Is AP Music Theory Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

Thinking about taking an AP Music Theory course? Find out how hard the exam is and what skills you'll need to succeed in AP Music Theory.

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by Nancy Parode

Published on April 22, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is AP Music Theory Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide
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In 2021, over 16,000 students took the AP Music Theory exam. AP Music Theory appeals to far fewer students than many other AP courses. This may be because learners need to master a unique skill set to do well on the AP Music Theory exam.

May 2021 test scores show that 61.2% of test-takers earned a 3 or above on the AP Music Theory exam. AP Music Theory is definitely not one of the 10 hardest AP classes. However, some students may find acquiring music analysis skills difficult.

What Does AP Music Theory Cover?

AP Music Theory covers the fundamentals of music theory and teaches students how to analyze musical pitch, rhythm, form, and design. Learners practice reading, notating, listening to, and performing music.

AP Music Theory students listen to a wide variety of musical selections and learn to notate the music they hear. They also practice sight-singing notated music and completing short pieces of music. AP Music Theory exposes students to a wide variety of musical concepts, including meter, rhythm, harmony, chords, scales, and expressive elements.

The 2022 AP Music Theory exam covers the following topics:

What Determines the Difficulty of AP Music Theory? 3 Key Factors

AP Music Theory includes more advanced material and moves at a faster pace than a typical music theory class. When deciding whether to take an AP class, take a look at the AP Music Theory exam pass rate and course material and spend some time assessing your own subject skills.

The Pass Rate

In May 2021, 19.9% of AP Music Theory exam takers earned a perfect score, while 61.2% earned a passing score of 3 or higher. Fifteen AP exams had a lower pass rate than AP Music Theory in 2021.

In comparison, 16.8% of students across all AP exams earned a perfect score, while 64.2% passed their exams with a score of 3 or higher.

The College Board breaks down AP Music Theory exam scores into aural and nonaural subscores. In 2021, the pass rate for the aural questions was 61.5% and the pass rate for the nonaural questions was 61.0%. This indicates that both sections are nearly equal in difficulty.

AP Music Theory Exam Pass Rates
AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP Music Theory 61.2% 19.9%
Aural Subscore 61.5% 20.1%
Nonaural Subscore 61.0% 19.5%
All Other AP Classes 64.2% 16.8%

Source: College Board

When it comes to course difficulty, exam pass rates do not tell the whole story, particularly for AP Music Theory. Every school is different, and each teacher teaches the aural and nonaural skills necessary to pass the AP Music Theory exam in a unique way.

The Course Material

Examining course material can help you determine how difficult your school's AP Music Theory course really is. AP Music Theory topics include understanding pitch, rhythm, form, and musical design. Students also learn how to notate music, sight-sing, analyze music, and complete short music compositions based on cues.

Learners who lack prior experience in reading music and basic music performance skills could find the pace of AP Music Theory daunting.

Students should expect to complete many music notation, listening, and sight-singing assignments to prepare for the AP Music Theory exam.

Your Subject Skills

Students who have weak subject skills tend to find AP courses challenging. This could be especially true for students in the AP Music Theory course. Learners build on pre-existing knowledge and experience to develop their music theory knowledge and skills.

According to the College Board, the course is designed for students who already know how to read and write musical notation and have vocal or musical instrument performance experience.

When Should You Take AP Music Theory?

Depending on your school, you might be able to take AP Music Theory as early as 10th grade. Some schools require students to take a year of music theory or pass a pretest before enrolling in AP Music Theory.

You may wish to take a music performance class and a music theory course before tackling an AP Music Theory course. AP Music Theory students need to understand scales, key signatures, modes, and other aspects of music fundamentals. They also need to feel comfortable singing from written notation.

If you wish to take more than one AP course per year, talk with your teachers to get ideas for managing your time and creating an exam practice plan.

AP Music Theory Exam: What You Need to Know

In May 2021, 16,271 students took the AP Music Theory exam. Just over 61% of them earned a passing score. Let's look at the exam's structure and scoring.

AP Music Theory
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 3,235 19.9%
4 2,947 18.1%
3 3,781 23.2%
2 3,773 23.2%
1 2,535 15.6%

Source: College Board

How Is the AP Music Theory Exam Structured?

Students have two hours and 40 minutes to complete the AP Music Theory exam. Section I has two parts, A (Aural) and B (Nonaural).

Part A consists of 41-43 multiple-choice questions based on selections of performed music. Part B consists of 32-34 multiple-choice questions based on a written score. Test-takers have about 45 minutes to complete Part A and 35 minutes to finish Part B.

Section II also has two parts. Part A includes seven free-response questions. There are two melodic dictation questions, two harmonic dictation questions, and one question each on part-writing from figured bass, part-writing from Roman numerals, and harmonizing a melody.

Part B includes two sight-singing questions. Test-takers have 70 minutes to complete Part A and 10 minutes to finish Part B.

How Is the AP Music Theory Exam Scored?

Test-takers receive a final score on a scale of 1 through 5, with 5 being the highest possible score. Section I, the multiple-choice questions, counts for 45% of your total score. Section II counts for 55% of the total score.

Students who have not sufficiently practiced listening, sight-singing, or melodic conversion (aural to written and vice-versa) may have difficulty with those exam sections. Students whose notation is unclear may lose points on free-response questions.

How the AP Music Theory Exam is Scored
Section 1 45%
Part A: Aural Multiple-choice Questions 24.6%-25.8%
Part B: Nonaural Multiple-choice Questions 19.2%-20.4%
Section 2 55%
Part A: Free-response Questions 45%
Part B: Sight-singing Questions 10%

Source: College Board

AP Music Theory: What Score Do I Need for College Credit?

Each college determines whether to award course credit for AP exam scores and how much credit to give. The best way to find out how many credits you will receive is to look at college websites.

Although the College Board counts a score of 3 as a passing score, not all colleges will give course credits for a score of 3 or 4. Some colleges do not grant any credit for the AP Music Theory exam.

To better your chances of scoring a 5 on the AP Music Theory exam, study regularly throughout each week and practice listening and notating scales and melodies daily. Remember to practice sight-singing, too.

Should I Take AP Music Theory?

Students who love music and have a background in music theory and performance should consider taking AP Music Theory. If you don't have music experience, you can still succeed in AP Music Theory, but you will have to put in a lot of time and hard work to do so.

Students who have amusia (commonly known as being "tone deaf") will have difficulty passing the AP Music Theory course and exam because they cannot hear pitch differences well.

As you consider which AP courses to take, an excellent way to learn more about your school's AP Music Theory class is to talk with teachers and past students. Ask them what the course workload is like and which study techniques they recommend.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP Music Theory

true Is AP Music Theory worth it?

Taking an AP class, while challenging, can be worthwhile for many students. AP Music Theory can enhance your knowledge of music theory, show college admissions departments that you are able to do college-level work, and potentially give you the opportunity to earn college credit in high school. Taking an AP Music Theory course can be fun, too, especially if you love music.

true Is AP Music Theory a fine art?

Colleges use a variety of criteria to decide whether to grant credit for AP exam scores. Some colleges grant fine arts or music credit for achieving a specific score on the AP Music Theory exam. Others grant humanities credit instead of music credit. A third group of colleges grants elective credit, either in fine arts electives or general electives. Contact your prospective colleges to find out more.

true Are there any prerequisites for AP Music Theory?

Officially, no. However, the course assumes familiarity with the basics of music theory, notation, and performance. Students can acquire this knowledge in a variety of ways. To be sure, check with your school's music department. Some schools create their own prerequisites for the AP Music Theory course.

Bolster your transcript with AP English literature and composition. Explore course objectives, test formats, and score distributions. Find out if AP Art History is hard before you sign up for the class or AP Art History exam. Learn how to find the "easiest" AP classes, which have more flexible study requirements, and earn college credit through classes with high exam pass rates.

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