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The Expert's Guide to the AP Music Theory Exam

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Posted by Christine Sarikas | Mar 28, 2022 5:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



Are you taking the AP Music Theory exam this spring and want to be well prepared on test day? The AP Music Theory exam in 2022 will be held on Friday, May 13, at 8 am. AP Music Theory is different from most other AP exams; it's more like a foreign language exam than anything else, with lots of audio clips and "translation." Knowing what to expect will go a long way to helping you feel confident on test day. 

In this guide, we'll answer all your pressing questions like, "What is on the AP Music Theory exam?" "Is AP Music Theory hard?" and, maybe most importantly, "Do you have to sing in AP Music Theory?" (spoiler: kind of!). Read on to learn all those answers and more.


How Is the AP Music Theory Exam Structured?

The AP Music Theory exam is separated into two main parts. First you'll complete the multiple-choice section, then the free-response section. Each of these sections is further split into two parts.


Multiple-Choice Section

  • 75 questions
    • Part A: Aural
      • You'll listen to an audio clip to answer the question
      • 41-43 questions
      • Lasts about 45 minutes
    • Part B:  Nonaural
      • You'll look at a printed score to answer the question
      • 32-34 questions
      • Lasts about 35 minutes
  • Lasts 1 hour 20 minutes
  • Worth 45% of your final score
  • Questions will:
    • Assess your ability to use symbols and terms to describe features, procedures, and relationships in notated and performed music.
    • Assess your ability to detect discrepancies in pitch and rhythm when comparing notated and performed music.
    • Represent a variety of historical style periods, including baroque, classical, romantic, late 19th or 20th century, and contemporary (world music, jazz, or pop). Both instrumental and vocal music will be represented.


Free-Response Section

The free-response section has two parts: written and sight singing. 

  • Part A: Free-Response Written
    • 7 questions
    • Approximately 1 hour 10 minutes
    • Worth 45% of your final score
    • The seven questions include:
      • 2 melodic dictations
      • 2 harmonic dictations
      • 1 part writing from figured bass
      • 1 part writing from Roman numerals
      • 1 composition of a bass line/harmonization of a melody
  • Part B: Free-Response Sight Singing
    • 2 questions
    • Approximately 10 minutes
    • Worth 10% of your total score
    • For this section you'll sing and record two primarily diatonic melodies that are each about 4–8 bars. Yes, this is the "singing" part! These questions can be a bit confusing the first time you see them; in the Sample Questions section you'll be able to see (and hear) an example of what one of these questions looks like and what you need to do for your response.


What Topics Does the AP Music Theory Exam Cover?

So what will these questions actually be about? As you would expect, they'll closely relate to the material and skills you learned in class. The AP Music Theory course has eight major units. Here they are along with their subunits. Reviewing these will give you an excellent idea of what concepts to expect on the exam. For a more in-depth look at what the course (and exam) cover, check out the AP Music Theory Course and Exam Description.


Unit 1: Music Fundamentals I: Pitch, Major Scales, and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements

  • Pitch and Pitch Notation
  • Rhythmic Values
  • Half Steps and Whole Steps
  • Major Scales and Scale Degrees
  • Major Keys and Key Signatures
  • Simple and Compound Beat Division
  • Meter and Time Signature
  • Rhythmic Patterns
  • Tempo
  • Dynamics and Articulation


Unit 2: Music Fundamentals II: Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture

  • Minor Scales: Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic
  • Relative Keys: Determining Relative Minor Key and Notating Key Signatures
  • Key Relationships: Parallel, Closely Related, and Distantly Related Keys
  • Other Scales: Chromatic, Whole-Tone, and Pentatonic
  • Interval Size and Quality
  • Interval Inversion and Compound Intervals
  • Transposing Instruments
  • Timbre
  • Melodic Features
  • Melodic Transposition
  • Texture and Texture Types
  • Texture Devices
  • Rhythmic Devices


Unit 3: Music Fundamentals III: Triads and Seventh Chords

  • Triad and Chord Qualities (M, m, d, A)
  • Diatonic Chords and Roman Numerals
  • Chord Inversions and Figures: Introduction to Figured Bass
  • Seventh Chords
  • Seventh Chord Inversions and Figures


Unit 4: Harmony and Voice Leading I: Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase

  • Soprano-Bass Counterpoint
  • SATB Voice Leading
  • Harmonic Progression, Functional Harmony, and Cadences
  • Voice Leading with Seventh Chords
  • Voice Leading with Seventh Chords in Inversions


Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function

  • Adding Predominant Function IV (iv) and ii (iio) to a Melodic Phrase
  • The vi (VI) Chord
  • Predominant Seventh Chords
  • The iii (III) Chord
  • Cadences and Predominant Function
  • Cadential 6-4 Chords
  • Additional 6-4 Chords


Unit 6: Harmony and Voice Leading III: Embellishments, Motives, and Melodic Devices

  • Embellishing Tones: Identifying Passing Tones and Neighbor Tones
  • Embellishing Tones: Writing Passing Tones and Neighbor Tones
  • Embellishing Tones: Identifying Anticipations, Escape Tones, Appoggiaturas, and Pedal Points
  • Embellishing Tones: Identifying and Writing Suspensions; Identifying Retardations
  • Motive and Motivic Transformation
  • Melodic Sequence
  • Harmonic Sequence


Unit 7: Harmony and Voice Leading IV: Secondary Function

  • Tonicization through Secondary Dominant Chords
  • Part Writing of Secondary Dominant Chords
  • Tonicization through Secondary Leading Tone Chords
  • Part Writing of Secondary Leading Tone Chords


Unit 8: Modes and Form

  • Modes
  • Phrase Relationships
  • Common Formal Sections




AP Music Theory Sample Questions

Looking at sample questions is one of the best ways to get a feel for what the AP Music Theory exam will be like. Below are four sample questions: two multiple choice and two free response. The multiple-choice questions come from the AP Music Theory Course and Exam Description, and the free-response questions are from the 2021 exam.


Multiple-Choice Questions

Here's an example of a Music Theory aural multiple-choice question. Like other aural multiple-choice questions, it has an audio clip you'll listen to twice. Go to the AP Music Theory Course and Exam Description, page 218, to hear it.


The correct answer is A.


Below is an example of a nonaural multiple-choice question.


The correct answer is A.


Free Response: Written

This is an example of a "writing from Roman numerals" question. This will be the 6th question on the written part of the free-response section. It's worth 18 points and it's recommended you spend 10 minutes answering it.



Below is an example of an answer that would have earned you the full 18 points (there are other correct answers possible):


You'll earn one point (up to six points total) for each chord that correctly realizes the given chord symbols. A few notes:
  • The chord must be spelled correctly and in the proper inversion (i.e., the bass note must be correct). A missing accidental will be considered a misspelling. An incorrect accidental on the wrong side of the notehead will also be considered a misspelling.
  • The fifth (but not the third) may be omitted from any root-position triad.
  • The fifth (but not the third or seventh) may be omitted from a root-position seventh chord.
  • All inverted triads and inverted seventh chords must be complete.
  • All triads must contain at least three voices.
  • All seventh chords must contain at least four voices.

You'll earn 2 points per chord for acceptable voice leading between two correctly realized chords, for a total of 12 possible points. N.B.: This includes the voice leading from the given chord to the second chord.

Note that there are a lot of additional factors graders consider for potential point deductions. You can see the full grading rules for this question here (go to Question 6).


Free Response: Sight Singing

The sight singing section will always begin with the following directions. Read them carefully now to save time on the exam. As the instructions say, you'll have 75 seconds to practice your answer and 30 seconds to record it. You'll also be able to hear the starting pitch for each melody. Each sight singing question is worth 9 points.


Here's an example of a sight singing question:


To hear sample answers, go to this link and scroll down to "Audio Sample Responses." This was question 1 on the exam, so listen to 2021 AP Music Theory: Sight-Singing Sample 1A, 1B, and 1C for three examples of correct answers. It's nice the College Board provides multiple audio samples because it helps you get a better idea of the different ways you can give your response. Also, don't worry about being judged on the quality of your voice; the graders are only looking for rhythmic accuracy, pitch accuracy, and proper tempo. Go to this link to see how points are awarded or deducted (remember, you're looking at Question 1).




How Is the AP Music Theory Exam Scored?

As we mentioned above, the multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your total score. There are 75 questions, and you'll earn 1 point for each question you answer correctly. No points are deducted for incorrect answers, so you should answer every question!

The entire free-response section is worth 55% of your total score. Within the free-response section, the written questions are worth 45% of your total score, and the sight singing is worth 10% of your total score. Here's how many points each free-response section is worth:

Written (45% of total score):

  • Question 1: Melodic Dictation: 9 points
  • Question 2: Melodic Dictation: 9 points
  • Question 3: Harmonic Dictation: 24 points
  • Question 4: Harmonic Dictation: 24 points
  • Question 5: Part-writing from figured bass: 25 points
  • Question 6: Part-writing from Roman numerals: 18 points
  • Question 7: Harmonizing a Melody: 9 points

Total: 118 points


Sight Singing (10% of total score):

  • Question 1: 9 points
  • Question 2: 9 points

Total: 18 points

For each section (multiple-choice, free-response written, and free-response sight singing) your points will be added up then scaled to properly fit the weight of that section. Those scores are added together, then converted to the standard AP scoring scale of 1-5. The exact formula for doing this can change slightly from year to year.

And how well do students do on the AP Music Theory exam? Here's what score distributions looked like for students who took the exam in 2021. The mean score was a 3.04, or just above passing, and 61.2% of students who took the exam passed it (scored a 3 or higher).

% of Students Earning that Score

Source: College Board


3 Tips for Preparing for the AP Music Theory Exam

Now you know what to expect when you take the AP Music Theory exam, but what can you do to make sure you're well prepared for it? Follow these three tips throughout the year to put yourself in a great place on test day.


#1: Hone Your Listening Skills

Over half of the Music Theory exam questions will require you to listen to an audio clip in order to answer the question. It can take more effort to find and listen to different music pieces than it does to just read through sheet music, but having a good ear is key to doing well on the exam.

Throughout the exam you'll need to be able to recognize different types of scales, chord qualities, and intervals with confidence. It can be tricky to find the right kind of audio clips to listen to, so if you're having trouble, have a classmate play different intervals on a piano (or another instrument). Without looking, guess which interval was just played. Be sure there's a lot of variety in the range of the intervals, and practice both ascending and descending intervals.


#2: Emphasize Hands-On Practice

We're a fan of active studying over passive studying (where you're just reading through notes) for pretty much any test, but it's especially important for Music Theory. You'll be doing so much active work on the exam (listening, sight singing, etc.) that you need to have a lot of experience with this well beforehand. 

Your teacher will likely have a lot of clever ways for you to practice (as well as materials to use), but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Play through scales. Practice both the 12 major scales and the minor scales in natural, melodic, and harmonic forms.
  • Practice note, scale, and chord identification. There's a lot of resources online for this; here's one to start with.
  • Do your own sight singing practice by listening to different melodies and singing back the pitches with accurate rhythm and tempo.


#3: Take Practice Tests

Taking practice tests and answering practice questions is one of the best ways to prepare for any AP exam, including AP Music Theory. Official resources (those made by the College Board) are the best to use as you can be sure they're very close to what you'll see on exam day. There's a very limited number of official multiple-choice questions available, but in the AP Music Theory Course and Exam Description, there are 15 multiple-choice questions you can answer beginning on page 218.

Fortunately there are many more official free-response questions for Music Theory available for free online. Questions from within the last five years will be the most useful because they'll be closest to the current exam format.

FRQ from 2021

FRQ from 1999-2020

Because there are so many official FRQ available, we recommend only using them instead of looking online for unofficial questions (those not created by the College Board) because unofficial questions can be hit or miss in terms of quality. 




Summary: AP Exam Music Theory

What is AP Music Theory? It's an advanced placement course that teaches you the basic materials and processes of music, culminating in a final AP exam. Knowing what to expect from the AP Music Theory exam will go a long way towards helping you feel confident and do well on test day. The exam has two sections, multiple-choice and free-response, which are each divided into two parts themselves. Multiple choice has an aural and a nonaural section, and free response has written and sight singing sections. The multiple-choice section is worth 45% of your total score, and the free-response section is worth 55% of your total score.

Students taking the exam will be tested on their ability to analyze performed music, analyze notated music, convert between performed and notated music, and complete based on cues.  The printed and aural materials in the exam represent a variety of historical style periods, including baroque, classical, romantic, late 19th or 20th century, and contemporary (world music, jazz, or pop). There will be both instrumental and vocal music on the exam.

In order to prepare for the AP Music Theory exam, keep these three tips in mind during your review:

  • Hone your listening skills
  • Get hands-on practice
  • Take AP Music Theory practice tests


What's Next?

Thinking about attending music school? Learn what your best options our in our guide to the 15 best music schools in the US.

How much extra work is it to double major and why should you do it? Find out more about what goes into double majoring in this article.

Need help choosing colleges? We have a guide to making a college list. We can also recommend the three best college finders and which college ranking lists you should read.


Looking for help studying for your AP exam?

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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