What Degrees Can I Get in a College Music Department?
When you start the search for a college to attend, there is so much you’re just “supposed to know.” I personally remember many different things I wish someone had explained to me at the time. Some of these items were incredibly complicated, while others ended up being relatively simple. When you have no experience with higher education, things like this can be confusing and there’s already so much going on even the smallest things can quickly be blown out of proportion.
One thing many incoming students don’t seem to understand (myself included at the time) is the difference between degrees. What’s a B.A. degree and what’s a B.M. degree? What’s a minor? What exactly is a master’s and when does one get one?
These are questions any future college grad can ask and they ring especially true in music programs, as many students aren’t focused on the letters and the exact terminology, but rather on their craft. If you’ve ever wondered about the different types of degrees you can earn as a musician, here’s a quick rundown. The list below doesn’t cover everything, but rather the most popular options and it’s comprehensive enough that the majority of people reading should get what they need here.
The bachelor’s degree is the most common piece of paper college students end up pursuing and it’s the first thing you’re going to need to acquire before you even consider going after anything further. A bachelor’s degree at essentially any school will take you four years to earn, though the requirements and the classes you need to take will differ from school to school (sometimes dramatically).
There are not only a seemingly unlimited number of programs you can choose from but there are also a few different types of bachelor’s degrees and it’s important to understand the difference between the two main distinctions. The majority of students go after either a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or a B.S. (Bachelor of Science). The first is for majors focusing on anything related to the arts, which both means “the arts” in the way people normally think of them —- writing, music, dance, acting, painting, sculpture, and so on — as well as humanities and any kind of social science, such as economics, history, anthropology, sociology. BA degrees usually give a more comprehensive, typical liberal arts education than more specialized degrees like a B.M. or B.F.A. (more on these to come). Bachelor of Science degrees are for those studying anything scientific (which should be obvious based on the name), technical, or sometimes business-focused; students interested in music careers may find these degrees related to Music Education, Music Business, and Sound Recording & Technology, for example.
As you can tell, most programs of study fit under either a B.S. or a B.A. but there are many other options…though if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need to worry about many of them. At this point, you’re likely not considering going out for a Bachelor of Science in Forestry (B.S.F.), a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (B.S.W.), or a Bachelor of Library Science (B.L.S.) — unless you’re hoping to become a Music Librarian, of course. You might, however, be interested in a Bachelor of Music, which is either known as a B.M. or B.Mus., or a B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts). Usually, you’ll find B.M. or B.F.A. degrees indicate a program has more requirements in the School of Music than in general education, giving the student more of a conservatory-style experience, with a focus largely on developing musical skills and knowledge. Often you’ll find Performance B.M. or B.F.A. programs but again, it depends almost entirely on the school you choose. When you’re applying, keep in mind what is being offered is typically all that’s going to be available to you so if you don’t like what a certain college has to give, don’t choose it.
Confused yet? Fair enough. What degree you earn is typically dictated by the school. You should know what you’re getting yourself into before you sign up, so do your research on what’s on tap at each school. The designation is created by the college or university and it typically rests on the course load, although requirements can vary some from one school to the next. As a reminder, if it’s about music, but not entirely so, you’re probably looking at a B.A. in Music. If all you do all day is study and practice playing an instrument or singing, a B.M. or B.F.A. is likely what your diploma will say.
Associate’s degrees can be helpful if you’re attending a technical or trade school. Many of these programs don’t require four full years of study. Many production schools can give you a good practical and educational background in studio recording in less than four years.
A minor isn’t something you get a separate degree in, like a bachelor’s, but rather an added bonus on top of the focus you’ve already selected. When choosing a minor, if you decide to do so, think long and hard about what your main degree will be in and then think about what you’d like to do with your life, as choosing the right minor can be of much use to you later.
Minors are helpful because they can give you a better understanding of something you’re interested in or another field that may one day help you when it comes to finding a job. Basically, it’s a worthwhile subject for your career path, but one you don’t necessarily want to spend all your time on. The best minors are ones connected to your major and which complement it in some way. For example, some schools will offer a Jazz Studies minor to their students majoring in Music Education or Performance, or a Music Business minor for aspiring performers.
Minors typically require you to take five or six classes to earn them. While it might sound like a bummer to add a few more courses to your already packed schedule, there are usually ways to make the coursework fit into what you already need to do to graduate so it’s not as if you’re piling on more and more. Often, especially in more general BA programs, students have requirements to meet their majors but they also need to sign up for a certain number of other courses that don’t necessarily have to do with this decided-upon major. This is because colleges want you to leave experts in your field, but not totally ignorant of everything else! Fitting in a minor may help you meet requirements when it comes to a certain number of credits, courses, or hours, depending on how your school operates, and it might not mean doing any “extra” work.
Associate’s degrees (A.A., A.S.) are typically easier to obtain, as they usually only require two years of work (versus four for the average bachelor’s). However, in some career paths, they aren’t considered as valuable as a bachelor’s. The thinking here is if it only takes half the time to acquire, you probably haven’t learned quite as much as you would have in a longer program.
Fortunately, that’s not necessarily true. If you don’t have the time or money to go for four years right now, an associate’s degree can get your foot in the door in the industry and you can always go back to school later. That’s the argument made for them, though I personally wouldn’t recommend this route. It’s better to struggle through four years and come out the other side with a proper bachelor’s than to force yourself to go back to college later on in your career, which rarely, if ever, actually happens.
Associate’s degrees can be helpful if you’re attending a technical or trade school. Many of these programs don’t require four full years of study. Many production schools can give you a good practical and educational background in studio recording in less than four years. The same goes with performance — a two year Guitar Performance program can be enough to help you hone your on-stage skills, although an aspiring orchestra musician would likely lean towards a four-year program. This all depends on your career aspirations and budget, however. If you opt to go this route, and you’re not considering a trade or technical program, keep in mind you may have to return to get a bachelor’s degree to advance in your field.
If you really want to excel in the world of music, you’re going to need to continue your education which typically means going for a master’s degree — especially in Performance or Music Education.
After finishing your bachelor’s degree, you may decide you have had enough of school, and that’s just fine…at least for now. If you really want to excel in the world of music, you’re going to need to continue your education which typically means going for a master’s degree — especially in Performance or Music Education. This isn’t always the case, but it’s usually the first post-graduate degree students go for and yes, it is tougher to succeed in these programs than in bachelor degree programs.
Just as is the case with bachelor’s degrees, there are different types of master’s and again, it depends on what the institution you’ve chosen to be a part of offers. You can acquire an M.M. or M.Mus., or sometimes, a Master of Arts with a focus in music. You can study for a MEd, a Master of Music Education, an M.S., or an M.F.A. (See our section on bachelor’s degrees above to find out in which fields of study you’d likely attain an M.S. or M.F.A.)
If you’re planning on teaching, this is a must, and for many artists who want to one day rise to the top of respected symphonies or orchestras. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news (for those who don’t want any more schooling), but even if you do get your master’s, many universities want their faculty to have Ph.D.s as well, so this might just be a stepping stone for many aspiring Musicologists, Ethnomusicologists, or University Music Teachers.
A Ph.D., or a doctorate, is far and away the toughest degree to secure in any field, and music is no exception. In fact, while it’s likely you can get into an undergraduate program at some college, no matter your standing or talent (though it might not be a very well-respected institution), the same can’t be said for master’s degrees and especially not for Ph.D.s. In fact, forget about the actual work that comes with going to school, doing research, writing papers and lengthy dissertations, just finding somebody who wants to work with you on whatever special project you decide to focus on forces a lot of people out of the running.
The fun part about earning a Ph.D. in music is once it’s completed, you are a doctor…though you might not want to start calling yourself Dr., as that can get a little bit confusing. Doctoral degrees in music usually allow you to add D.Mus., D.M., Mus.D. or sometimes even Mus.Doc. to the end of your name, if you so wish. That’s not always the biggest deal if you’re working on being a full-time musician, but if you want to teach, those abbreviations tacked on to your last name can be very beneficial.
Ph.D.s can take up to ten years to finish and there isn’t even any promise after all that time that you’ll actually earn the title. When it comes to undergraduate work, as long as you complete the correct courses and do well enough in them grade-wise, you collect your degree at the end of it. When it comes to a doctorate, you need to submit a very long research project and/or a paper. Sometimes in music, it’s all about performance but if you’re not up to the level of quality demanded by the institution and those judging your final presentation (whatever it may be), you won’t be a doctor…yet.
It’s certainly intimidating, but if you’re committed to your career in music and you’ve advanced as far as you can education-wise, a Ph.D. is the obvious next step for careers at the highest echelons of academia and executive management. Sure, it’s hard, it’s daunting and there are no guarantees, but isn’t this always the case when it comes to devoting your life to music?
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