Music Theory Placement Exam


A student writing musical notation on a whiteboard

Preparing for Success in Music Theory

Welcome to the music theory website at Iowa State University. We want you to thrive in music at ISU in all aspects—performance, academics and service. To succeed in at least the first two of these, you need to be fluent in the fundamentals of music prior to entering the degree program. Because of this, the theory area at ISU requires all incoming music majors and minors to take the Fundamentals Placement Exam and/or the Advanced Placement Exam to assess your skill level.

The following fundamental skills are necessary for entry into core theory classes:


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...)
  • 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.
  • Correctly identify the time signature that best corresponds to a given measure of notated rhythm.


The ability to notate and identify:

  • Pitches in bass, treble, alto and tenor clefs.
  • Key signatures in bass, treble, alto and tenor clefs.
  • Major scales and the three forms of minor scales starting on any given pitch.
  • Intervals and their inversions up to the size of a perfect 12th.
  • All root position triad qualities (major, minor, diminished, and augmented)

Placement Exams

Date, Times, and Location

All students wishing to take core theory courses (MUS224) must take the Music Fundamentals placement exam and receive a score of 90% or better. The music theory area provides you with two opportunities to pass this exam:

  1. For students coming to Freshman orientation, the placement test is already scheduled into day two.
    • Music minors and non-majors should contact Mr. Judge for scheduling of the exam in June.

  2. Sunday August 21, 2022 from 11:30 am to 1pm in Simon Estes Music Hall, Room 125.

Transfer students and students with AP credit will not be required to take the Fundamentals Placement Test, but must take the Advanced Placement Test. This exam is offered only once:

Sunday, August 21, 2022 from 11:30am-1pm in Simon Estes Music Hall, Room 125.

Be sure to sign up for your ensemble auditions, (orchestra, jazz, choir) at times that do not conflict with the theory placement tests as they are only given once.

Fundamentals Placement Exam

Any student wishing to take MUS224/225 in the fall semester must first take the Fundamentals Placement Exam. Your placement into our core theory courses is dependent upon the successful completion of this exam. The exam will last approximately one hour or less. Students who do not pass this exam will be placed in MUS101 and will be behind by one year in the core theory courses. 

Click on the links below to access example exams with problems similar to those found on the Fundamentals Placement Exam. 


Click on the links below to access the answers to the sample Fundamentals 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.

Learning Resources


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.)

Internet Resources

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 Placement 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 check out the learning resources given above. 

What if I don't pass the Fundamentals Placement Exam? 
You will have to take MUS101 in the fall and be behind by one year in the core theory program.

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.

If you have any further questions, please contact Dr. Kris Bryden at or Dr. Julie Sturm at