Andrei Strizek

Music | Musings

Filtering by Tag: AP music theory

Music Theory "Multiplication Tables"

One thing I disliked about how I was taught music theory during piano lessons and in undergrad was that a lot of it seemed to be busy work. Unfortunately, I came to realize that some of it does need to be "busy work." Some topics need practice to learn and perfect. And to be an adept musician, you should be able to easily identify meter signatures, key signatures, and other basics of our standard notation.

It's with this mindset that I used PowerPoint key and meter signature quizzes in my music theory classes. In a way, these are similar to the timed multiplication tables that we did in grade school.

One PowerPoint was set up to include all 15 different key signatures (it works for major and minor keys); one had more key signatures, and an audible tonic chord, to differentiate between major and minor keys. Another was set up to include several different meter signatures.

The slides can be randomized, so they aren't in the same sequence each time you give a quiz. They can also be set on a timer, so students have 5, 10, etc., seconds to name the key or meter. When giving the meter quiz, I would often have the students write out if it was simple or compound meter, as well as if it were duple, triple or quadruple meter. (I usually allowed them time after the PowerPoint was finished to do this, especially if it were on a faster timing cycle.)

This doesn't mesh very well with many current theories of learning and teaching. Some people might say that it's rote learning, or overbearing, or that it doesn't take into account the student enough.

The truth is, though, that this works. And it's a necessity to identify these elements quickly and easily. As I'm sure you know, if you have to spend a minute figuring out the key and meter signatures to a piece, that's a minute of valuable time lost practicing, studying, etc.

Feel free to use these PowerPoints (but please contact me if you use them - I'd love to hear how they work out in your classes!). Please share other ideas about using PowerPoint in your music theory class, or other ways to increase student knowledge and awareness of these ideas!

The Sight-Singing Matrix

via www.wired.comI taught an AP Music Theory class for three years. The class was a mix of band, orchestra and choir students (with the occasional guitarist thrown in for good measure). Some were planning on majoring in music in college; some were taking it to learn more about music; some, to be frank, took it because I cajoled them into it.

Because the class had such a varied skill level regarding singing, I started at square one. Most of the choral students were good singers and had experience sight-singing, but not all of them did. Most of the band and orchestra students had minimal experience.

One of the things I used at the beginning of the year - and came back to occasionally as the year progressed - was a sight-singing matrix. This is used in the AP Vertical Teams Guide for Music Theory (a great book for your district's music department, even if you don't teach music theory), and we also used it during a summer workshop I took at Columbia College.

At first, they look confusing. There's some solfege written on a grid, some are bold, some are highlighted ... how do you make sense of it?

I used this one frequently as a class warm-up before doing other sight-singing exercises.

Look at it vertically and horizontally - just like you would do when reading a chorale in standard notation.


  • The numbers here indicate the original pitches in the chorale this is based on (1 being the soprano voice, 2 being the alto, etc.).
  • The shaded-in and bolded squares indicate the original line of the chorale.


  • I filled in the chords, so each chord has all of the 1s, 3s and 5s that are available.

When you're using this with a class, you have a few straight-forward options:

  • Students can sing one line in unison, and cycle through all four lines.
  • Students can divide up and sing in 4-part harmony, singing the bolded lines

But my favorite was giving the students the option to choose what they want to sing. A student could start on the pitch next to 3, but instead of following the bolded (original) line, she could sing "Sol - Mi - Fa - Ti - Mi."

As trained musicians, we know that this is an awkward line - strange leap at the end, atypical voice-leading. The student might not know this, but she'll learn that some things don't make sense, and have some experiences to relate to when you discuss melodic lines and voice-leading.

So not only are students learning solfege and learning to sight-sing without worrying about notation and rhythm, they are also learning about voice-leading and what can construct a good melody without, initially at least, worrying about the rules common-practice theory has.

Using a matrix can also help with introductory dictation exercises. I liked to start without rhythms, and I also liked to use worksheets that looked like this:

Students circle the pitches they hear. It might seem elementary, but it works remarkably well in getting students to translate what they hear into what they see.

As we got used to using a matrix, I would expand them, such as this one (from the AP Music Theory book references above) and this one. I would take chorales used in band or from other sight-singing books and rewrite them in Excel and put them on the overhead projector.

Let me know if you have any questions about sight-singing matrices! Feel free to use these examples I posted, and share some others that you come up with. I didn't come up with this idea, but I found it very useful and worthwhile in music theory classes.

Remember: a goal of music theory is to get our brains to see what we hear and hear what we see. The above matrices are but one excellent tool to help students achieve that goal.

Powered by Squarespace. Background image by Andrei Strizek.