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Apps for teaching: Acing theory tests without theory books


Much to my pleasure (and astonishment!), a number of my students signed up to take theory tests at the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC) local festival. None of these students owns a theory book.

The NFMC Bulletin provides an outline of concepts covered in each test level, as well as practice tests from prior years. From the online bulletin, I gleaned terms to create a set of flashcards in Quizlet for each level. For several weeks during "off-bench" time (thirty minutes added to the lesson time to review concepts away from the keyboard), students were asked to study the Level One cards and all the sets up to their designated test level to help familiarize themselves with the terms.

After downloading the past theory practice tests from the NFMC website, I saved them in Evernote, where I store most downloaded documents so they can be accessed on any device. On my iPad, I imported the tests from Evernote to Notability, an app that stores and organizes PDFs, and allows users to annotate PDFs. Within Notability, I duplicated tests for each of my students, and moved them into folders I created for each student. During "off-bench" time, students completed the tests in Notability. They enjoyed using various colors of ink and highlighters to complete their answers.

After students finished their tests, I assessed what concepts they understood, and what required review. Below are examples of how I used apps to help students boost their theory knowledge.

Ledger line notes

One test level focused on identifying ledger lines above and below the treble and bass staves. To boost recognition, students completed drills in Flashnote Derby and isolated ledger line notes first in small segments (above treble only, below treble only, etc.), and gradually added and drilled all ledger line notes.  

Key signatures

To memorize key signatures, students reviewed them in the "challenge mode" of the customizable app, Tenuto. Students repeated the timed drills until they received 100%. This activity was even more fun in a group setting where students took turns entering the answers, and tried to beat their score and time from the previous round. 


To determine who played first at a group performance class, I customized a Decide Now wheel with interval names such as Perfect Fourth, Major Seventh, etc. Performers spun the wheel, and the one who landed on the smallest interval played first. Prior to performing, the pianist played the interval, and the audience listened and confirmed that the interval was correct. The performer then played —by ear—a tune associated with the interval. For example, "Here Comes the Bride" begins with the interval of a perfect fourth. Prior to the group class, students memorized tunes for each interval by reading my ebook, Understanding Intervals, that I created in Book Creator, an app for generating interactive ebooks. While the pianist performed, the audience listened and drew the interval on dry-erase staff cards.

To prepare further, students completed hard-copy practice tests. They also revisited their first tests taken in Notability. Students were thrilled to see that they knew much more than when they took their tests the first time.

All students passed their tests—98% was the lowest grade. Test taking measures how the learning process is going. Test taking also demonstrates the ability to regurgitate correct answers. It's important to me that young musicians go beyond the facts and learn how to measure intervals, know why G major needs an F#, and understand the need for ledger lines. This comes from introduction and reinforcement at the keyboard, analysis of repertoire, and encouragement to be creative with each concept. These apps and activities guarantee good test results, but cannot substitute for well-balanced and comprehensive instruction. 



All platforms

Free to $34.99/year


All platforms

Free to $69.99/year


iPhone, iPad, Mac


Flashnote Derby

iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle



iPhone, iPad


Decide Now

iPhone, iPad, Android


Book Creator

Free to $4.99

iPad, Android, Windows 

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