AP Music Theory shapes curriculum to foster creative expression

November 20, 2019 — by Isaac Le and Andrew Li

The class is silent as AP Music Theory teacher Dr. John Felder discusses how to compose a classical waltz melody, an assignment that, when finished, students will create and perform in front of the class. Scores for this waltz composition were due on Oct. 10, and the 17 students in the class performed their pieces the week after.  

Assignments similar to this are the norm in AP Music Theory — Felder often challenges his students with composing and performing impromptu music in order to improve their composition skills and quick thinking. 

Additionally, Felder provides a book of sight-reading for his students to prepare for the sight-reading section on the AP exam in the second semester with regular evaluations. By the time the AP exam arrives, students often find themselves “over-prepared.”

AP Music Theory covers introductory college music theory coursework, primarily focusing on musicianship (music reading and writing, ear training, performance, composition, improvisation and transcription), theory and musical materials and procedures. According to the College Board, the goal of the AP Music Theory course is to “learn to recognize, understand and describe the basic materials and processes of music.” 

Felder has been a composer and an AP Music Theory teacher for around 30 years, and has taught at Saratoga High for five years. Before teaching here, Felder taught at Lynbrook for 18 years and at UC Santa Cruz for six years.  

His vast experience him to teach specifics about certain composers such as Joseph Haydn and Igor Stravinsky. Throughout Felder’s 30 years of teaching,  he said the AP Music Theory curriculum has remained fairly stable. 

“Perhaps the most notable change has been the College Board’s attempt to include different music of the world, thereby recognizing that music can be equally engaging, nuanced and well-formed regardless of its style,” Felder said.

As opposed to some other AP classes on campus such as AP U.S. History, where the curriculum is based mostly on preparing for the AP exam, AP Music Theory focuses more on allowing students to display their creativity in composing different genres of music. 

Students are exposed to a wide array of musical techniques, such as those popularized in the 20th Century, including diatonic modes and synthetic scales, extended chord structures and polyrhythms.

Felder believes that his approach to teaching is effective because it allows the students to develop their own style in music production. 

Junior Aelfred Moore said the course is still fast paced. 

“We learn a great deal of material every class, and if you don’t put in the time to do the homework, you can fall behind the rest of the class,” Moore said. “Even though I was behind a bit, Dr. Felder and my classmates helped me pull me back into the flow of things.” 

Moore thinks that because the class goes beyond the AP curriculum, he will be ready by the time the AP exam occurs in May. 

At the end of the school year, students receive an opportunity to show off their work at a recital with the accompaniment of the chamber ensemble. 

Felder said that in the past, students have written for instrumental ensembles of three to five members, most often in instrument families — string trios, percussion quartets, brass quintets and the like — but sometimes for mixed instruments. However, Felder said that composition for voices is not allowed because that is a specialized skill.

One major part of preparation for the recital is that students will have to find other Saratoga High students to play their music.

“The scary but exciting aspect it that students have to carefully prepare parts, then go around begging SHS instrumentalists to agree to rehearsals and the performance, then conduct their own rehearsals and the performance,” Felder said. “This is very daunting, but SHS musicians are always very generous and very kind. As is the case with all of us composers, my students are astonished to hear how much better their music sounds than they imagined it would — especially when performed by the gifted musicians at Saratoga High.”

Felder feels that activities in the class such as the recital bring students success not only as test-takers, but also as musicians overall. 

“While my most tangible objective is to prepare students thoroughly for the AP exam, I strive to instill a life-long love of music and inspire students to seek out and understand the creative process in fields quite distinct from music,” Felder said.