AP Music Theory Exam: Harmonic Dictation

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Music is made of melody and harmony. But how is harmony constructed? Can you identify the notes of chords in musical phrases? In this lesson, we explore strategics related to harmonic dictation.

What Is Harmonic Dictation?

When you listen to music, can you hear layers of melody and accompaniment? Can you figure out the notes in those layers and write them down? Knowing this process will help you understand how music is constructed. It's called harmonic dictation.

Harmonic dictation is the process of identifying and writing down chords that you hear in music. To do harmonic dictation, you listen to a series of chords in a musical passage and write them on a staff. If you're a singer, instrumentalist, or other type of music student getting ready to take the AP Music Theory exam, you'll need to understand harmonic dictation. Several questions on the test relate to it.

Harmonic dictation is the process of writing down chords
Chord on a musical staff

Important Terms in Harmonic Dictation

Before we get to strategies, let's review ideas and terms that you should understand.

Harmonic dictation focuses on harmony, which is based on chords. In written music, chords are built vertically on the staff. A basic chord has a root or a bottom note. The other two notes are the 3rd and the 5th, named for their position on the staff relative to the first note. An inversion happens when you play a note an octave higher from its normal position. A first inversion has the root of a chord up the octave, and a second inversion has the 3rd note up the octave.

Chords are named for their root:

  • A tonic chord is built on the first note of the scale
  • A subdominant chord is based on the 4th note of the scale
  • A dominant chord is based on the 5th note of the scale

These three chords are among the most common in music. You'll also see them called the one, four, and five chords, or the I, IV, and V. Practice and be able to identify these chords.

Harmonic progression is the order in which chords are played and how they move. Often, chords in harmony move from tonic to subdominant, to dominant, and then back to tonic. When doing harmonic dictation, you're listen for chords in a harmonic progression.

Harmonic progression is how chords move in music
Harmonic progression

If you don't understand these terms, you should thoroughly review them before taking the AP exam.

Harmonic Dictation Strategies

With any musical dictation, practice strengthening your skills at active rather than passive listening. Concentrate with no distractions. In harmonic dictation, you don't have to worry about things like rhythm. The focus is chords in the harmony. You will have to understand major and minor chords, because passages using each might be included on the test.

Identifying Chords

On the AP Music Theory exam, you'll have exercises that will ask you to write down chords as you listen to a musical passage. The key, a staff, and the first chord might be provided for you. Listen to locate the root of each chord. While some passages might have harmonic progression in four parts, you should focus on two of them. Can you hear the highest voice in the chord? That's the soprano line. Can you hear the lowest voice? That's the bass line. The other notes fall between them, so if you figure out the bass and soprano, you can use them to identify the rest of the chord.

Listen to how musical phrases begin and end. What's going on in the chords? How are they moving? Can you find the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords? Try to locate the tonic chord first, because that will give you a good starting point.

Numbering Chords

When doing harmonic dictation, you'll have to number chords under the staff. Two types of numbering systems are used. The Nashville Number System uses Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) with numbers corresponding to the position of a chord's tonic note in the scale. The Roman Numeral System uses Roman numerals, upper case (I, IV, V) for major chords and lower case (i, iv, v) for minor chords.

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