This is a wise question, potential music major. It’s also a complicated one.
With rising tuition costs to consider, a constantly changing job market, and the harsh reality that making money out of music has never been easy, you’re now faced with a decision that seems rife with consequences, and disappointingly bereft of easy answers.
If you’re looking for those elusive easy answers here, I’m afraid you won’t find them. What you will find is help in thinking through the question thoroughly. What kind of education do you want? What jobs are you considering? What does a music degree offer you? Are any songs actually written in the Locrian mode?
By the end of this post, you may not have an easy answer, but you’ll hopefully be on your way to an informed one.
First, consider whether you even want a music degree.
I realize I’m stating the obvious here, but you’d be surprised how many students sign up for music programs in college without realizing the dedication required to succeed in such intense programs.
Music degrees aren’t an easy way to avoid college-level math; they’re the next step in a lifelong love affair with music. Most music degrees require you to pass a performance audition just to get in, which means you’ll need much more familiarity with an instrument than that handful of piano lessons from Ms. Moffit. You need to love music first and foremost and be prepared to dedicate much of yourself and your future to the life of a musician.
Additionally, the workload for most music degrees is both intense and intensely focused. You’ll be involved in plenty of concerts, projects, and recitals beyond usual school hours, and if you’re hoping for a broad and varied education, you might leave disappointed. There’s a lot of music history, performance, and theory to pack into a four-year degree; only so many credits can be spared for off-topic interests. And that might apply to musical interests as well…
Not all music is treated equally among the stately halls of higher education. American universities are an old, Western institution, and as such, they tend to favor old, Western things. A classical education in music can certainly make you a better musician, no matter where you take it, but it’s important to keep in mind that you’re going to have to learn and play certain music in certain ways. If you want to learn the history of Western classical harmony and theory (and who doesn’t, right?), you’re certainly in luck! But if you’re looking to find ample support for your funk, pop, or even jazz ambitions, be prepared to do some digging. While colleges are slowly increasing their depth and variety, it can still be difficult to find a program perfectly suited to your more modern tastes.
What about jobs?
While education for education’s sake is a laudable ideal, the unfortunate reality is that college takes a lot of time and money. If you don’t have much of those to spare, you need to have an actual use for your degree in mind.
What would you like to do with the degree? Teach? Perform? Compose? This is especially important for a student of music because music isn’t as flexible as something like marketing or communications. Your education is very specific, which makes your choice of related careers that much smaller.
Traditional music degrees are best suited for composing, performing, and teaching, particularly in the classical music and higher education worlds. If you are interested in a particular degree, contact the university and ask to see what their graduates actually ended up doing. Are you interested in those jobs? If so, this degree thing may work out after all!
However, if your ambitions are to teach privately, shred your way through the underground rock scene, or compose independently for video games or television, you may find a degree entirely unnecessary, or even counterproductive. The years and thousands of dollars you would spend learning what the school wants to teach you could go towards buying your own equipment, making relevant connections, and learning more about the style of music that really matters to you.
Consider what a music degree will do for you…
First and foremost, music degrees offer formal training in a way you can’t always find on your own, especially when it comes to Western classical theory. You’ll have access to professors, equipment, other musicians, and information in a structured manner that, if you find the right school, will shape and improve the way you think about music. These degrees often have you working on a weekly basis with an instructor, and that kind of in-person investment in your education can be invaluable.
There’s also a plethora of networking opportunities unique to the world of academic music. This is especially important if you want to teach at a college, play in a symphony, or compose professionally. The worlds of classical music and higher ed are closely interconnected, and the people you meet through college will often be the ones providing you jobs and opportunities years down the line.
Finally, some jobs just require music degrees. Particularly educational positions, so it’s definitely worth considering whether that’s the case for your own career ambitions.
…and what it won’t.
However, a music degree won’t offer you the secondary skills necessary to be a good professional musician. There are a number of critical tools that just haven’t found their way into most traditional music education. For example, being able to record and produce your own music is invaluable, even if just to create demos to send potential employers or clients. Creating your own website, managing your presence on social media, and putting your content out on platforms like YouTube, Bandcamp, and Twitch are also rapidly becoming crucial in the lives of independent composers and performers. Even if you earn a fancy degree, you’ll likely be left to learn these things on your own.
Speaking of taking ownership, a music degree—like any other degree—won’t guarantee you a job. It might help you find a job, or even get you that first interview, but securing the job is up to you; not your professors, not your university. Your education is only as valuable as you make it.
Which brings us to our final point: a music degree won’t make you a good musician. It won’t make you love music, and in some cases, it could do just the opposite. A good music degree will offer you incredible amounts of potential, but it’s up to you to actually make something of that potential. You want to master an instrument? Practice. You want to have your music played by the school choir? Make connections. Ensure your passion, dedication, and vision come first, then actively use your degree as a way to fulfill them. Otherwise, you risk leaving school with only a handful of new chords to show for your tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.
I still want a music degree! What now?
Wow! I am impressed and pleased with your continued enthusiasm! Well, there are still a thousand little decisions that come next: what type of music degree would best fit your goals? Which university offers the best program? What sorts of transfer credit could you bring in? And most importantly, how are you going to pay for all of this?
That’s where Unbound comes in. Our academic advisors are trained to help you answer questions just like these. They’ll take the time to get to know you and your specific situation—not only your educational dreams but your goals beyond college. Then they’ll help you determine the best route for reaching those goals, and may even be able to help you save some money along the way.
So go ahead and set up a free consultation and see where it leads! At the very least it will help you to define your vision, communicate it to someone else, and get some honest feedback.
Like any artistic endeavor, music isn’t a surefire way to secure a comfortable job with status and money to spare. You’re often going to be working twice as hard for half as much, all for your heartfelt love of the chromatic scale. The life of a musician isn’t an easy one. But it is a uniquely rewarding one.
Whether you go for the degree, chase your punk rock dreams, or head off to law school and dabble in violin on the side, I wish you the very best.
Now go practice some scales! You’ve been procrastinating long enough.
Bryan is an Unbound graduate, small business owner, and self-professed jack-of-all-trades. He lives every day creating and enjoying things created—from practicing his guitar to writing scripts for audio dramas to reading memoirs of dead Roman emperors. In his spare time, you can find Bryan driving aimlessly and listening to video game music.Read more by Bryan