Starting an AP Music Theory Course at Your School

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Authored by

  • David Lockart
    North Hunterdon Voorhees School District
    Annandale, New Jersey

As music educators, we care about the musical quality of our ensembles as well as the musicianship of the students within them. Singers and players who take AP® Music Theory benefit from improved musical skills. They read better and possess a much greater understanding of the musical score that directly benefits our ensembles.

In AP Music Theory, students will also develop musical leadership and greater aesthetic appreciation. Students who score well on the AP Exam may earn advanced standing in college music programs and/or college credits. They will enter college at or above the musical level of many of their peers. College music programs value the AP Music Theory course because it sends them students with a higher level of musical competence and confidence.

What to consider before offering AP Music Theory

First, your school should have a fairly healthy music program that provides a viable pool of students for the AP Music Theory course. Second, you should have a music teacher who appreciates the value that AP Music Theory provides and has time to devote to prepping for this college-level class. Finally, your school administration must support the Advanced Placement Program®.

Staffing and scheduling are primary considerations. Some schools have existing music theory programs that can be transformed into the AP Music Theory course. If you do not already have a music theory course, you will need administrative support to add this course. Students will need enough room in their schedules during one school year (preferably their junior or senior year) to allow them to take a second music class, as most will not want to give up their ensemble participation.

Preparing to teach AP Music Theory

Some potential teachers of this course lack confidence in their own theory or aural skills. Though a learning curve exists for all teachers venturing into new courses, the skills required for teaching AP Music Theory are well within the capabilities of any professional musician. Most experienced AP teachers relish the academic rigor the course demands of both teacher and student.

To learn what the course entails, study the Course Description. Attend an AP Summer Institute or AP conference. Study the many materials on AP Central, including exam samples, and the AP Music Theory Teacher’s Guide, available for a nominal cost from the College Board.

You will need to have your course audited through the AP Course Audit Process, which ensures it is college-level. The AP Course Audit website provides sample syllabi and recommended textbooks and other materials that will help you build a successful course.

Implementing the course

Once you decide to offer the course, the next step is to manage the administrative requirements for establishing a new course. Some good steps to take:

  • Provide a course description and a sample syllabus to the administrator responsible for curriculum.
  • Meet with the administration to explain the program and discuss the implementation schedule. Your administration will probably ask for your help in providing materials for board consideration and approval.
  • Determine the costs for implementing the course, for textbooks, supplementary materials, and a collection of musical examples.

When approved, begin recruiting students. Consider taking any and all interested students. Speak to individual students about the virtues of the course. Encourage student musicians who may not be in your program to consider enrolling. These may include pianists, rock or pop musicians, or anyone with an interest in composition.

Determine what materials you want to use in your course. There are many texts and supplementary materials to choose from. The AP Teacher Community provides suggestions and ideas. The AP Course Audit site provides sample syllabi.

It may take a year or two to fully grasp the course material and learn to present it in a logical and clear manner. In the first couple of classes, you may find your students teaching you as much as you are teaching them. In the beginning, do not worry about your students’ results on the AP Exam. Your goal is to establish the course and to make it viable. Once established, you will soon experience the joy of teaching AP Music Theory and see the tremendous benefit it will have for your students, your ensembles, and your curriculum.