What It Takes to Be a Music Major
If you are considering majoring in music in college you will have some choices to make.
This article will take you through the thought process, provide context, and give you some tools to help you choose your major in music. We will look at some available options for college music students, and connect the choice of major to earning your college degree and help to prepare for a career in music.
As you consider your educational goals in light of your music career and life goals, you will eventually be faced with the decision of which major to choose, and whether to major in music. Every college, university, and conservatory teaches music in a different way, which is why music credits often will not transfer between educational institutions. Since there are so many approaches to music education, there’s a limit to how much one can generalize about music majors. There are, however, some principles and modes of thinking which can be applied regardless of where or what you choose to study.
For example, you might wonder how well your education will prepare you to compete in a professional career environment. 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. To make the situation even more challenging, the world of professional music is always changing, and not all schools can keep up. Many schools have outdated curricula.
If you are wondering what it’s really like to be a music major in college, are preparing to be a music major, are wondering whether or not you should major in music, or asking the question “what can I do with my degree in music?” this article is for you. As a graduate of several leading music schools, and with decades of teaching in a music college, I’ll fill in some holes for you, and elaborate on some of the choices you might face as you pursue your educational and career goals.
Types of Music Colleges and Programs
It’s only relatively recently that we’ve seen a proliferation in music programs at the college and university level. Up until about 50 years ago, an aspiring musician would have had limited choices of where and what to study after high school. The conservatory model was prevalent, and in some places it still is. We will talk more about the conservatory approach below, but for now, keep in mind that college and university music programs used to be very limited compared to what we have today. This is a good thing because you now have more choice, but more choice also makes for a more difficult decision. Before applying to any schools, 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. The Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges can also be helpful as you conduct your search for music schools and become better informed, as can our schools pages.
It’s worth noting that many schools and colleges view music programs, and especially music industry programs, as an important growth area. As the music industry has grown and matured, colleges have followed suit by designing and implementing curricula to meet the need for training. The training for entering the music field extends well beyond the more traditional performance and composition courses, and may include everything from electronic music production, songwriting, and music business/management, to highly specialized courses in areas such as composing for video games or music therapy. The list of subjects can be daunting and the industry roles in today’s music field seem almost endless. Would you choose to study West African drumming, songwriting, and stage performance, or would you rather focus on entrepreneurship and music marketing? You might want to do it all, or perhaps you prefer to focus on some very narrow specialized niche. The choice will ultimately depend on where your interests lie, and where you see yourself fitting into the future music industry.
It can seem overwhelming to have so much choice, and yet when it comes time to choose your major you will be forced into making decisions you might not feel quite ready to make. My advice is to relax because gaining knowledge in anything is never a waste of your time. Over time, the industry will change, and so will you. It’s important to have a plan, but having a plan doesn’t guarantee that things will unfold as planned. Most people end up straying from their intended path, finding themselves later in situations they hadn’t counted on or even considered. Since this is the norm, you should embrace uncertainty about the future, and think about what you can do right now and in the near future. Choosing a major is a great opportunity to do all this in a semi-formalized way. You will be learning about the opportunities that exist, and about yourself.
The Process of Choosing a Music Major
Nobody expects you to know what you want to do with the rest of your life when you are a college student. College is a time for discovery, to explore and experiment with things you maybe didn’t know existed before getting to college. If you’ve chosen music as your career, you should use this time to gain a better understanding of the overall music field, and where you will fit in. You can always specialize in graduate school if you decide to go that route.
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 with all your other materials.
Once you matriculate at a college, the first few semesters are taken up with core classes that everyone has to take, including ear training, music theory, ensemble performance, notation, technology tools, and maybe a liberal arts course such as English Literature or History. You won’t be asked to select your major until you are entering your junior year, most likely during the second half of your sophomore year. This gives you some time to investigate the available majors, meet with the department advisors, talk to students enrolled in the majors, and maybe attend a majors fair on campus.
Once you complete the paperwork to enroll in a major, you will still have the opportunity to change your major if you find you don’t enjoy it, or your interests change. Changing majors is very common; in fact, a majority of graduating students changed their major at some point. Some majors will require you to pass an exam, take certain prerequisite classes, or submit a portfolio of work before accepting you into the major. At very least, you will likely be required to have a meeting with the Department Head or Department Faculty Advisor before declaring your major. They want to make sure your expectations are realistic, your career goals are aligned with what they teach, and that you are prepared to compete academically in the major.
It’s a good idea to meet with these staff early on, in order to form a realistic image of what the major will be like for you, what you can do after you graduate, and whether or not you will be able to gain admission to a major. If you aren’t really sure which major is for you (not unusual), I recommend you start early, in your freshman year, and make the rounds of all departments where you feel you may have an interest. Every college has different offerings, so it’s okay to start this process even before you apply. As a faculty advisor, I often hear from students going through the college application process, who are trying to learn more about what our department and major is like.
A Conservatory Approach versus College Music Program
To begin the conversation about what types of majors are out there, and as a way to categorize and understand what kind of program suits you, let’s zoom out and take a quick look back at the traditional music programs offered by conservatories. In contrast to the newer modern proliferation of subjects in colleges and universities, there was a time when very little choice existed, and it wasn’t so long ago. There are a few reasons it’s worth looking at the conservatory model in order to contrast and compare with today’s programs. First of all, these programs still exist, not only as independent conservatories but as embedded schools within colleges and universities. For example, the Hartt School of Music is a conservatory that is part of the University of Hartford located in West Hartford, Connecticut, and the Boston Conservatory has merged with the much larger Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Secondly, there will be likely elements of conservatory training in any modern program, such as ensemble performance classes, juries, recitals, and group lessons.
Compared to colleges and universities, most conservatories are smaller and offer intensive one-on-one training for musicians. A conservatory student would expect to receive a large portion of their training in private lessons and small groups, as opposed to colleges that base their model less on private instruction and have larger classes. Private lessons aren’t necessarily “good” and large classes “bad,” though the conservatories might say so; it’s more a function of preference and how you learn best. For example, large classes might offer a better opportunity to network with future leaders in the industry. More ensemble classes might lead to better performing opportunities for students on and off-campus.
The important thing to know about music conservatories is the way their educational model is designed. For example, you will usually have three “tracks” in a conservatory:
- Pedagogy (Teaching)
Conservatories, due to this educational model and their smaller size, will not typically offer as broad an array of courses as you’d find at a music college. You might find it difficult to study music production and audio engineering, music synthesis, ethnomusicology, music therapy, or music business at a conservatory. Not that there aren’t interesting courses to choose from there. If you want to play in a classical orchestra, maybe the conservatory is the place to be. Many students also choose a conservatory based on a certain Teacher who teaches there. It could be a great opportunity to study with a specific artist who is also famous, boosting your own profile as an accomplished musician. Many well-known musicians dedicate a portion of their time to teaching younger music students.
In contrast to the conservatory model, a large music college or university program will typically have broader course offerings in areas besides performance, composition, or pedagogy. Would you like to take classes in electronic dance music (EDM)? Do you want to study finance in the touring business? Do you see yourself as a future film scoring mogul? Are you a budding entrepreneur? A Singer-Songwriter? You might feel more at home in a non-conservatory, college-type program. From a philosophical standpoint, a conservatory approach (focused on “conserving” music from the past) is very different from a college or university program that claims to launch future music careers in all areas of the industry.
Available Music Majors: Categories
Now that we’ve clarified the differences between the traditional conservatory training model, and the more current college programs focused on career preparation for the industry, let’s narrow down the college programs further. The most popular programs focus on instrumental performance (voice is also an instrument), composition, arranging, and production, and encompass jazz, rock, pop, and other contemporary styles. Additionally, there will likely be majors offered in a number of other areas, such as songwriting, music therapy, music education, and music business. These majors are designed to prepare students to enter the professional field immediately after graduation. Colleges and the larger conservatories will also cultivate on-campus recruitment from industry players, and help place students in internships. The scholarship application process for continuing students might require you to build a portfolio of professional achievements. Attending recruitment events and visiting the internships and scholarships offices on campus are all great ways to learn more about majors, as you will be forced to seriously consider what is waiting for you after graduation.
Following is a list of possible majors you could find at a variety of colleges and universities around the country:
- Performance (Jazz, Rock, Classical, etc.)
- Music Education
- Music Business/ Management
- Contemporary Writing and Production
- Electronic Production and Design
- Film Scoring
- Jazz Composition
- Music Production and Engineering
- Music Therapy
- Professional Music
- Music Industry Studies
- Choral Studies
- Music Theory
There are often minors available and some colleges allow students to complete a double major. You may also find different versions of all these majors offered as part of an online music degree, as distance learning has gained in effectiveness and popularity in recent years.
What is a Major and a Minor?
A major is simply a sequence of specialized courses, usually from 8-12, that students complete in order to earn their degree or diploma. The major is printed in smaller letters on the degree itself. A minor might be 3-4 additional courses in a related discipline. For example, a songwriting major might choose a minor in poetry, or in music business. The courses in the major will have a sequence which takes 3-4 semesters to complete, and the grade point average (GPA) requirement will usually be higher than for the courses taken outside the major. Not all schools offer majors and minors; for example, Full Sail University in Florida does not have majors at all.
How to Decide on a Music Major
We’ve already talked about how to prepare to choose and how to research majors. While you may not need to decide right away, eventually you will be faced with a decision. If you’ve done your homework, hopefully, you have it narrowed down to one or two choices by this time. Or maybe you haven’t thought that deeply about it as of yet. My advice is to try to think way ahead in your overall plan. Let’s say you want to be a professional performer or a Session Musician. Since your future job will be playing your instrument or singing in concerts, gigs, and the recording studio, look for a major experience that will give you lots of opportunities to perform in ensembles, in concerts, and in the studio. While in college, you should be doing the thing you see yourself doing after school as much as possible. If you plan to make your living as a writer, whether composing, arranging, or songwriting, you should be doing a lot of that in your courses.
At this point, you should dig even deeper. Go beyond the department staff or advisors and visit the faculty members who teach the courses during their office hours. Tell them you are considering the major and ask them to describe the courses they teach. Ask them to get specific with you about what they think you can do professionally with the skills you’ll learn in their courses. Have them share a course syllabus with you and ask them how you can best prepare to excel in the courses they teach. You will learn some interesting and important things about the major this way, and you’ll also make a good impression on them. Remember, your Teachers can be helpful to you in finding work, by acting as a professional reference, or by referring you to others in their network. Most college students don’t seem to appreciate that their Teachers can continue to be helpful to them after they’ve graduated.
Can You Change Your Mind?
Once you’ve done all your research, had a chance to consult with others, and taken the time to think deeply about your choice, you will need to choose. Take comfort in the fact that the choice doesn’t always have to be permanent. It’s common for students to have a change of heart after choosing and starting their major. Most colleges have enough leeway in their program requirements to allow for a false start. You could take a semester of courses and find out the major really isn’t for you. At that point, you might still be able to apply the courses you took towards your degree, e.g. as general or specified electives. Or you may not be able to apply them to your course grid anywhere, but it won’t hold you back because not every single course you take must be applied towards graduation. And the knowledge you gained will likely come in handy somewhere, so nothing’s really lost.
Where it can get a bit dicey is if you are getting close to graduation. At that point, you can still change majors, but it might cost you another semester or even several if you want to finish up in the new major. Some students choose to double major at that point. After all, if you are close to finishing your chosen major it might make sense to just finish it up anyway. If you like being in school, are learning valuable skills and can afford it, why not just add another major? Many students attending on a full scholarship choose to do this if their scholarship allows for it. You might also consider just finishing the program and then attending a graduate program afterward. Some careers, such as teaching, often require advanced degrees, so grad school might be a part of your plan already. You can focus on something completely different in your master’s program if you can get accepted. Keep those grades up!
Connecting to Your Career
By now you should be getting the picture that what you choose to study as your major in college should lead you into the kind of career you envision for your future. 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. It’s important to find ways to keep learning after school finishes; as you complete your major, be alert for ideas about how you can do this. All the skills you’ve gained from your education will not always apply immediately, and some things you studied might not come in handy until much later in your career. Even though you haven’t completed your learning when you finally earn your degree (who has?), you have presumably learned how to learn and to think critically. Keep looking for ways to learn more and more useful things to apply to your professional life in music.
The Meaning of Your Music Degree
A college degree really only means two things: that you are trainable, and that you can do a certain thing. For example, if your major was performance, it’s understood that you can play your instrument well (hopefully), and are literate as a musician. Most jobs will require some on-the-job training, and employers know this. That’s why they prefer college graduates in so many cases because they know that you have proven you can learn and you will be easier to train than someone without a degree. A college or conservatory education is supposed to prepare you for a life in music, and also should teach you how to think critically.
Having earned a degree, you will also have some awareness of the role of a professional, understand how you can make yourself useful by giving back to society, and know what it means to be a good citizen. You are part of an elite group who have graduated from your particular institution and are ready to make your mark on the world. Getting admitted to a music program and choosing a major is an early step on this road to educational attainment, personal achievement, and professional success in your music career.
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