AP Music Theory Exam: Aural Skills

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  • 0:04 Aural Skills
  • 0:56 What the AP Exam Tests
  • 1:40 Aural Exam Strategies
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Aural skills are an important part of mastering music theory. In this lesson, we're going to talk about the aural skills section of the AP Music Theory exam and go over a few practice strategies.

Aural Skills

When you first heard about the AP Music Theory exam, you may have thought that someone said there was an oral section and thought, ''But I don't sing!'' If you're a vocalist, that's probably not a concern, but it can be troubling to instrumentalists.

Well, fear not because we're not talking about 'oral' skills. We're actually talking about 'aural' skills, which are different. While oral skills imply your vocal abilities, aural skills are your listening abilities. Ironically, if someone said 'aural' and you heard 'oral,' you may have some work to do.

The point of aural skills training is to let you listen to musical composition and be able to transcribe it without seeing the sheet music. Think of it as taking dictation in a foreign language: someone speaks, and you write down what is said. It's the same idea.

In order to do it, you need to be fluent in both speaking and hearing that language, and in many ways that's what an aural exam is: a test in musical fluency.

What the AP Exam Tests

The first step to mastering any exam is understanding what the test is looking for. All exams have a purpose and focus, and the AP exams are no exception. Basically, there are two main focuses of this exam.

First, the test is looking at your ability to effectively listen to musical selections. This means that you will be asked to listen to a piece and identify pitches, chords, and rhythmic patterns.

Second, the exam tests your ability to apply music theory to what you heard. Are these pitches in the same scale? What's the relationship between chords, and what sort of harmonic progressions are being demonstrated in this piece? Again, it's a test on your fluency of the musical language, so you'll be expected to understand not only the 'words' but also the 'grammar,' if you will.

Aural Exam Strategies

For the rest of this lesson, let's go over some basic training strategies to help prepare your ear. Many of these will involve musical performance, generally in terms of singing, but don't worry. The exam does not actually test your skills as a singer, simply your ability to match pitches and rhythms.

Scale Drills

Anybody with experience in music knows that scales are boring but also very useful. So, that's where we start training.

First, practice pitch-matching the notes of a scale in sequences by singing them in tune with an instrument like the piano. Make sure to cover a range of scales, including major and minor ones.

Once you've practiced matching pitches in sequential order, mix it up. Write the scales in randomized, non-sequential order and try to match the pitches. Mixing up the order helps you internalize the notes in that scale and associate them with the physical notation on the page. Later, when you hear a piece of music, you should be able to recognize enough notes to identify the key being used.

This same idea can be applied to learning chords. Practice pitch-matching the notes in a chord so that you can begin to identify that chord in a composition.

When you've practiced both scales and chords, combine these skills and practice listening to the relationship between chords. Was that chord progression a perfect fourth or a perfect fifth? Was it augmented or diminished? The first step to identifying these is listening to what they sound like.

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