fiveable, we want to make sure all of your exams are, well, Fiveable, and we are going to start here with Music Theory by tackling the first portion of the exam: the multiple-choice.
If you have taken an AP exam before, you are probably familiar with the overarching format of exams: the multiple-choice section (often referred to as MCQ) and the free-response questions (FRQs for short). The AP Music Theory exam is also like this but has subsections for each half. Right now, we are only going to cover the multiple-choice questions, but if you want some advice on how to ace the free-response portion of the exam, you can find some of that info here.
The multiple-choice section for AP Music Theory is split into two parts: aural-stimulus questions and non-aural stimulus questions. Let’s go in-depth for what some of these questions might look like before we tackle how you can outsmart the exam and do your absolute best!
If you are otherwise unfamiliar with how the AP Music Theory exam works, the concept of aural stimuli may seem intimidating or completely foreign or possibly even some combination of both. A large part of success within music theory is a strong foundation in “ear training”, or understanding what you are listening to when listening to a piece of music. The aural stimuli is how the exam assesses your personal “ear training” skills.
To assess aural skills, the four answer options will be a musical phrase or scale notated on a staff, and the correct answer will be whichever corresponds to the audio sample. Here’s an example of what this might look like:
Example AP Music Theory Aural-Stimulus Question
Image Courtesy of collegevine
There will also be questions with only an audio stimulus, and no written score available for reference. Don’t worry, this exam does not assume that you have perfect pitch! These kinds of questions will be less oriented around pitch and rhythmic accuracy and more about overall understanding, such as form and texture of any given piece.
Prep your brain for what you’re about to hear! If the answers are music notation, think to yourself what each option may sound like. While listening, listen for something specifically to help you answer. (For example, the duration of the third note, or the interval between the first two notes). Also, do not feel pressured to answer the question right away; each aural-stimulus will be played at least twice. Use process of elimination to narrow it down with each time it is played.
Think about what assumptions you can make about the answer just from reading the question alone. Make some notes and/or references (if applicable) for yourself before you listen to the recording so that you can focus more clearly on the stimulus and not try to juggle multiple things at once inside your brain.
This is the section of the multiple-choice that is less about skills and more on your understanding of content through score-study and analysis. Most stimuli within this section will be some sort of musical score; instrumentation can range anywhere from a solo instrument, piano accompaniment, a string quartet, etc. (Pro tip: You will definitely want to be comfortable reading in treble, alto, and bass clef, You will be expected to read all three, and having some familiarity with tenor clef can’t hurt, either.)
Read each of the questions and answer options very carefully! There are many concepts within music theory that have similar names (and/or sounds), and they will trick you to see if you can truly differentiate between the two. Take your time and double-check your work!
If you do not know the answer, guess! It is better to make a guess than to leave the question blank (you are not penalized for wrong answers). Use techniques like the process of elimination to get the closest to the right answer you think you can get. (And, remember, you do not need a 100% to score a 5!)
Keep the time in mind. When time runs out, you cannot add any more answers to the answer sheet. Make sure to check your pacing throughout the exam so that you do not run out of time. This includes spending too much time on one question (see tip #2). Also, we recommend that you fill in the answer sheet as you go along and not wait until you finish with the questions to transfer your answers over. This way, even if you do not finish all the questions, you will have the answer sheet (near) completed, instead of completely empty.
The absolute best thing you can do for yourself is to take a lot of practice tests. This way, you will begin to understand what aspects of the content and skills are most difficult for you, and you will only get better through further practice. Keep these tips in mind and develop your own system, and we are completely confident that you will destroy that exam and get that 5!