Keyboard Harmony as an AP Music Theory Tool

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Each year it seems that students come to the music theory classroom with an ever-greater need for the fundamentals of music. In my experience, music students can develop fundamental skills through keyboard harmony with relevant, gradual, and consistent instruction.

Keyboard harmony can be used alongside your existing materials and can be used as much or as little as is practical. Keyboard harmony is not tested per se on the AP Music Theory Exam, but a student with some experience in this area will be better prepared to do well on the test. In fact, I would single out keyboard harmony as the single most important part of the AP Music Theory curriculum. It is how students can learn to synthesize such elements as voice leading, harmonic progression, rhythmic stability, aural recognition, and improvisation in a fashion that is at once auditory, tactile, visual, and cognitive.

Practical Application

Students can learn the most basic material, the identification of pitches and octave registers, fairly easily at the keyboard. When the course progresses to the major scale, the pattern of half and whole steps can be drilled effectively while playing them on the keyboard. And while “proper” fingering of major scales is to be admired, the most important concept for our purposes is not fingering, but rather the establishment of the patterns of half and whole steps.

Using the major scale as the point of departure, learning about minor scales is the logical next step, with the necessary inflections. Once students can play scales, beginning on any pitch, the discovery of intervals is aided greatly at the keyboard. Enharmonic confusion (i.e., augmented fifth vs. minor sixth) can be solved fairly quickly at the keyboard. And triad types and inversions are easily distinguishable at a keyboard.

Once you begin teaching voice leading, the keyboard becomes even more relevant. The importance of playing figured bass examples, regardless of how simple, cannot be emphasized enough. For best results, use keyboard voicing (soprano, alto, and tenor voices in the right hand, and only the bass voice in the left hand). If in the beginning you give students repetitions of a root position triad (with different soprano pitches), rhythmic steadiness will be developed after enough practice—which will lead to greater confidence. You might then move to transposition. Now students will be ready for I-V-I patterns. Be sure to supply students with examples that illustrate proper voice leading at the outset, and once these are stable, allow them to realize similar bass lines at sight. After this, provide longer examples.

Likewise, the harmonization of chorale melodies and folk song melodies provides a valuable insight into the workings of harmonic progression. Again, the key is to begin with the simplest of melodies and to reinforce constantly through drill and practice before going on to more involved examples. Again, rhythmic security and steadiness (not speed) are crucial.

How many keyboards do you need?

Ideally, music theory instruction takes place in a piano lab, but other options can work. Even if only one piano is available, students can cycle through an exercise very efficiently. For example, two students can be seated on the bench at once—as one is playing, another is leaving. Students who are waiting their turn can be involved in an ear training exercise with questions about an individual student’s performance.

If students do not have access to keyboards for daily practice at home, then your assignments may need to be adjusted. Instead of sight-reading different exercises each day, for example, students might play the same passages repeatedly for several days in order to ground the concept.

It is important to present keyboard harmony as a group activity. There is much that students may learn from one another’s efforts.

A block schedule offers an ideal way to include keyboard harmony. In a hypothetical 90-minute class, only 15 minutes might be devoted to keyboard work, leaving lots of time for sight-singing, ear training, analysis, and so on.


Keyboard skills can be grasped by music students as long as the instruction is relevant, gradual, and consistent. Keyboard harmony can be a priority in the curriculum without overwhelming it.

While time is of a real premium for teachers who are instructing AP Music Theory, all concepts—especially fundamentals—can be learned most effectively when the keyboard is involved. Yes, there is an up-front investment of time, but the payoff comes later when the group can better attain, remember, and understand the material.

Authored by

  • Richard Nelson
    Cleveland Institute of Music
    Cleveland, Ohio