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The Different Types of College Music Majors Explained

You know you want to learn about music in college. You know you want to work in music once you graduate. Once you start delving into the music department websites at your top choice colleges, though, it quickly becomes apparent that a Music BA at one school doesn’t necessarily look the same as a Music BA at another school.

The music-related courses of study you’ll find will vary from university to university, with some schools offering more general degrees and some getting increasingly specialized. Plus, with music technology and business practices constantly evolving, schools have started offering new degree programs with new, sometimes vague names. So how do you know which major will meet your academic interests and professional goals?

In this blog we’ll take a look at the degree programs you’ll encounter during your college search, discussing what your experience will be like as a student in one of these programs, and breaking down the career possibilities and work environments each major will set you up for after you graduate. Take into consideration not only what you want to do for a career, but also what type of academic program you’d be most inspired to immerse yourself in for two to four years of your life.

Arts Administration

At first glance, Arts Administration and Music Business degree programs seem to cover a lot of the same territory. (Note: we’ll be exploring Music Business degree programs in an upcoming blog post.) The main difference is that Arts Administration programs are geared towards the non-profit music world, whereas Music Business programs are definitely geared more towards the business side of things. Arts Administration combines coursework in art and/or music with business to prepare students for the unique challenges of non-profit arts organizations such as orchestras, theatres, concert halls, and arts councils. If your goal is to become a Director of Development, Symphony Business Manager or Managing Director, you’ll gain the academic knowledge you need to succeed through this type of program. Classes will cover topics including philanthropy, law and legal issues, management, marketing, economics and/or business, grant writing, and finance, as applied to music or another focus within the fine arts. Students will receive hands-on experience through internship and volunteer opportunities at local arts organizations. Some programs will split music/fine arts coursework evenly with business coursework, and others will lean more towards the business administration side, so it’s best to dig deep into the course catalog and degree requirements at the college of your choice to find the best fit for your professional goals.

Commercial Music

Most university music performance programs focus on classical music. Commercial Music allows serious students of music to focus instead on more contemporary genres of music like pop, R&B, rock, and jazz. These programs balance private voice/instrument lessons and music theory lessons with commercial music industry-oriented topics such as entrepreneurship and business. Music production and audio recording coursework also figures prominently into Commercial Music programs. Applicants are expected to be strong musicians with songwriting and/or composition skills, and they will be required to audition and/or submit a portfolio, depending on the school. Interestingly, Commercial Music programs are more common in the UK than in the US, and the American programs vary widely in terms of emphases and concentrations offered within the major. For example, while most schools focus on Commercial Music performance, other schools will offer subfields in songwriting, composition, arranging and recording technology. Commercial Music programs will appeal to those interested in the popular music industry, including aspiring Songwriters, Composers, Arrangers, and Recording Groups. These programs may also be of interest to students who want to study music production and recording engineering but who do not want (or who do not live in an area with access to) a program dedicated exclusively to Music/Recording Technology.

Take into consideration not only what you want to do for a career, but also what type of academic program you’d be most inspired to immerse yourself in for two to four years of your life.

Communications (Radio or TV)

If you’re interested in working in radio, as a Videographer, or even at a music television network (although these jobs are increasingly rare), look outside the music department to find a Communications degree offering an emphasis in TV, Radio or Broadcasting. These programs will usually offer students the chance to work or volunteer at a campus radio or TV station, with internships available at well-known media corporations—sometimes in major hubs like New York or Los Angeles. Students learn to create, edit, and produce media through coursework in production and postproduction, media ethics and law, and writing for the media. This type of program prepares students for careers as Radio DJs, as well as for behind-the-scenes roles in radio production, technical operations, and radio sales. Some programs offer more coursework than others in terms of video editing, production and filmmaking, so if you’re interested in becoming a Videographer or making music documentaries or live concert films, take this into account.

Conducting

With only a handful of undergraduate Conducting degree programs in the United States, most aspiring Conductors will enroll in graduate degree programs to hone their skills. Conducting will often be an emphasis available under the auspices of a broader Music or Performance degree. Whether Conducting is a standalone degree (as is usually the case when it’s a master’s or doctoral degree) or whether it’s a concentration, most schools will further break down the specialization into Orchestral, Band or Choral Conducting. In some schools the choice is simply between Instrumental and Choral Conducting. Coursework will focus on score analysis, conducting, pedagogy, music theory, tonal analysis and music history.

Ethnomusicology

Similarly to Conducting degree programs, undergraduate Ethnomusicology programs do exist in limited numbers, although most aspiring Ethnomusicologists will pursue their calling in master’s or doctoral programs. When you think of Ethnomusicology, you might think of traditional folk or tribal music, but an increasing amount of programs allow for the study of Western music such as jazz and hip-hop and its influence on society and culture. Ethnomusicology majors can expect coursework in music theory, music history, world musical cultures, and—depending on the program—composition and private instrument lessons. Fieldwork requirements vary based on the level of educational degree and each music department’s program guidelines, with some institutions offering coursework in related topics like grant writing and producing music documentaries. Ethnomusicology majors must enroll in courses or prove competency in a foreign language. Students are given the opportunity to perform in musical ensembles relevant to their interests; for example, some universities feature Javanese gamelan ensembles or African drum ensembles.

Film Scoring

Film Scoring is yet another field of study with limited degree options at the undergraduate level, but with a wider range of exciting programs at the MA level and above. (The majority of these programs are based in film and TV centers such as New York or Los Angeles, giving students the opportunity to learn from working professionals in the industry and providing increased access to world-class internships.) Interested undergraduates can prepare themselves for grad programs by majoring in Composition or a similar topic if a Film Scoring BA is not an option in their area.

Coursework in these programs will give students a broad understanding of the many aspects of composing for film, TV and video games, with topics including orchestration, arranging, film music editing, production/recording and conducting. Some schools also delve into intellectual property law, the psychology of music and music history. Students graduate with a portfolio of their work, including completed scores for short films. This course of study can lead to a career as an Orchestrator, Arranger, Composer, Music Supervisor, Music Editor or Video Game Composer.

Jazz Studies

Jazz Studies majors usually fall into two categories: those hoping to make a career out of music performance, and those desiring to compose music. For this reason, Jazz Studies programs—whether at the undergraduate or the graduate level—will feature a good deal of coursework in music performance, private instruction, music theory and history, pedagogy and composition. Many Jazz Studies programs only accept a limited number of students, so an audition is required. Students are expected to participate in campus ensembles, which can range from vocal jazz groups to big bands.

If you’re set on studying music in college, but are concerned intense specialization will limit your career choices after graduation, the more versatile Music BA might be for you.

Music

The undergraduate Music degree can be listed as a BA, BM, BFA, or any of several designations; what’s offered will depend on each college’s Music Department. Unlike the more specialized music-related courses of study we’ve already discussed, a Music degree usually involves a broader liberal arts education with less of an emphasis on performance. Therefore many programs will not require an audition, although this depends on the college and its individual requirements and designations for a BA vs. BM vs. BFA. Generally speaking, Music BA students will take private instrument lessons, and delve into music theory and history, as well as liberal arts courses outside the Music Department. BM or BFA students will focus more narrowly on private instruction and performance skills.

Many schools do house more specific concentrations under the general title of a Music BA. In fact, some of the programs already discussed in this article, such as Jazz Studies, and some we’re planning to discuss in a future post, such as Music Composition and Music Performance, will be emphases or concentrations within a Music BA/BM/BFA. However, for our purposes here, we’re discussing the basic Music BA. If you’re set on studying music in college, but are concerned intense specialization will limit your career choices after graduation, the more versatile Music BA might be for you. This is a degree for those who don’t want to pursue Music Education, Composition or Performance as their be-all and end-all, but instead want an education focusing on their love for music but with a more diverse spectrum of liberal arts knowledge. A Music BA can set you up for graduate study in a more specialized area that doesn’t afford many undergraduate major opportunities such as Ethnomusicology, Music Therapy, or Musicology, but it can also set you up for careers outside the world of music, as well.

Stay Tuned….

We’ll be continuing our exploration of the various music-related courses of study you’re likely to encounter in undergraduate and graduate degree programs in a forthcoming blog story. Stay tuned if you want to learn more about the following courses of study and what they entail: Music Business, Music Composition, Music Education, Music History/Musicology, Music Performance, Music Technology, Music Theory, Music Therapy, Musical Theatre, Songwriting and Worship Arts.

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