Enhanced AP Music Theory Instruction

Mike Lawson • Technology • April 8, 2011

It’s a lucky music student who can take an advance placement (AP) music theory class, especially while budget axes are swinging.  But it takes more than luck to score a 4 or 5 on the College Board sponsored AP exam.  And about 33 percent of the approximately 4,000 students who take the exam each year are reaching that goal.

Thousands of strong college-bound high school musicians know it’s worth the effort. A high score can earn college credit, savings, and is a great boost on a transcript. So I asked several teachers who incorporate technology in their AP Music Theory classes to tell us how they help their students get ready for the exam.

Each of these educators incorporates technology differently and their individual situations may provide insight on how you can enhance your own music instruction, even if you don’t teach an AP Music Theory class.

The teachers I spoke with are Matt Haynes of Danvers High School in Danvers, Mass., Scott Watson of Parkland High School in Allentown, Pa., Brian Timmons at Bergenfield High School in Bergenfield, N.J., Diana Gable at Clearview Regional High School in Mullica Hill, N.J., and Martha Reed at Tucson Magnet High School in Tucson, Ariz.

Creative Projects Synthesize Concepts

Scott Watson created his own AP Music Theory class curriculum with an emphasis on developing instructional materials posted on a Wiki. It is also project-oriented, letting students become highly proficient as the technology takes them beyond the content of an average AP Music Theory class. Take a look at this first movement of a four movement operetta, called “The Digestive System,” that one of his AP classes composed and performed in 2009:

Scott reflects, “I was very interested in something Tom Rudolph said: ‘Another way I have changed over the years is that I have become much more project oriented. I realize that when students work on individual or group projects, they tend to put more of themselves into it than if they are passively listening to me, even if I am giving my best lecture.’ Although there’s more to it than just doing projects, what Tom said is so true. It is a big part of my teaching these days.”

Scott has taught an AP Music Theory course at Parkland High School in Allentown since 2002. During his one-year assignment as assistant professor of Music Theory and Technology at Temple University, he taught several levels of written and aural music theory, as well as music technology and composition electives. It was the best preparation to start the AP Music Theory class at Parkland because he knew what music majors at a college of music were covering in their first year. He recalls, “I looked at the materials available from ETS (, and based my activities at Parkland almost solely on that experience. Each year all of my students that take the test have received the top scores (either a 4 or 5), entitling them to receive college credit if they choose, so I think I’m on the right track. Many students have told me they felt amply prepared for college theory, often passing out of their first semester of written and/or aural theory. One student, Dawn, recently emailed me from Syracuse University to say she was the highest-scoring freshman on the theory diagnostic test and could skip Written and Aural Theory 1.”

The central resource for Scott’s AP class is a wiki, online at: He explains, “I not only outline the entire year’s curriculum, but I post and link to all sorts of resources to support each unit: recordings, podcasts, PDF worksheets and rubrics, notation examples (images and Noteflight files), and online tutorials. For instance, as I begin a unit on non-harmonic tones, I’ll have students listen to a brief podcast on the topic, then during the unit they pull a notes packet off the wiki and complete it for me, in addition to material in their course text and/or workbook. At the end of the unit, in addition to a conventional test, I have them complete a creative project in which non-harmonic tones are central. These projects always rely on technology to free students to express themselves musically. Of course, all year long sites such as and are there for review and drilling. I’m really big on solfeging canons, many of which I’ve typeset in Noteflight and linked from the Wiki. I also have an 11-level dictation area at the Wiki with more difficult material (both recordings and PDF forms on which to notate dictations), beginning with short step-wise phrases, then longer, more complex melodies. I assign these as preparation for each dictation quiz I give. Also, when I give a dictation quiz if students are absent I just record the class with a handheld recorder (Yamaha Pocketrak) so they can take the quiz on their own with headphones when they return.

“One important shift I’ve made in recent years is to incorporate more creative projects that summarize and synthesize concepts we’re covering. For instance, to cap off the study of modes I have each student compose a modal etude. Works-in-progress get mirrored via projector to a large screen in front of the class so I can coach and other students can offer feedback & suggestions. Even though students use tools such as Noteflight or GarageBand to work on their projects, it must be performable and we take time to have an in-class recital of these projects, making a recording of each to post online. My favorite part of the course is actually after we’ve covered all the content for the year to prepare them for the AP Test. By that point there’s still about four weeks left in the school year and I turn the class over to a student-driven, collaborative Final Project. I am very flexible with what the students choose to create together, but I oversee their progress just the same to keep their focus on quality and maintain forward motion creatively. And, each year, I am very impressed and proud of what they come up with. Past Final Projects have included musical underscoring to narrated witty children’s poems, several themed instrumental suites (seasons, romance, dinner party), and even an operetta called ‘The Digestive System,’ with an original libretto told from the point of view of the stomach, the esophagus, and the upper and lower intestines. Noteflight has been a great tool since students can work alone at home, collaboratively via email, and in class. We can project their sketches on the screen for feedback and criticism. In the end, sometimes we need to export the Noteflight drafts as XML files, and then import them into Finale to finish the job. And, as I mentioned before, we mount an in-class performance when they’re done. It’s usually quite an event with other classes invited and refreshments available. Often we make a video recording and use it later for reflection, self-assessment, and simply to enjoy. You can see samples of these projects at the wiki.”

So Much Farther Ahead

Matt Haynes teaches both his high school AP class and an online course for the Virtual High School Global Consortium (VHS). While he had a few hybrid courses in college, he didn’t have any specific technology education. Matt recalls, “My first online course was VHS’s NetCourse Instructional Methodologies (NIM) course that prepared me to teach online. My online teaching has made my face-to-face teaching much better. Now that I’ve completed NIM, my school has offered professional development around how to incorporate wiki spaces, wiki builders, Google docs and Google groups into our face-to-face class. NIM was really the turning point for me.”He continues, “A lot of what we focus on is geared more towards critical listening because that is a huge component of the AP exam. This could be anything from orchestration to something as complex as, ‘tell me what cadence we just heard.’ I use a lot of audio, such as drop the needle discussions, where I give students pieces of music and ask them to talk very specifically about what’s going on – what time signature are we in, what is the rhythmic motive, what are the tools the composer is using, and so on. I try to be careful about using because of copyright infringement. This is a good lesson for students to let them know that just because it’s sitting out there on YouTube doesn’t make it ok to use for this purpose. When I do use YouTube it’s for critical listening and analysis and I will embed YouTube videos and screencasts into the Desire2Learn platform, which is what the course is delivered on.

“The website I have found to be most helpful is It saved me because I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage written assignments; particularly writing music easily and enabling students to turn it in. Noteflight has been perfect for this. I have master copies of all worksheets and make them available to the students. In Noteflight, they click on the master and open a copy, edit the copy and hand in their assignments. This has made things completely paper-free, no scanning required and enables lots of good sharing and peer-editing. I regularly use Practica Musica for music theory which has sample AP tests included in their software for ear training. I also use and recommend a free tool called, which students use for at-home practice since they can’t take MacGamut home. It has a lot of the same exercise as MacGamut and students are able to work at their own pace. MacGamut is good for ear training and students get the software in their course media kit and installed on their computer. MacGamut helps them achieve certain levels each week that correspond to their textbook assignments.

“Some of the tools that I use are the Virginia Tech Online Music Dictionary, which I have found to be the most comprehensive, class blogs, Wikis, and the Wimba voice board, an internal podcaster. VHS subscribes to Wimba. It’s a private, external tool that no other students see and is built into the course. It’s really helpful because it enables students to record their site reading practice. I have one teaching block dedicated every day to my VHS course. It was a lot of work to put the course together and is even more work to manage it, reflect on it, and keep kids hooked into the course. However, it’s worth it. I can’t say enough how much it has improved my planning and teaching overall. This course is a little more difficult because not only do I have oversight from VHS, but also from the College Board since this is an AP course. They have to approval all syllabi, textbooks and what’s expected on the AP exam in May drives everything we do.

“It would take me longer to do the things I need to do without technology. My class is so much further ahead in the schedule because I’m using technology. The biggest challenge in doing this, especially in the first year of this course, is screen time. Both myself and the kids are putting in a lot of screen time so my biggest challenge is pacing the kids and getting the work done without spending 24/7 in front of the computer. However, I do think it will even out as we go into the second year of the course.

“Keeping track of students isn’t a challenge thanks to VHS and Desire2Learn. D2L provides me with data around how long students are spending online in the course, pages they have gone to, discussions they have participated in, and more. I can quickly see how long they have or have not been online so you immediately know who is participating and who isn’t. In the online classroom, we have external tools and websites (see above) that provide a sort of digital lab. Ordinarily, I think it would be a challenge incorporating technology. However, I have the bonus of using tools provided by VHS, so cost isn’t much of an issue.”

Listening and Writing

Diana Gable has taught AP Theory at Clearview High School in Mullica Hill, New Jersey for five years. “I teach the class in a piano lab,” she says. “We have keyboards and computers. I find that I use technology much more in the Theory I class which is all about the fundamentals, melody writing, and a little harmonization. For AP, I use Finale for notation and Musition/Auralia for drills. We are using the Musicians Guide Series,which comes with scores and recordings. Check out – it’s a tremendous resource. I supplement with exercises from Benward, Koska-Pain, Aldwell-Schacter, and Barron’s practice test book. We do a lot of listening and writing, so pencil and staff paper are still a must. My school website has a lot of links and sites that we use for reference and practice. To see them, go to, click on “high school home” and then “faculty sites”, then my name in the left-hand column.

Differentiating Instruction

Brian Timmons teaches AP Music Theory at Bergenfield High School in Bergenfield, New Jersey. “The most beneficial workshop I attended on AP Music Theory was an AP Conference offered by The College Board,” he notes. “While we only briefly addressed the implementation of technology in our courses, the instructor, Richard Zweier, was very tech-savvy and utilized a laptop and projector with a multimedia presentation for our class. Technology is a wonderful way to differentiate instruction. Using ear training software, such as Auralia, allows students to move independently at their own pace while still benefiting from the coaching of the teacher.”

Brian continues, “For web-based instruction at school and home, is a great resource for home practice. My students will complete drills and then print out progress reports to verify their homework. When students need staff paper for old-fashioned pencil and paper writing, has many layouts for composing.” Practica Musica has sample AP tests included in their software for example as does ear training software, Auralia and their music theory software, Musition, which is also good for differentiated instruction. While software is often cheaper than paper textbooks, we still use a physical textbook and workbook, Elementary Harmony by Robert W. Ottman. Technology supplements our traditional materials very well.

“To help make technology function well in a music lab, we are using the Korg GEC3 controller and Apple Remote Desktop,” says Brian. “It allows me to visually and aurally monitor how students use any of the music theory websites or applications. In addition to providing feedback, it helps them to stay on task because they know they are being observed. We also have studio monitor speakers, an iMac with an M-Audio ProKeys Sono 61 keyboard at each of the 16 workstations, a Korg GEC3 Controller for audio, and a SmartBoard interactive whiteboard.”

Closing Comments

This is just a sampling of the hundreds of dedicated music teachers who are preparing thousands of students for this year’s Advanced Placement exam. Creatively incorporated technology plays a role. Additional resources and AP music-related websites can be found at And congratulations to Scott Watson, who has had close to 95 percent of his AP students who chose to take the exam achieve a 4 or 5 over the past six years!

Dr. John Kuzmich Jr. is a veteran music educator, jazz educator and music technologist with more than 41 years of public school teaching experience. He is a TI:ME-certified training instructor and has a Ph.D. in comprehensive musicianship. As a freelance author, Dr. Kuzmich has more than 400 articles and five textbooks published. As a clinician, Dr. Kuzmich frequently participates in workshops throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and South America.

For more information, visit

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