<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-TMFBBP" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden"> So You Want a Music Degree: Here's What You Need to Know to Make the Right Decision
Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

So You Want a Music Degree: Here's What You Need to Know to Make the Right Decision

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Whether you've just graduated high school or you've been out of school for years, the idea of earning a college degree is both thrilling and stressful. There are so many opportunities that come with higher education, and expanding your educational horizons is so rewarding. But the future can seem overwhelming, especially when choosing a school and a major. 

When I was in high school, I had dozens of career aspirations: a lawyer, an actor, a veterinarian, you name it. But when it came time to make those big decisions, like picking a school and a subject that I loved enough to study it every day, I felt stuck. I wanted to follow my passions, but I was nervous at the idea of pursuing a degree in college that may not lead to a stable career in the future. 

There were times that I was discouraged from chasing a career in music, but I knew that it was possible to sustain a happy, fulfilling, and stable life as a musician. However, I never had a private lessons teacher or anyone who could help with the process of obtaining a music degree. I was left with a lot of unanswered questions.

When do I apply? How can I get myself ready? What should I practice? What university is right for me? Do I have to become a band teacher? What if I don't want to play in a symphony? Am I good enough?

It's okay to have these questions, and it's important to ask yourself questions like these before you make the decision to get a music degree. But it's also important to get the right information and learn from others' experiences.

Here are some tips to make choosing your path to music education a little less confusing.

Conservatories vs. state universities: what's the difference?

The first step to pursuing a music major is finding the right school for you. This may seem a bit overwhelming if you're not entirely sure what direction you want to take in music, but figuring out what type of institution suits you best will help give you a better idea of how, and what, to prepare. Don't forget, though: it's also important to keep your options open and apply to several different institutions.


Conservatories mainly focus on performance-intensive training. Most courses revolve around music and the students are all generally enrolled in music performance. Competition is very high at conservatories. You won't find sports, Greek life, or marching bands here.

Music schools or music departments at universities

Most universities will offer music as a major and have a department for music/fine arts. Some universities have music schools or colleges as a subset of the university, like a business school or a school of nursing. These programs are less competitive than a conservatory and generally offer more degree path options. Students will also be studying subjects outside of music, and a a general education program usually will be required alongside your major requirements.


Beyond applying and being admitted into the school of your choice, auditioning to get in is the second step to a music degree.

Timing is different for everyone, especially when it comes to education. Personally, I auditioned to become a music major at my state university at the end of my freshman year. For some, auditioning happens at the end of their senior year of high school.

Regardless, when it comes time to start preparing for your audition, check the school's website. That's a no-brainer, but you want to come to your audition fully prepared. Most schools will require a specific repertoire and a solo piece. As for the specific repertoire, there are usually standard excerpts and études for each instrument. For your solo piece, definitely pick a piece that you shine on. If someone woke you up at three in the morning, you should be able to nail that piece.

In addition to basic audition prep, it's also a good idea to schedule a lesson or two with a private instructor for your instrument. Why audition at a school with an instructor you don't like or don't work well with? It may be of interest to also speak to other faculty members if you want to pursue education or other paths outside of performance.  

[5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Music School]

Degree paths 

Bachelor of Music (BM) or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

A BM or a BFA is a degree path that is geared toward students who want to become professional musicians. This is generally a four-year program. The curriculum will consist of mainly music courses and will start on day one, which makes it potentially difficult to change majors once you choose a BM or BFA. Most students in these degree paths will be required to give junior and/or senior recitals. 

Bachelor of Music Education (BME)

A BME degree is usually a long path, and this is due to the music department, education department, and general education requirements. As a BME, you will be prepared to teach kindergarten through twelfth grade. You will also have state licensure preparation, which is definitely a factor that may influence where you choose to go to school. The BME curriculum is pretty diverse and can include conducting, methods classes, private lessons, child psychology, and other classes. You may also need to student assist and/or student teach.  

Bachelor of Arts in Music (BA)

The BA is a very flexible degree and is usually geared toward students who wish to pursue a double major, a career potentially outside of music, or for students who may not have aspirations in performance or education. This degree usually requires base-level music classes with some upper-level courses. It's usually a shorter degree path, though it requires general education classes, and possibly foreign language requirements. 

Bachelor of Science in Music (BS)

The BS degree is offered for music business, music industry, recording, or engineering. Programs for the BS degree can range from one to four years, depending on the type of institution you attend (trade school vs. traditional university, for example). Programs can go by various names, such as music technology, recording arts, production and engineering, etc. 

The course work is comparable to the Bachelor of Arts with private lessons, music theory, and music history. In addition to music studies, computer science, electrical engineering, and physics may also be required for the degree. 

Career paths

I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've heard something along the lines of "You want to be a musician? Good luck with that" or, "What can you do with your degree if you aren't going to teach?" 

I auditioned for my school's music program with the intention of becoming a music teacher. To be honest, I'm not sure why I did that – I definitely did not want to become a band director. But I was so lost as to what I wanted to do because I thought my only choices were education or performance.

There are plenty of prospective, current, and future music majors who may feel the same way. Here are just some of the potential career options for a music degree:

  • Accompanist (public and private schools, music schools and performing arts camps; religious centers and schools; dance rehearsals and performances; other venues)
  • Acoustics
  • Adjudicator
  • Artist management
  • Arts administrator/arts management  (includes box office, concert series, programming house manager)
  • Clinician
  • Copyist, transcriber
  • Copyright consultant
  • Digital aggregator
  • Electronic production and design (including audio engineering, mastering, mixing, music directing, producing, program directing, programming, recording engineer, studio manager, MIDI technician)
  • Entertainment lawyer; music business lawyer
  • Event production, management, planning, technology
  • Film scoring (Composing, editing, supervising, arranging/adapting, mixing, conducting, orchestrating, synthesis specialist, theme specialist)
  • Fundraiser, grant writer
  • Historian
  • Instrument builder, designer
  • Instrument company or music store (owner, manager, sales)
  • Marketing
  • Media development
  • Military bands
  • Music curator
  • Music for game development
  • Music industry
  • Music licensing and clearance
  • Music online and print magazine writing, editing, publishing
  • Music publishing
  • Music therapist
  • Musicologist
  • Public relations agent or coordinator
  • Radio – programming, research, management
  • Royalty analyst, royalty accountant
  • Songwriter (including composer, lyricist, producer; jingle writing for television, radio and internet; freelance work; librettist)
  • Sound design
  • Tours/road work (road manager, sound technician, tour coordinator, tour publicist)
  • Wellness (injury prevention and intervention)

While these are just some career options, you aren't limited to just this list. Explore other careers, interests, and schools, and you may be surprised at what you find interesting. 

[7 Ways I Use My College Degree in My Music Career]

Earning a music degree is difficult and it takes time and hard work, but it can be so rewarding. Hopefully, this information will give you a better idea where to start with your music education. Now it's time to do some research and get into the practice room!


Rachel Bresnahan is an editorial intern at Sonicbids.