Popular Music in the AP Music Theory Classroom

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Authored by

  • Ken Stephenson
    University of Oklahoma
    Norman, Oklahoma

Why should we include popular music in our theory class? What kind of popular music should we use? And how can we make effective use of it?

Why Include Popular Music?

Put simply, popular music is worth studying. The cadences, harmonic successions, and voice-leading patterns of rock, for instance, are not the same as those of Mozart, and these distinct patterns repay exploration. But since studying everything worth studying would take an eternity, let’s be pragmatic: Popular music presents some practical advantages that other styles do not.

Many teachers feel that the use of popular music will increase a class’s enthusiasm and provide inroads to certain topics because of the students’ familiarity with the music. This has been generally true in my experience, though I’ve learned the hard way how quickly popular music becomes unfamiliar or dated. Your plan can backfire if you’ve lost track of the years and think that teenagers still know The Police. Some theory teachers offer songs from West Side Story as if they are familiar to all the students.

Popular music can help make theory class more relevant. Remember, popular music is driven by sales, and the markets have taught us that what was cool last year is definitely not cool now. To be current, you have to be very, very current. No teenager is ever going to see an adult who tries to be cool as cool. Students’ first reaction when I play something currently on the charts is usually one of disbelief: “You actually like this?” But students are fascinated with changing fashion, and are naturally a little cynical about it; ironically, I’ve found that the attempt to build bridges works better the more I make fun of being cool.

Be willing to be uncool! Acknowledge that you are not completely up to the minute in terms of musical styles or how students are listening to music.

You can laugh at yourself while showing your enthusiasm for the music. Tell the students about the time you first heard the song, praise the artist, point out your favorite moment. This approach opens the door to popular music from last year or even 70 years ago.

Most of the musical examples on the exam are taken from standard repertoire, although some examples of contemporary, jazz, vernacular music, or music beyond the Western tradition are included for testing basic concepts.

What Kind of Popular Music Works Well?

With rock music, as I’ve said already, if your goal is to be familiar, stay with the last five years.

Many styles other than rock can prove valuable, as well. If you want the class to sing, try folk songs (and folk-like songs) such as “Home on the Range.” Some traditional patriotic songs are still familiar, too: “Yankee Doodle,” “America the Beautiful,” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” TV themes can work well. If you’re brave, ask them what current theme songs they know, and then analyze keys or phrase structure.

All of these kinds of pieces can be good when you want the class to respond to an aural stimulus: play or sing these songs and have the class discern the meter, do melodic dictation, or label phrases. Score analysis of chord structures or of extended forms, however, generally requires a different repertoire, since notated representations of rock songs and folk songs don’t have the authority that a composer’s score has. If you have an arrangement of a pop song from 1955 or later that demonstrates the point you’re making and you’re confident that it represents the piece accurately, use it. But piano/vocal scores of popular songs from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s usually represent composers’ actual work and can be a lot of fun for classes if you are able to present them with honest enthusiasm. Here, Hal Leonard’s Decade Series (which goes up to the 1990s) provides a good (and inexpensive) source of material.

And don’t forget to concentrate on songs from any musical your school does.

How Can Popular Music Be Used?

Popular music can be used in several ways in a theory curriculum. The following are several activities I’ve had success with.

Scales. Early medieval theorists discovered scales by finding pitches on a stringed instrument. I copy this experiment in the first freshman lecture every year by wrapping a piece of paper around the neck of a cello and marking the pitches as I sing some familiar songs: “Shenandoah” (without the low pickup at the beginning), Handel’s “Joy to the World,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” and “Over the River and Through the Woods.” These melodies fit the major scale very nicely, so the result is eight marks running up the paper like a ladder (Latin scala) with smaller spaces between the third and fourth steps and between the seventh and eighth steps. Now the students know why we use the words “scale” and “step,” and they can see that some notes in the scale are closer together than others. They’ve also been given a wonderful demonstration of the purpose of theory: They’ve seen how we can come up with terms and concepts to help say something useful about music we know.

Meter. Using familiar songs, we clap beats, find measures, and determine how many even parts each beat divides into. “Yankee Doodle” works well for simple duple meter, as does “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” for triple simple. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” is perfect for a demonstration of compound meter.

Harmonic dictation. Chord patterns in rock music don’t follow the rules of progression that we teach in theory class: the V-iii-V-ii-IV-I pattern that ends each verse of Journey’s “Faithfully,” for instance, is nothing like a common-practice chord progression. But since most chords in rock are in root position, diatonic songs like this can offer a good alternative kind of practice in harmonic dictation, as long as students are aware of the differences in expected order. For a very basic introduction, have the class try detecting the slight differences in some blues-based songs such as “Rock Around The Clock,” “Peggy Sue,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Hound Dog.” For simple progressions that usually fit the common-practice standards they’re learning in theory class, try some classic country music from the ’60s and ’70s. Songs of Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard mostly use I, IV, and V, sometimes ii and vi, and maybe a V/V, and they usually form standard progressions.

Form. Of all the topics in basic theory classes, the topic of forms presents the most potential for confusion. I have found analysis of periods and double periods in familiar songs the most effective entry to the subject. As I sing the songs, students stop me at the ends of phrases, and we decide whether the cadence is open or closed and whether the phrase should be labeled a, a’, or b. Good examples of parallel periods include the verses to “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)” and “Oh, Susanna.” Double periods are found in “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” and “Oklahoma!,” “Danny Boy,” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” offer binary forms, while both “Old Folks at Home” and “Oh, Susanna” taken in their entirety form rounded-binary patterns.

Counterpoint. To introduce counterpoint, I play and show vocal transcriptions of two versions of a song called “Devoted To You”: one by the Everly Brothers and one by Carly Simon and James Taylor. When I ask the students to compare the two, they always tell me the second one is more interesting because the rhythms in the two parts are often different and because the two singers often move in different directions at the same time. (By comparison, Phil and Don Everly sing almost nothing but parallel sixths in rhythmic unison.) I call these two features “independence of rhythm” and “independence of contour” and explain to students that they have just identified for themselves the essence of counterpoint.

Melodic dictation. Folk songs and popular melodies can work well as dictation melodies, although rhythms and embellishments sometimes need to be simplified. But familiar tunes offer some important alternatives to the normal dictation drill of listening to a melody several times and trying to learn it while notating it. Singing “Jingle Bells” in solfège, for instance, provides wonderful practice in pitch identification, while singing it in rhythmic syllables reinforces basic rhythms. The same kind of melody can also be written down without the need for repeated playings, freeing the teacher to spend the whole time walking around the class helping. For the few students who don’t know the songs, simply have the class sing them on a neutral syllable.


Try one or two of these ideas as a start. Once you get your creative juices flowing, you’ll be thinking of many ways to incorporate popular pieces into your AP Music Theory curriculum.