Theatre production of Spring Awakening
Cantamus, 2013 ACDA National Conference, Dallas, TX
Members of the ISU Symphony Orchestra
Iowa State Singers 2015 ACDA National Conference, Salt Lake City, UT
Jazz I in a recording session
Members of the Wind Ensemble at Stonehenge during their 2013 European tour
Simon Estes, The F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Artist-in-Residence

Music Theory Placement Exam

Preparing for Success in Music Theory

Students who plan to be music majors and enroll in core theory and aural skills courses (Music 224 and 225) will be best prepared for all of their classes and studio work if they are already fluent in basic music fundamentals. Many high school musicians already have completed mastery of these fundamentals, others may not have had opportunity yet to focus on these skills. The theory area at ISU requires all incoming music majors and minors who intend to take music theory courses to take a placement exam to determine the best point of entry into the theory course sequence.

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 sixty-fourth note up to a dotted whole note.
  • Understand the use of other basic rhythmic symbols, such as dots, ties, and beams.
  • Understand how note values relate to each other. (For example, a half note is equivalent to two quarters, four eighths, eight sixteenths, etc.)
  • For any standard time signature, state the number of beats in the measure and the value of the beat. (For example, a measure of 6/8 contains two beats and the value of the beat is a dotted quarter note.)
  • Given a measure of notated rhythm, identify which time signature best corresponds to it.
  • Understand the difference between simple and compound time.
  • Pitch

    The ability to:

  • Notate and identify pitches in both bass and treble clefs.
  • Notate and identify key signatures in multiple clefs (treble, alto, bass).
  • Notate and identify major scales and the three forms of minor scales starting on any given pitch.
  • Identify intervals up to the size of a perfect 12th.
  • Notate intervals (up to a perfect 12th) both above and below a given note.
  • Identify all triad qualities (major, minor, diminished, augmented).
  • Notate a root position triad of specified quality (major, minor, diminished, augmented), starting with any given note as the root.

  • Placement Exams

    Dates, Times, and Locations

    Sunday, August 20, 2017 from 11:30am-12:30pm OR 12:30pm-1:30pm for Fundamentals Placement in Music Hall, Room 125.

    You may sign up for the theory placement exam here. The link will automatically download.

    Be sure to sign up for your ensemble auditions, (orch, jazz, choir) at times that do not conflict with the theory placement test as it is only given once.

    Fundamentals Placement Exam

    We have designed this exam to meet the needs of music students entering as freshman. From our experience, students have the best chance for success when they are placed in the appropriate courses in the core theory curriculum. All music majors and music minors are required to take this exam. Your placement into our core theory courses is dependent upon the successful completion of the exam.

    Because the Fundamentals Placement Exam is a placement exam, its purpose is to assess your current knowledge and skill. Do not cram for this exam. Instead build up your knowledge and skills as needed over a longer period of time so that they are solid. When taking the Fundamentals Placement Exam, skip over any questions you do not know and move on to the next one. The more we can determine about what you know and what you do not know, the more accurate your placement will be. Our goal is for you to be successful in your music studies at ISU.

    Click here to access an example exam with problems similar to those found on the Fundamentals Placement Exam.

    Click here to access answers to the Fundamentals Placement example exam.

    Advanced Placement Exam

    The Advanced Placement exam is designed for 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.

    The Advanced Placement Exam is intended for placement only and can only be taken once. Following the exam a recommendation will be made about where to begin in the theory sequence.

    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?

    If you are an incoming Freshman music major or minor and do not have AP Theory credit with a score of 4 or better you must take the Fundamentals Placement Exam. If you are a transfer student, or have already taken courses in Music Theory, see the section on the Advanced Placement Exam above.

    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.

    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. However, if you prepare using the suggested resource materials, it is unlikely that you will not pass the Fundamentals Placement Exam. When you come to campus in June for Freshman orientation you will be given a one hour Diagnostic Exam. Example questions are available at this link. The answers to the example questions can be found here. Once the Diagnostic Exam has been evaluated you will receive notification of any perceived weaknesses in your preparation along with suggestions for improvement. You will still have 6 weeks to improve in those areas prior to taking the actual Fundamentals Placement Exam.

    What if I already know basic music theory?

    Great! You are well prepared to succeed as a musician. If you have extensive documented training (e.g. AP exam or transfer credits from another institution) you must take the Advanced Placement 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 above for the Advanced Placement (AP) music theory exam. Students who have achieved this are automatically placed in second year theory, MUS334. However, you will still be required to take the Advanced Placement Exam to be sure that you are placed in the correct course in our curriculum. Time and place are listed near the top of the page.

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