Music Degrees: The Different Types of College Music Majors Explained - Careers in Music
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If you are considering applying to music school for college, and looking for information on the types of degrees, diplomas, and majors available, you’ve come to the right place.

Music programs vary widely from school to school, and it can be confusing to figure out where you will fit the best, considering your own music education, career, and life goals. In this post, I’ll provide you with a general overview of the different kinds of degrees and majors available, and explain why you might consider each of them. We will also look at the kinds of careers graduates with music degrees often pursue after college.

Is a Music Degree Worth It?

First of all, you might be asking yourself whether it’s worth going to college to earn a music degree. For most people, the answer is yes, not only because of the skills and knowledge you will gain but also because of the people you will meet. Your chances of success in your music career will likely increase exponentially with a degree in hand. Although college can be expensive, most college students receive financial aid to lower the cost of their education.

If you’ve already decided you want to go to music school, it can feel overwhelming at first, and you might not know where to begin. The best place to start will be to research the types of degrees and majors out there and then develop some individual criteria you can apply to learn which programs might be the most suitable.

I’m here to guide you through this process. Let’s jump right in.

What Kind of Degrees Are There for Music?

So, what kinds of degrees are there available for music? We’ll go in-depth with this in the following section.

I’ll give you a rundown on each of the following music degrees:

  • B.M. (Bachelor of Music)
  • B.A. (Bachelor of Arts)
  • B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts)
  • B.S. (Bachelor of Science)
  • B.P.S. (Bachelor of Professional Studies)
  • A.A. (Associate’s of Arts)
  • Diploma
  • Certificates
  • Graduate Degrees: M.M., M.A., M.F.A., M.S., D.M.A., Ph.D.

B.M. (Bachelor of Music)

This is one of the more common degrees offered by music schools. The focus is on performance on an instrument (voice is also an instrument) and includes core courses in music theory, ear training (solfege), ensembles, and private lessons. B.M. programs also require courses in music history, liberal arts (academics), and contain major and minor areas of focus in the curriculum.

Most B.M. programs take four years and are 120 credits. Majors offered, while different from place to place, include options like performance, composition, music education, music production, music business, songwriting, and music therapy. (More on the majors below.) Most B.M. programs have a main emphasis on preparing graduates for viable careers in the music industry.

B.A. (Bachelor of Arts)

The B.A. is usually available at a university program and at some colleges, where the focus is not quite as in-depth on music. Students earning this degree often study a wider spectrum of arts and humanities subjects, such as poetry, literature, social sciences, history, and visual arts, while majoring in music.

B.A. programs with a music major include many of the same kinds of courses as the B.M., but might not allow students to go as in-depth on some music subjects. The core music requirements may be less rigorous than with a B.M. Again, this will vary widely from school to school, so best to look closely at the course requirements for each program individually. Course requirements for each degree and major will be posted on the schools’ websites.

B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts)

This degree differs from the previous ones in that it allows students to engage in cross-disciplinary studies with other art forms, such as dance, electronic arts, film, and visual and fine arts. As the name suggests, a B.F.A. might have less focus on the business side of career-seeking and more focus on the artistic and creative aspects of being a musical artist.

The B.F.A. is perhaps the degree most focused on collaboration with other artists, and will also have a strong component of the history of art included. It could potentially be seen as a more academically focused degree.

B.S. (Bachelor of Science)

This degree is typically awarded for study in the technological areas of music and audio production, or for students mainly focusing on music business or music production as a career. Some programs, but not all, do not require you to play an instrument.

Students earning a B.S. in music technology and audio production prepare for careers by studying the more technical aspects of production, such as electrical engineering, computer science, and physics or acoustics (the physics of sound). On the business side, they might study finance, statistics, marketing, and business planning and strategy.

B.P.S. (Bachelor of Professional Studies)

Relatively new, and usually available as a fully online program, the B.P.S. is designed for musicians who want to work professionally in some area of the music industry. This degree may offer more flexibility than the others to design a major concentration in one or more areas, such as business and songwriting. Students earning a B.P.S. typically design and complete a major capstone project related to their major areas of study in their senior year.

A.A. (Associate’s of Arts)

These degrees are relatively rare in music, usually only offered at community colleges, and taking two years to complete. Most students completing an Associate’s degree will continue on to earn a Bachelor’s, possibly at a different institution.

Diploma

Some schools offer an option to complete a diploma instead of a degree. The difference is that diploma candidates are not required to take liberal arts (academic) courses. The diploma is seen as a less-broad educational credential, but students might choose it because it is less academically oriented, requires fewer credits to complete, and is also less expensive. It’s possible to complete a diploma and then later convert it to a degree by adding the liberal arts credits, but most students do not do this.

If you are considering attending graduate school, or teaching, it would be better to get a Bachelor’s degree, since it is seen as more rigorous than the diploma. If you don’t plan to continue your education after college and just want to study music, the diploma might be worth considering. Also, students with blemishes (marginal or poor grades) in their transcripts might be accepted to a diploma program instead of a degree program.

Certificates

There are many different kinds of certificates available to music students. Some are offered online only, sometimes in an on-campus summer program, or even by adult education centers, a certificate is for one course or several completed. They take a relatively short time to earn compared to all the other credentials listed here.

Some graduate schools also offer “artist certificates” and could be more rigorous. These might be aimed at students who have already completed a Bachelor’s and want to continue studying but aren’t able to commit (or qualified) to earn an advanced degree.

Graduate Degrees: M.M., M.A., M.F.A., M.S., D.M.A., Ph.D.

Many students with an undergraduate degree choose to continue studying at the graduate level. There are many degrees available, often with a more specific focus than at the undergraduate level. There are also graduate certificates, as mentioned above.

Now that you have an idea of the types of music degrees and credentials available, let’s take a look at the different types of schools and then the major areas.

Conservatories, Colleges, and Universities

Up until about 60 years ago, music was a subject studied primarily in a conservatory. Music, along with drama and dance, is still taught at conservatories, and most conservatories offer degrees in music. Today, students can also choose to study at a specialized music college and many conservatories have been absorbed into university programs. This means that students have a wider choice than previously where (and what) they can choose to study.

Conservatories typically offer three major areas of study: performance, composition, and pedagogy (teaching). They prepare students to work in music the same way they’ve done for centuries. As the name implies, they are focused on conserving traditions, especially classical music. Some conservatories have expanded their offerings to include other areas of study, such as electronic music, and jazz, which have become available for study at most conservatories today.

Music colleges are educational institutions devoted to training musicians and preparing them for a wide variety of careers, and will offer more varied majors, and sometimes minors, too. (More on majors and minors below.) Universities today also offer music programs, often with a wide array of majors.

There are benefits to studying at each kind of place, but there are some tradeoffs as well. For example, conservatories will have small classes and lots of individualized teaching and interaction with faculty, while students enrolled in a university might find themselves in large lecture classes and have less one-on-one time with their Professors, or even be taught by graduate Teaching Assistants.

The Music Majors

Now that we’ve clarified the differences between the traditional conservatory, universities, and college programs focused on career preparation, let’s narrow down the college and university programs a bit further. The most popular programs focus on instrumental performance (voice is also an instrument), composition, arranging, music business, and music production, and allow students to study jazz, rock, pop, and other contemporary styles.

Additional majors include areas such as songwriting, music education, music industry, film scoring, and music therapy. All the majors are designed to prepare students to enter the professional field immediately after graduation.

Colleges and the larger conservatories invite on-campus recruiters from the industry and help place students in internships. Many majors require students to build a portfolio of professional achievements, attend career-building events, and may also require an internship or practicum. Visiting the career services, internships, and scholarship offices on campus is a great way to learn more about majors, as you’ll be forced to seriously consider what is waiting for you after graduation.

Here’s a list of the majors you might find at a variety of colleges and universities around the country (not in any particular order):

  • Music (General)
  • Performance (Jazz, Rock, Classical, etc.)
  • Composition (Classical, Contemporary)
  • Music Education (Leadership in Pedagogy)
  • Music Business/Management
  • Songwriting (Contemporary, Pop)
  • Contemporary Writing and Production
  • Arranging
  • Electronic Production and Design (or Sound Design)
  • Film Scoring (or Scoring for Visual Media)
  • Jazz Composition
  • Music Technology
  • Music Production and Engineering (or Audio Engineering)
  • Music Therapy
  • Commercial/Popular Music
  • Jazz Studies
  • Radio Broadcasting/Communications
  • Professional Music
  • Music Industry Studies
  • Choral Studies
  • Conducting
  • Musical Theater
  • Show Production
  • Music History
  • Music Theory (or Historical Music Theory)
  • Musicology (Ethnomusicology)
  • Worship Music

The name of your degree program may vary, as will the options available at different colleges and universities. Some of these options are also available as specializations in graduate school.

There’s a lot more choice of majors compared to some years ago. That’s a good thing, but more choice also makes for a more difficult decision. As the music industry has grown and matured, colleges have followed suit by designing and implementing curricula to meet the need for training.

Before applying to any school, it’s important to prepare yourself by doing research on the programs. This means studying the college bulletin (list of courses), teaching faculty, program philosophy, and of course the costs for any place you are considering. All of this info can be found easily online, usually on the college’s website.

You should try your hardest to imagine what your future career and life as a musician will look like. While your goals will evolve and change over time, investigating all the areas open to you is important to understanding where you fit in, during and after college.

Most college applications ask you what you intend to major in. They do this to gather information about what the interests of entering students are, mainly so they can tailor their marketing materials to the perceived needs of the prospective applicants. You are not committing to anything when you answer the question of intended major on your application.

For now, you will not be expected to enroll directly in a major; it’s just a way for the admissions team to get an impression of you and to compare your materials with others with similar interests.

What Kind of Careers Can You Get with a Music Degree?

Your choice of major in college should lead you into the kind of career you envision for your future self. This doesn’t mean it will happen immediately, but earning your music degree should have a real-world benefit, especially in connection to the many valuable skills you’ve gained, and also the strength of your network. Finding a music job isn’t the easiest thing, but to be fair, most things are hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

You’ve probably heard the term “gig economy” to describe many kinds of employment today. In fact, the term “gig” comes from music, originally called a “gigue,” which meant an event where musicians would play for dancers. (Later during the classical period it referred to a musical form used for dances.) Nowadays it refers to the way people are hired: not as employees, but as independent contractors. Some people call themselves freelancers, which means the exact same thing.

Many music grads set themselves up in business as sole proprietors, to ply the art and craft of music as entrepreneurs. Since there are so many different things musicians tend to do as professionals, this seems to suit many musicians well. Musicians are uniquely prepared to survive and thrive in the gig economy.

It’s important to understand the tax, financial, and lifestyle implications of being self-employed earning your living, and most music programs try to prepare their graduates in this way since they know it will help them to reach their career and life goals.

Where Music Majors End Up Working

The choice and completion of a major when earning your music degree will likely play into the type of employment you look for right out of college. Sometimes an internship could lead to a permanent position. Musicians work in all kinds of fields, and not always in the music industry.

For example, with a music business degree, you could end up working in any kind of business, since you’ve proved that you can learn and know about business. If you’ve studied music education, you might be able to apply your knowledge of teaching and learning to other subjects taught in schools. Some musicians end up teaching English as a second language, mathematics or sciences, or even coaching the basketball team.

Music Producers often work in advertising, and some Songwriters and Composers serve as Music Supervisors, finding and placing original music in films and TV shows. Music Therapists find jobs working in hospitals or rehab centers as a member of a clinical care team. There are roles in management, research, journalism, travel, and hospitality; the list goes on.

A college education used to be seen as less of a preparation for entering a certain field than becoming an educated citizen. After college, students would apprentice (intern) in order to get the additional training and knowledge required to work in a profession. Since college has become so expensive, it’s reasonable for student and their families to expect a degree to be the ticket to a job. And the research does show that college grads have better opportunities along with much higher expected lifetime earnings.

Your major in college may influence your work choices and opportunities after you graduate, but only to a certain degree. You can consult our career pages to learn more about many of the job possibilities for music majors after college.

In addition, you’ll find a list of music-related careers, grouped according to general areas of interest, below:

Performing & Writing Careers

Songwriting & Publishing Careers

Music Education Careers

Radio, Film & Video Game Music Careers

Music Merchandising & Product Development Careers

Concert & Touring Careers

Record Label & Music Business Careers

Music Health & Recreation Careers

Music Management, Legal, and Financial Careers

How to Find the Right Fit for You

All schools will tell you they do a good job of preparing their students for their careers and will tout their successful alumni as proof of this. But they don’t always make clear how that future success is ultimately up to you, what the exact skills are that you will need, or how you should choose your courses and your major in order to acquire those skills.

I would recommend that you speak with some trusted advisors about your career options and ask them to explain to you how a college music degree might be supportive of your goals.

If you’re not too sure about your career goals, that’s okay. Most people starting college don’t really know for certain what they want to become. Studying in college is designed to expose you to possibilities which you might not know about, and give you the opportunity to discover more about music and yourself.

The place to begin is with researching the various schools you might have heard of, and see if they interest you. Asking for recommendations from others who are more knowledgeable is an important part of your research.

Besides school advisors, friends, and family, you could also reach out to some professionals in the field. You can ask them about what it’s really like to do the work they do. Most professionals feel flattered when students ask them about their careers and are happy to take some time for you to help you get a better understanding.

These could be people in your community, faculty teaching at the colleges, or friends of friends willing to help. I get contacted regularly by young students with questions about the music industry, and I’m always happy to help them if I can. After all, I was once in their position.

Develop and Apply Criteria

As you’re researching the schools, you should develop a set of criteria to help you decide where to apply. You could make a list of certain preferences.

For example, you could base your final decision on any of the following set of criteria:

  • Geographic location (close to industry? climate? urban campus?)
  • Size of the program and the school
  • Reputation in industry
  • Faculty teaching (are they industry pros?)
  • Alumni achievements
  • Majors (and minors) offered
  • Costs
  • Housing available

These are not all the criteria you could apply, but maybe some of the more important things to think about.

Try to imagine yourself studying at the school. Talk to some current students and recent alumni, if you can. Study all the information on the college’s website, especially the requirements for admission and the list of courses offered. Read the bios of the faculty who teach there. Find out all you can about each program. In the end, you might just make the decision based on your gut feeling about the place.

As you are considering the possible schools and majors, I’ll provide some additional brief description of the more popular and established programs out there, and what you might be studying in each.

Some Music Degree Options

This alphabetical list of music degree programs starts with some more under-the-radar majors that can help you build a career behind-the-scenes with an orchestra, interviewing artists as a Radio DJ, or studying the musical history and practices of different cultures. If you’re looking for more well-known majors like Music Business or Music Performance, check out Part 2 of this article.

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.

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.

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.

Continue your journey to a music degree with our articles on choosing a major, what to major in to land your music industry dream job, and the different types of degrees colleges offer.

Check out Part 2 of this article for lots more juicy bits you’ll want to know.

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