{TEN} Music Theory “Survival Tips”

As part of completing Music Theory Level IV, my classmates and I were asked by our professor to each write a letter to incoming music students on “survival tips” for music theory courses. Because my second goal for A Suite Sound is to encourage and support my fellow musicians– including music students, I thought it would be a good idea to share my ideas here in hopes that music theory students of all levels might find some of my study ideas helpful….

1. Each student has a unique approach to studying. Before describing specific study habits that have worked for me, it is important to understand that each person studies differently. Another person could write a blog post about this same topic and their ideas would look completely different from mine. What has worked for me may or may not work for you, but, there’s only one way to find out….

2. PURCHASE your music theory workbook and textbook. As a private lesson student and as a college music student, it was necessary to buy each subsequent music theory workbook. However, as a college student, I could choose to rent OR buy the textbook. Considering pricing, I found that it was actually cheaper to buy the textbook versus rent and re-rent the textbook for each semester. More importantly, because I purchased the textbook, I could highlight and write in it as much as I wanted to— and I LOVED to take notes! 

3. Take notes DIRECTLY in your textbook. Speaking of taking notes, I highly recommend writing DIRECTLY IN YOUR (purchased) TEXTBOOK! Highlight vocabulary, write in the margins, and fill in the practice questions. 


4. PRE-READ scheduled chapters. Typically at the beginning of each semester, music theory professors hand out syllabi which include class schedules of topics to be covered. Keep up with the schedule and note any changes made throughout the semester. Note what textbook chapter will be discussed when and read ahead! This is a good time to begin familiarizing yourself with the topic about to be presented in class. Personally, I found class lectures easier to comprehend and follow when I read ahead. While reading ahead, highlight all new vocabulary, main ideas, and procedures. Star sections that you already have questions over and tab the chapter since you will be referring back to it during lectures, while completing homework assignments, and in preparation for exams. The more time you spend familiarizing yourself with the material by reading and noting EVERY example provided in class, the easier it is to complete the homework assignments and exams.

5. Break down homework into manageable sections. Typically, theory homework is assigned to be due for almost every class period throughout the semester (for private lesson students outside of college, your homework schedule might look different). Most likely, aural skills courses are taken concurrently and also have homework assignments due for each class period. While in level IV of both courses, I was personally spending about 2 hours per aural skills homework assignment and up to an additional 2 hours on each music theory homework assignment. Because my classes met twice a week, that’s about 4 hours per week on aural skills homework and about 4 hours per week on music theory homework, totaling about 8 hours a week on music theory and aural skills homework (in addition to all of my other homework, studying, and practicing)! Needless to say, music theory homework could get pretty overwhelming, pretty quickly. I realized that breaking down my homework assignments into smaller sections, made it less overwhelming to complete. I would complete one section, take a break from this homework, come back and complete a new section with a refreshed mind. I would do this over a timespan of a few hours and even over the timespan between classes. 

6. ALWAYS have staff paper on hand. Staff paper can be purchased as books in stores like Pender’s Music Co., and even Barnes & Noble. However, staff paper can also be printed for FREE off of websites such as BLANKSHEETMUSIC.NET. This is the website I often referenced while trying to keep staff paper in my binders at all times.

As a private lesson student, it never hurts to bring staff paper to your lessons for you or your teacher to illustrate concepts that you may later reference while completing your homework.

7. ASK QUESTIONS!!! During my last class period of Aural Skills IV, my professor presented me with an award “for outstanding improvement in second year aural skills.” He joked that I had left a trail between his office and the classroom— which may be true. However, it paid off because not only did I get awarded for having improved the most in the class, but more importantly, I successfully learned foundational aural skills– and music theory– concepts. I was willing to get up earlier in the mornings before class to ask for help or even just double-check my aural skills and theory work and it payed off. Not only did I ask my professors specific questions regarding homework, but I also asked my classmates about notes, homework, and advice on quiz/exam preparation.

Private lesson students, do not be afraid to speak up and ask questions! Your teacher is there to help you learn and grow as a musician and cannot determine your questions unless you ask! Besides, your lesson is private— there is no one for you to compare yourself to!  

8. Exam Preparation. While brainstorming study tips with someone else, I was once advised to try walking while reading textbook chapters. I tried pacing my room while re-reading music theory chapters for the next upcoming exam and was amazed at how much it truly helped me focus by putting my “excess brain power” to work. Additional suggestions included playing with a fidget stick or eating popcorn while studying. (*Side note: Sometimes, free fidget sticks/stress balls can be found among various school departments.) Of course, silencing phones for awhile— and only checking them on pre-scheduled breaks— is always beneficial.

IMG_9468Another study tip I found to be extremely helpful was to use line ruled note cards! They are cheap and versatile for ANY class— including music theory! I would use the blank side for vocabulary and the line ruled side for definitions or illustrated examples. Writing out what needs to be memorized is truly helpful!

Additionally, I would write vocabulary and definitions out several times on scratch paper in order to help me memorize the concept. I would also use my printed staff paper to practice answering textbook and homework questions that modeled upcoming test questions as outlined on our exam reviews.

I highly recommend attending all exam reviews! One of my professors kindly offered “Music Theory Breakfast [Reviews]” on the morning of each exam day. Not only did he help us prepare for the upcoming exam, but he also brought donuts for first-come-first-serve. Needless to say, his office is always packed on exam days!

Private lesson students, you can access FREE Texas Music Teacher’s Association Music Theory (TMTA) (Practice) Tests (2000 Edition Syllabus) HERE which are official tests from previous semesters. Also, at the time of your TMTA exam, you are typically provided with a “Theory Test Aid” that has lines for a music staff/staves, a piano keyboard and one or two circles printed on it (for you to write your Circle of 5ths). You may use this to help you correctly remember/figure out concepts. Since this is also accessible on the TMTA Website (direct link HERE), I would go ahead and practice using this resource while practice-writing exams. There is also a “Theory Student Glossary and Dictionary, 2000 ed” that might be helpful in reviewing/memorizing concepts (direct link HERE). 

9. Tutoring and Office Hours. I am so thankful that my music school provided FREE tutoring sessions! I regularly attended private music theory/aural skills tutoring sessions provided by upperclassmen. We used this time to work on homework questions, prepare for quizzes/exams, and to practice difficult concepts. Additionally, one of my music theory professors provided tutoring for one hour per week and answered questions regarding class lectures, homework, and upcoming exams. I also used a tutoring opportunity given by a friend of mine to help me study. Although we attended different schools, we were able to compare and contrast strategies and discover what worked best for me. Take all given opportunities! It is better to attend tutoring sessions/study groups and feel confident on the material than to not go and then second-guess your work. I truly don’t know how I would have made it through these courses without tutoring.

10. “Little Kid Curiosity” I came across the following quote while watching a video on test-taking “Jedi Mind Tricks”….

“Take [the] statement, ‘I am just not a good test taker.’…and flip it around into ‘little kid curiosity’– ‘How can I become a good test-taker?'” (Fulton, personal communication, August 15, 2018).

  1. “Be aware of your thoughts and your words.”
  2. “Your past experiences do not have to define your future life.”
  3. “Acknowledge the thoughts of defeat…and from this moment moving forward,” ask what you can do to become a good test-taker (Fulton, personal communication, August 15, 2018).

“Can I try a new study approach [such as one suggested above]? Can I study with classmates, instead of alone? Can I study in a different environment?” These are just a few questions to begin asking yourself while preparing to tackle your next exam.


Texas Music Teachers Association. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.tmta.org/