Welcome to the AP Music Theory gang! This is one of the more notoriously difficult exams, but that does not mean that a 5 is unattainable! Students often get lost or frustrated within the material or building skills, but through hard work and dedication, AP Music Theory can be Fiveable! Here are some top tips on how to do so below:
In order to be successful in understanding and applying the course material, students must know their scales. Scales are the foundation for everything within music theory. Understanding concepts like scale degrees and intervals will make concepts like chord structure and progressions much easier.
Music theory is all about harmony and how to make it function effectively. All musical harmony is rooted in relationships laid out in scales. The best thing any student can do is to thoroughly understand scales (even though they are debatably one of the more boring parts about music 😔)
Once scales start to feel more comfortable, focus on some chords as well. This includes the basic buildup of chords (e.g. knowing that an augmented chord is 1-M3-#5) and knowing how that applies to C major (C-E-G sharp). Know the buildup of different chords (including triads, sevenths, and all of the inversions). Once the more “basic” concepts of music theory can click instantaneously, the more abstract rules of composition and analysis will become easier and generally make more sense as well.
The best way to study and truly understand scales is simply to do them. Music theory is a very hands-on concept, which is why the exam tests listening and sight-singing. Here are some suggestions on ways to build this skill:
Play through all the scales on whichever instrument is most comfortable, including singing.
Play all 12 major scales.
Play all of the minor scales in each form (natural, harmonic, and melodic!)
This will help you learn to hear and understand the differences. Make sure to play the modes as well as part of ear training.
On that note (see what we did there?), play out some chords/arpeggios. It helps to hear chord qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented, etc.) as well as to physically build the chord on an instrument. For visual learners, it can be helpful to do this on a piano to see the chord in full. However, for those who are not as comfortable with piano, this can be done on any instrument.
Not only is it super important to be able to recognize different types of scale and chord qualities, but also to be able to identify intervals. This comes in handy in any aural testing portions, including the sight-singing.
Practicing ear training intervals is quite easy. Find a friend and have them play various intervals at a piano/any instrument. With your back turned, guess what interval is played just from hearing it. Be sure to practice with both ascending and descending intervals, in a variety of ranges as well! Doing so can feel so tedious, but it does pay off!
The other important thing is to practice sight singing! Any time a new piece of music appears, try to get an idea of what it might sound like before it is played. It does not have to be anywhere near perfect, but to be able to recognize patterns and intervals will be incredibly useful upon the sight singing portion of the exam.
The AP exam will feature plenty written excerpts. They will be formatted in various ways. There may be a grand staff (a single treble and bass clef together, like a piano might read off of), a solo line with accompaniment, or a score of various instruments and clefs. Looking at a full score can be overwhelming at first, but becomes much more intuitive after a lot of practice!
For example, music scores very rarely show transposing instruments in concert pitch, and it would not be ideal to come across this instance for the first time during the AP exam. Also, it can be difficult to analyze chord progressions over multiple, simultaneous lines of music.
Even better would be to listen to a piece of music while following along in the score. The aural stimulus forces you to follow along faster instead of studying the minute details of each line. The exam will likely test this as well, and it helps to quickly pick out the important things - rhythm, tone, and expression within each line
(Also, this is usually a pretty fun thing to do, which is a bonus!)
You might want to familiarize yourself with all of the instruments' names, too.
Image courtesy of Audio Labs
The AP Music Theory Free Response Questions often are not easy. The types of skills tested do not sprout from memorization but instead from application and overall understanding. Because of this, the best way to improve is to simply keep doing it.
This has been a common theme throughout this guide. The best way to truly improve skill and gain confidence is to simply keep doing it. There will be times where doing so is incredibly difficult and/or frustrating, which is totally normal. However, instead of giving up at that point, it is better to push through in order to be as successful as possible in understanding the material and nailing the test.
Because AP Music Theory is a skills-based course deeply rooted in a strong foundation of the content, it is important to thoroughly understand the basics and to practice the application as much as possible. Ear train /everything/, and try to visualize as much as possible as well. Practice makes perfect, so keep going even when it gets hard. Most importantly, however, is to have confidence. Second-guessing answers is the worst possible thing to do during an exam. Go with your gut! A 5 on AP Music Theory is attainable through practice and confidence!