Preparing for Success in Music Theory
Welcome to the music theory website at Iowa State University. The music theory courses at ISU provide an excellent foundation for you to become a better musician through becoming skilled at interpreting and understanding music as well as writing and arranging music.
We want you to thrive in music at ISU in all aspects—performance, academics and service. To succeed performance and academics, it is essential to be fluent in the fundamentals of music prior to entering the degree program. Several resources that can help you with this are listed below. To make sure you are ready to begin taking the required music theory classes for your music major, you will take a diagnostic theory exam the first day of class to determine if you have any knowledge gaps that need to be addressed. If you do have any gaps, you will be advised to take a short Theory Preparation course at the beginning of the semester alongside the regular theory course for majors. This course will help ensure that you have a successful start in music theory.
The following are fundamental skills needed for beginning the core theory classes for music majors. These include links to tutorials to learn about these skills and to practice building these skills.
The ability to:
- Notate and identify the basic duration symbols for notes and rests, from a 64th note up to a dotted whole note.
- Correctly use basic rhythmic symbols, such as dots, ties, and beams.
- Correctly relate different note values to each other. (For example, a half note is equivalent to two quarters...) See links above.
- Explain the difference between simple and compound time.
- Correctly state the number of beats in the measure and the value of the beat for any standard time signature.
- Time Signatures
- Correctly identify the time signature that best corresponds to a given measure of a series of note durations.
The ability to notate and identify:
- Pitches in bass, treble, alto and tenor clefs.
- Key signatures in bass, treble, alto and tenor clefs.
- Practice Reading notes in various clefs
- Major scales and the three forms of minor scales starting on any given pitch.
- Practice Identifying Scales Choose major and the natural, harmonic, and melodic forms of the minor scale.
- Intervals and their inversions up to the size of a perfect 12th.
- Practice Identifying Intervals
- All root position triad qualities (major, minor, diminished, and augmented)
- Practice Identifying Triads
Date, Times, and Location: In class on the first day of the semester
Sample Fundamental Diagnostic Exams
Advanced Placement Exam
The Advanced Placement exam is required of all transfer students and students with an AP theory score of 4 or 5. This placement exam evaluates knowledge and skill of four-part writing, voice-leading principles and techniques, Roman numeral analysis, figured bass realization, cadences and non-chord tones. Following the exam, a recommendation will be made about where to best begin in the theory sequence at ISU.
Click here to access an example exam with problems similar to those found on the Advanced Placement Exam.
Click here to access answers to the Advanced Placement example exam.
We would recommend either of the following books to help you prepare for the placement exam:
- Paul O. Harder and Greg A Steinke: Basic Materials of Music Theory: A Programmed Course, 11th edition, published by Pearson Prentice Hall. (Entire book.)
- John Clough, Joyce Conley, and Claire Boge: Scales, Intervals, Keys, Triads, Rhythm and Meter: A programmed course in Elementary Music Theory, 3rd edition, published by W.W. Norton. (Chapters 1-29 only.)
You might also try the following web sites, which are free:
Typically Asked Questions
Do I have to take the exam?
All incoming music major and minors must take the Fundamentals Diagnostic exam. All transfer students and students with high school AP credit in Music Theory must take our Advanced Placement exam.
What if I don't know any music theory yet?
You have plenty of time to get prepared. Ask for help from a music teacher, whether it be your band director, orchestra director, choir director, or a private teacher. Be sure to also check out the learning resources given above.
What if I already know basic music theory?
Great! You are well prepared to succeed as a musician; however, you must still take the Fundamentals Exam.
Does Iowa State University grant credit for the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in music theory?
Iowa State University grants credit for a score of 4 or 5 for the high school AP test and students are typically placed in our second semester theory course, MUS234. However, these students will still be required to take our written Advanced Placement exam and to demonstrate their sight singing skills.