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AP Music Theory 12

AP Music Theory Course Overview

Big Ideas

Specific frequencies of sound, known as pitches, are basic units of music. Pitches that are deliberately sequenced through time create melodies, and groups of pitches presented successively or simultaneously form chords. Within an established musical style, chords relate to one another in the context of harmony. Individual voices can also be imbued with a cohesive sense of motion and interaction through musical voice leading, which is rooted in historical traditions.

Music exists in the dimension of time, where long and short sounds and silences can be combined in myriad ways. This temporal aspect, called rhythm, is often governed by a layered structure of interrelated pulses known as meter. Rhythms are typically grouped into distinctive rhythmic patterns, which help define the specific identity of a musical passage. Musicians use established rhythmic devices to expand expressive possibilities, often achieving their effect by challenging the regularity of the meter or transforming rhythmic patterns.

Music exhibits a structural aspect known as form, in which a musical composition is organized in a hierarchy of constituent parts. The specific ways these parts are related, contrasted, and/or developed produce the unique profile of an individual composition. Specific formal types and functions may be identified when parts of a composition follow established melodic-harmonic patterns or fulfill established roles within the overall hierarchical structure.

Texture, timbre, and expression contribute to the overall design and character of a piece of music or musical performance. The texture of a musical passage arises from the way its layers are produced and distributed, and how they interact to form the totality of sound. Timbre refers to the distinct sounds of specific instruments and voices, arising from the physical manner in which those sounds are produced. Expressive elements are related to musical interpretation and include dynamics, articulation, and tempo.



The AP Music Theory course corresponds to one-to-two semesters of typical, introductory college music theory coursework that covers topics such as musicianship, theory, and musical materials and procedures. Musicianship skills, including dictation and listening skills, sight singing, and harmony, are an important part of the course. Through the course, students develop the ability to recognize, understand, and describe basic materials and processes of tonal music that are heard or presented in a score. Development of aural (listening) skills is a primary objective. Performance is also part of the curriculum through the practice of sight-singing. Students learn basic concepts and terminology by listening to and performing a wide variety of music. Notational skills, speed, and fluency with basic materials are emphasized.

Where does this course fit?

There are no prerequisite courses for AP Music Theory. Prospective students should be able to read and write musical notation and have basic performance skills with voice or an instrument.

Course Materials

  • The school ensures that each student has access to his or her own copy of a recently published college-level music theory textbook.
  • The school provides access to audio equipment and materials that facilitate listening practice for the students throughout the course.
  • The school ensures that each AP Music Theory classroom includes a piano or electronic keyboard and sound reproduction equipment.

Brief Outline



 Unit 1: Music Fundamentals I: Pitch, Major Scales and Key Signatures, Rhythm, Meter, and Expressive Elements 

Students will develop a foundational understanding of pitch and rhythm and introduce them to the basics of major scales and keys, meter, tempo, and dynamics. Students build skills working with materials, processes, and relationships based on the tradition known as Western music. They establish the essential learning routines of listening to and notating music, reading and analyzing scores, singing from scores, and composing.

 Unit 2: Music Fundamentals II: Minor Scales and Key Signatures, Melody, Timbre, and Texture 

Students investigate major/minor key relationships and are introduced to additional scale types. They also focus on distances between pitches, known as intervals, underpinning later work with chords and harmonic progressions. Features of melody are identified, and students begin to recognize relationships of musical notation and performance, specifically with respect to transposition. They learn to identify instruments played in performed music and hear how musical lines interact to produce texture, while expanding their knowledge of rhythm and meter.

 Unit 3: Music Fundamentals III: Triads and Seventh Chords   

Students further strengthen their foundational understanding of pitch relationships in performed and notated music. Students will now begin to engage with harmony, recognizing and relating groupings of pitches presented simultaneously. They use notation to identify chord qualities and to indicate harmonic progressions, with a focus on seventh chords.

 Unit 4: Harmony and Voice Leading I: Chord Function, Cadence, and Phrase 

The procedures of 18th-century style voice leading will be introduced. Students are learning and applying conventions of soprano–bass line relationships through score analysis, error detection, writing exercises, and contextual listening. They learn conventions of chord spelling, spacing, and doubling, in order to form harmonies from the combination of independent sounding melodic lines. Through their study of cadences, students learn to identify and describe phrases as structural units of musical form.

 Unit 5: Harmony and Voice Leading II: Chord Progressions and Predominant Function 

Students will analyze, describe, and create more complex harmonic progressions in the form of four-part (SATB) voice leading. Attention is focused on learning additional chord types and functions, with an emphasis on cadential and 6 4 chords. The goal is for students to expand their knowledge of voice-leading conventions and procedures to build confidence with part writing, score analysis, and harmonic dictation. It is also important for students to continue practicing and receiving formative feedback to further develop and hone skills in sight-singing and error detection.

 Unit 6: Harmony and Voice Leading III: Embellishments, Motives, and Melodic Devices 

Students work on embellishing tones add variety and expressive possibility to harmonic progressions. Students learn to identify motives and understand how variations are created through motivic transformation. They also learn to identify melodic and harmonic sequences.

 Unit 7: Harmony and Voice Leading IV: Secondary Function 

Students deepen their understanding of keys, scale degrees, and chords as they focus on the process of tonicization. They analyze the effects of secondary dominant chords and secondary leading-tone chords and learn how these particular harmonic events are treated in the context of part writing. Students practice describing key relationships in musical compositions in which a non-tonic chord is momentarily emphasized using chords borrowed from its tonic key.

Unit 8: Modes and Form

This unit covers the use of conventions that affect the character of music, ranging from identifying the different tonal qualities of modes, to describing phrase relationships within a score or performance, to recognizing common sections of a musical composition. By working with many diverse musical examples throughout the course, students can apply understanding of musical components, relationships, and conventions to confidently predict patterns and effects of myriad combinations within a performance or score. This fluency enables them to respond to complex musical problems and encourages continued discovery of the communicative and expressive possibilities of musical forms.

Assessment Percentage Breakdown

Assessment Type

Percentage of the Course





Midterm exam


Final exam


You have up to a year to complete your course.

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