9.0 How Do I Self-Study AP Music Theory?

5 min readseptember 29, 2021

Samantha Himegarner

Samantha Himegarner

AP Music Theory 🎶

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AP Music Theory is a super cool class because it is a perfect excuse for all kinds of musicians to learn more about a potentially useful, but not-as-popular subject. And when I say it isn't as popular, I mean some high schools do not even offer it as a course! To all of the students who are hoping to learn how to analyze scores, dissect melodies, and maybe compose some melodies of their own: you do have a chance! There is no reason you cannot self-study the course content and ace the exam!

Can I Self-Study AP Music Theory?

Is this an easy class to self-study for? No. Is it possible? Absolutely. So what makes it so difficult compared to the prospect of self-studying for other AP exams?
Music theory usually seems to be "harder" than other AP classes, but usually that's just because a lot of students don't really know a lot about it yet. With classes like AP Biology, or higher levels of math, students are more familiar with core concepts. But, some students come into AP Music Theory with only basic knowledge of music, or sometimes none at all.
A strong foundation in music theory will certainly help students throughout the course. A "strong foundation" includes, but is not limited to, the ability to read music, a basic understanding of scales and key signatures, and a basic understanding of rhythm and time signatures.
It is also helpful to have someone designated to help throughout the duration of the study of the course. AP Music Theory has confusing and contradictory ideas, so to have an adult as a guide helps tremendously.

Pros and Cons of Studying AP Music Theory

(Link “Is it Hard? Is it Worth It?” Post)
Many high schools do not offer AP Music Theory as a course due to a relatively smaller amount of interest compared to other AP coursework. Typically, as with most courses, it will be much more beneficial for you to take the actual class, if at all possible. Sometimes this option is not available, and you have to take matters into your own hands and study the course on your own. We're here to help!
AP Music Theory is worth studying, especially if a student is planning on pursuing music at the collegiate level and will have to take a pretest upon entrance. Do not expect a score from AP Music Theory to replace an entry-level music theory course at the collegiate level. More information on this can be found in the blog post linked above.

Use the CED!

CED stands for Course and Exam Description. This gives students and teachers an outline for what to prepare for in order to perform well on the AP exam. It covers content, skills formed in order to test, and organizes these into comprehensive units. Trust me, the CED will become your best friend as you make your way through the course.

How Often Should I Study for AP Music Theory?

It certainly will help to study a little bit each day in order to effectively reinforce information and connections. Don't worry, this doesn't mean that you will have to spend hours each day pouring over the course material, but you will find it is significantly more beneficial to review a bit each day in order to fully understand and be able to more quickly and accurately recall information upon the exam.
This does not even have to be done “officially”. You probably listen to music every day. You can practice some skills by identifying the meter of a song, and what kind of tonality it might have. Is it major or minor? Is it in triple or duple? Analyze the melody while listening. This will help reinforce this thought process for when it must be done on the exam, and will feel a little bit more natural as well.
Other than that, try to have all the content learned by February or March. This way, the few remaining months before the May exam can be dedicated to review, practice, and developing skills. This will be much better than cramming to understand vocabulary and concepts at the last minute.

How Do I Study for AP Music Theory?

Because AP Music Theory isn’t as “mainstream” or popular as some other classes (such as AP History courses, AP Language, AP Human Geo, etc.), there are comparatively fewer resources available for AP Music Theory.
I recommend having a textbook as a source of information, structure, and as a reference during review. For a comprehensive list of music theory textbook resources, check out this blog post about the Best AP Music Theory Textbooks.
There are also a plethora of videos covering various topics within the realm of music theory that can be found on YouTube. Listening to a musician explain concepts while giving real examples may help to solidify and comprehend the main themes and ideas.
Lastly, utilizing prior AP exams is a great way to practice and test your skills! Doing so will introduce you to the level of difficulty presented by the exam through the types of questions asked while also reviewing and reinforcing all of that information. Besides, practice makes perfect!

How Do I Take the AP Music Theory Exam?

If your school does not offer AP Music Theory, talk to your school’s designated AP Coordinator about testing for this subject. Because this subject’s test requires so many auditory elements (including sections that requires students to analyze audio as well as a section that requires students to produce an auditory response), you will take the test in a specific learning environment.
A coordinator may either set up a private testing environment with the student(s) needing to test with a designated proctor, or will be able to register the student at a predetermined, larger testing site. Because it is circumstantial based on school, location, student needs, as well as other variables, I recommend that you personally speak with your coordinator to find what would work best for you!

How Do I Stay Motivated for AP Music Theory?

When self-studying for anything, it is important to remember the purpose behind the decision to do so. Is music theory a subject of interest? Will this help with relevant coursework in the future, or is this just for clout?
It is typically easier to continue learning about something when it is more interesting and/or enjoyable. It is much more difficult to persevere through the challenging portions without a purpose behind doing so. The best way to maintain motivation is to find pleasure and benefit in doing so.
While self-studying for AP Music Theory is no simple task, it is entirely possible to do. In order to succeed, you must have passion and patience. It is especially helpful to have some sort of advisor to consult during the process, which helps with the motivation factor as well.


With an established background in music, motivation to succeed, and a support system behind you, there's no reason you can't be successful in this endeavor. While it may not always be easy, AP Music Theory is a fun, challenging, and rewarding course. It is a unique opportunity to be able to study something so niche so closely, and our team are here to make this Fiveable 😃
Browse Study Guides By Unit
🎵Unit 1 – Music Fundamentals I (Pitch, Major Scales and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements)
🎶Unit 2 – Music Fundamentals II (Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture)
🎻Unit 3 – Music Fundamentals III (Triads and Seventh Chords)
🎹Unit 4 – Harmony and Voice Leading I (Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase)
🎸Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function
🎤Unit 7 – Harmony and Voice Leading IV (Secondary Function)
📝Exam Skills
📆Big Reviews: Finals & Exam Prep

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