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Preparing for the AP Music Theory Exam

Posted May 2nd, 2017  |  By A4A.admin

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Preparing for the AP Music Theory Exam can seem overwhelming, and even more so if you are trying to prepare on your own. It helps to know the material well, of course, but it also can be a huge help to understand how the exam is graded so that you concentrate on elements and strategies that will gain you the most points.

Here are some recommendations from Kirsten Shallenberg, CSMA’s AP Music Theory instructor.

  • Get the Barron’s AP Music Theory Prep Book. It can be an extremely valuable resource, even this close to the exam date. It has fantastic suggestions about strategies for maximizing the points you can earn for each section of the exam, tons of practice materials, and two complete practice exams. The practice exams include instructions on how to grade them according to the College Board grading system.

  • Take at least one complete practice exam (more if possible!). If you don’t have access to official College Board released exams, use the practice exams in the back of the Barron’s AP Music Theory Book. Grade the exam according to the mathematical guidelines in the Barron’s book, or ask a music teacher to help you grade it. It will give you valuable insight into the parts of the exam where you are weakest so that you can focus your studies on those areas.

  • Sing, sing sing! The more you sing, the better you will perform - not only on the sight-singing questions, but also on the melodic and harmonic dictation questions. Try putting scale degree numbers or solfege syllables to your favorite songs, commercial jingles or movie themes. Listen to music and try to sing back phrases (this helps develop your inner audiation). While it can be difficult to practice sight-singing on your own,  just open your mouth and keep making noise.

  • Use active listening techniques ALL THE TIME. Listening to the radio in the car? Figure out what scale degrees that melody started on. Try to determine what scale that song is based on. Pop on some classical music and listen for the cadences and modulations. See if you can recognize what instruments are playing. All of these are skills you will need for the Aural Multiple Choice section of the exam.

  • Understand how the grading works for the written free response questions. The College Board graders use a system of grading that disproportionately punishes certain types of mistakes on the part-writing examples. Here is the breakdown: if you misspell ONE chord, you automatically lose FIVE points out of the 18 or 25 points possible. That is because you lose the point for the chord, but you also lose any possible points for the voice leading into or out of that chord. Dominant chords in minor that don’t have a raised leading tone count as a misspelled chord. Triads that are missing a chord tone (unless it is a correctly used incomplete tonic chord) count as a misspelled chord. If you understand how the grading works you can maximize your points, even if you do make mistakes.

  • Study the vocabulary! There is no “vocabulary section” on the exam, so many students neglect to really knuckle down and study all those vocab words. But remember - half of the exam is multiple choice, and if the choices contain words that you don’t understand, you will be severely hindered in your ability to figure out the correct answer! In particular, make sure you know all of the rhythm, meter, form and texture words.

  • Finally, when you are taking the AP Exam on Monday, May 8th: stay calm and use logic. Read the multiple choice questions carefully. Pay special attention when it is an “except” question. If you aren’t sure of an answer, use logic and knowledge of terms to eliminate as many wrong choices as possible before guessing. On the free response part-writing, make a chord chart so you don’t misspell any chords. Save time to check for bad parallels. Don’t get fancy. Keep things as simple as possible. Simple and correct is much better than fancy and wrong!

  • Tags: music school