AP Music Theory Course Perspective

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Authored by

  • Peter Warsaw
    AP Music Theory
    Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts

Music is a language many of us speak, but few of us understand its syntax. In AP Music Theory we listen to great music, and we explore how it works. The premise is that music is a language—replete with meaning2—and we hope to discover why it has the effect on us that it does. What are the patterns—the vocabulary—that Bach uses, and how do they compare with and differ from those of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin? How do composers develop their ideas, and what compositional techniques are universally employed? How do composers create expectations, and then fulfill them or frustrate them? These are some of the questions that make AP Music Theory a potentially rewarding course for students and teachers.

Students flock to this course out of a desire to understand better how music works, in the hope of improving their (sight) reading and memory skills, and out of an interest in spending more time with a subject that they love. Because of their genuine interest in music, students often find themselves ready for developing their analytical skills in this subject before they are ready in others. It is a great thrill to be the teacher who opens students’ minds to worlds that lie beneath the surface of a subject.

The challenge for the teacher is that students frequently begin by resenting analysis. They have previously approached music intuitively, and they consider it a living thing. How can we dissect it? Why should we articulate and make conscious the myriad details they already assume? Why do we want to turn this magical world of music into another arid field for academic cultivation? If this initial resistance can be overcome, students may well look back on this course as one of their favorites.

Practical Considerations

I teach two sections of AP Music Theory, each consisting of 16 to 18 students. Sixty percent of those students are in the 12th grade, 30% in the 10th grade, and 10% in the 11th. (Our curriculum makes it difficult for 11th graders to fit this course into their schedules.) We meet four days a week—once for a double period—for 45 minutes each period.

We see a large difference in academic maturity between the 12th and 10th graders. Twelfth graders are generally hungry for the depth work. Tenth graders infuse the course with energy as they rapidly gain confidence, skill, and momentum throughout the year.

Students enter the course with a wide variety of skills and experience. One of the great challenges is pacing material early in the course, since some are learning it for the first time and others are reviewing and consolidating. I promise my students ahead of time that by the end of October they will be on a level playing field, and this position is effected by the time we begin counterpoint and figured bass. In the meantime, I offer patience and faith to those for whom the material is new—they will eventually develop the necessary facility, but it takes more than a term—and I assign weekly, short, original compositions to keep the theory veterans engaged and developing.

Pacing the Course

Our journey starts with “This is a treble clef, and here are three ways to draw it” and eventually ends with secondary dominants and modulation. In between we cover scales, intervals, triads, cadences, nonharmonic tones, melodic organization, (first) species counterpoint, and seventh chords. By December we have begun dominant sevenths, and we return in January with a quick review of those before moving on to leading-tone and nondominant sevenths. April brings secondary dominants and modulation in preparation for May’s AP Exam.

In the first half of the year we emphasize coverage; in the last half we go into greater depth. This works well: Many of the concepts and techniques require time to settle into student consciousness before facility can develop. For example, from November until the AP Exam, students realize at least one figured bass each night; each is submitted, corrected, graded, and returned the following class. In this way, students receive constant feedback as they attempt to assimilate the principles of good voice-leading. While teachers find augmented melodic intervals, poor doubling, and unprepared/unresolved dissonance stylistically offensive, students require most of the year to sensitize their minds and ears to this level of aesthetic awareness.


Every teaching environment and curriculum is different. As you adapt your environment and background to teaching this course, you should know that there are experienced teachers and many resources available to you through the College Board. Count on them for guidance, inspiration, and support. In the meantime, good luck, and enjoy your journey.