Jump to Navigation

The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts

Incoming Student Placement Exams

For All Incoming BFA & MFA Students

All entering BFA and MFA students are required to take the Music Theory and Musicianship Skills Placement Examinations during Orientation Week.

Advance preparation is strongly encouraged!

Placement Examination Times
(there will be no make-up exam times)

Mandatory Music Theory Placement Exam:
Wednesday, September 3, 2014, 10:00 am - noon

  • Required for ALL incoming undergraduate and graduate students.
  • Undergraduate students test in Roy O. Disney Hall (ROD), graduate students in the Wild Beast pavilion.

Mandatory Musicianship Skills Placement Exam:
Thursday, September 4, 2014, 10:00 am - noon

  • Required for ALL incoming BFA and MFA students who did NOT place into MTHY-001 (Fundamental Musicianship) on the Theory Placement Exam.
  • Undergraduate students test in Room B318, graduate students in Roy O. Disney Music Hall (ROD).

What to Bring to the Examinations

  • A pencil and eraser.
  • Something to write on (such as a clipboard).

Examination Results

Undergraduate Students: CalArts does not accept transfer credit towards its Core Music Theory or Musicianship Skills requirements. Based on the placement examination results, each undergraduate student will be placed at an appropriate level in the Core Curriculum. If an undergraduate student lacks sufficient background to begin the Core Curriculum sequence, s/he may be required to take the MTHY-001 Fundamental Musicianship course as a prerequisite. Incoming first-year BFA students are advised to prepare adequately for the MTHY-001 section of the exam in order to pass it and thus avoid having to take the MTHY-001 Fundamental Musicianship course.

Graduate Students: For graduate students, exam results may indicate either that a student’s prior training and current skill levels are already appropriate for graduate study or that certain theory and/or skills review classes will be required in addition to the normal graduate curriculum. The requirements for total exemption from theory/skills review are the same for graduates and undergraduates. The eligibility of graduate students for Graduate Assistantships in the Core Curriculum is determined primarily on the basis of their performance on these placement examinations.

Music Theory Placement Examination

The Music Theory Placement Examination is two hours in duration and comprises four sections corresponding to four successive courses within CalArts’ undergraduate Core Theory Curriculum: MTHY-001, MTHY-111, MTHY-112 & MTHY-210. To exempt from a given course, your score on the corresponding exam section must be near-perfect.

A single textbook suitable for use in preparing for all four sections of this examination is Stefan Kostka & Dorothy Payne, Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music, 6th Ed. (or later), McGraw-Hill, New York, NY, 2008. For the timed portions of the exam's MTHY-001 (Fundamental Musicianship) section, some students may benefit from preparation using the interactive online drills at teoría.com.

A PRACTICE version of the Music Theory Placement Examination is available here:
CalArts Music Theory PRACTICE Placement Exam.pdf
Although its specific content is different, this practice examination is intended to roughly indicate the level of difficulty of the various sections of the official placement examination administered during CalArts' Orientation Week. It does not, however, exhaustively represent every topic that may appear on that official exam. For a complete listing of such topics, and for a description of the separate Musicianship Skills Placement Exam, see below.

Exam Content: MTHY-001 Section (Fundamental Musicianship)

  • Writing Key Signatures (timed): The instructor names keys whose key signatures are to be written down by the examinee. Major and minor keys with up to seven sharps or flats are included. This task is timed (8 seconds are allowed per key signature).
  • Writing Intervals (timed): The instructor names an interval to be written above or below a given note using the correct enharmonic spelling. Intervals (perfect, major, minor, augmented and diminished) both ascending and descending between a Perfect Unison and a Perfect Fifteenth are included. This task is timed (8 seconds are allowed per interval). Understanding of interval inversion is also tested.
  • Writing Scales: This task involves the writing of major, melodic minor and harmonic minor scales with up to seven sharps or flats. The use either of appropriate key signatures or of accidentals without key signatures may be required.
  • Chord Identification and Construction: Examinees must be able to identify and construct any diatonic triad or seventh chord in any inversion with any given root or bass note.
  • Transposition of Diatonic Melodies: Examinees must transpose a given major or minor melody by a specified interval using appropriate key signatures and accidentals.
  • Meter: The examinee’s understanding is tested regarding note and rest values, dots, ties, measures, duple and triple meters, simple and compound meters, time signatures, triplets, duplets, and syncopation.
  • Musical Terms and Signs: Common terms and signs found in printed music must be written and/or explained.
  • Fluency with the following fundamental concepts and skills will also be tested: notation in bass and treble clefs, the circle of fifths, relative and parallel major/minor keys, and enharmonic equivalence.

Exam Content: MTHY-111 Section (Tonal Theory A)

  • European common-practice conventions of chord construction and voice leading
  • cadences
  • phrase groups
  • four-part harmonization starting from a bass or melody with or without specified harmonies (i.e., Roman numerals) and using all diatonic triads and seventh chords in all inversions
  • diatonic pivot-chord modulations
  • harmonic analysis using Roman numerals including modulation to closely related keys
  • non-chord tones
  • diatonic sequences

Exam Content: MTHY-112 Section (Tonal Theory B)

  • analysis of chromatic harmony through the late 19th century
  • 4-part chromatic voice-leading and harmonization
  • secondary functions and tonicization
  • extended and altered tertian chords
  • augmented sixth and Neapolitan chords
  • mode mixture
  • embellishing chords
  • chromatic or enharmonic modulations to distantly related keys
  • chromaticized sequences
  • chromatic mediants (third relations)
  • simple binary, ternary and sonata forms

Exam Content: MTHY-210 Section (Post-Tonal Theory)

  • early modernist idioms (e.g., Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky) and associated techniques (planing, diatonic modes, pentatonic/whole-tone/octatonic/hexatonic scales, polyharmony, quartal and secundal harmony)
  • free atonality
  • pitch-class set theory (pc numbers, interval class, interval-class vectors, normal form, pcset transposition and inversion, set class, prime form)
  • twelve-tone techniques (matrix construction, doing a “twelve-count”)
  • integral serialism
  • basic terms and concepts relevant to electronic and experimental music

Musicianship Skills Placement Examination

All incoming students, both undergraduates and graduates are required to take a placement test in musicianship skills. The description below is intended to aid students in preparing for the tests. Separate tests with similar content are administered to undergraduate and graduate students. If it is determined that graduate students need work in musicianship skills to achieve levels necessary for graduation, they may be required to take a graduate skills review course or, alternatively, they may be placed at an appropriate level in the undergraduate skills course sequence.

The Undergraduate Skills Placement Test is required for all incoming students after taking at least the first module of the required Theory Placement Test. All students who are not placed into the course, Fundamentals of Music, by the theory test must take the Skills Placement Test at the scheduled time. Make-up tests are not scheduled. Students who do not appear will be placed into the first level of musicianship classes. Students should not take the Skills Placement Test if they have not taken the Theory Placement Test or have already been placed into Fundamentals of Music.

Of the many areas of musicianship skills, the concentration in this test is on visual identification, aural identification, and melodic dictation. (Students will not be asked to sight sing, or sing intervals or chords, or take harmonic dictation, except in unusual borderline cases.)

Visual Identification: A series of timed tests are given in which students are asked to rapidly identify intervals as to their likely name and quality and chords as to their quality and inversion—(using figured bass terminology).

Aural Identification: A set of musical motives is played including intervals played both melodically and harmonically, intervals played only harmonically, and triads and seventh chords played harmonically in root position and in inversions. Students are asked to ascribe a meaningful label for each.

Melodic Dictation: After providing a clef, a meter signature and a starting pitch—(but no key signature)—, short melodies of four to eight measures are played in three passes. Students are encouraged to determine more general characteristics on the first pass—(number of bars, placement of first and last events, general characteristics)—, to use the second pass to memorize the tune and transcribe it into Western notation, and the third pass to check the work.

The faculty believes that the results of this kind of a test provide enough indicators to make a determination about in which courses in the musicianship skills sequence students would be most appropriately placed. The faculty would prefer to see students being obliged to work very hard in more advanced and challenging levels than to be placed too low and insufficiently challenged to learn. Accordingly, new students who feel that they have been placed too high in the sequence can request the appropriate instructor to be re-evaluated and transfer to a lower level before the Institute deadline for adding and dropping classes in their schedule.

Mastering strong musicianship skills requires significant practice both in and outside classes. Such mastery is considered a very high priority for reaching success in the music curriculum and in professional careers to come.

Music History and Literature

No placement exams will be given. Graduate students are expected to have had prior study that would be commensurate with undergraduate history/literature study at CalArts in the same major area. Each graduate student’s undergraduate transcript will be evaluated to ascertain the amount and level of prior study. Graduate students who lack sufficient background in this area will be required to take additional History and Literature courses at CalArts; such courses will not count toward the overall 60-unit degree requirement.

Updated: July 29, 2014

Close Menu
Open Menu