As a Music Major, What Can I Actually Major In?

No two music schools offer the same exact programs, nor do they name their music major areas of study the same way. You’re apt to find out that, as an undergraduate, you can study what you are most interested in at some schools but not at others. You’re also likely to find that some schools cluster certain music majors together and house them under a specific department.

It can get confusing when you try to compare apples with apples!

Add to that the fact that new music major areas of study are continuously popping up in response to new demands, new developments in technology, and sweeping changes in the music world, and it’s even more confusing.

The following list will give you a general sense of areas within music in which you can major. Remember, however, that the best way to understand what you can study is to check school websites for descriptions and curricula.

Arts Management

Some schools offer a Bachelor of Music degree in arts management or performing arts management to prepare students for working in non-profit administration, in college and university concert promotion, and in the commercial music world. Students often have a strong background in one or more of the performing arts, including music. Coursework typically includes a combination of business classes and industry-specific courses such as economics, accounting, finance, law, marketing, and statistics.

Students in this field should plan on getting internships in areas in which they are interested. Graduates find jobs in marketing, public relations, planning, development, operations, fundraising, and education in symphonies, theaters, opera houses, foundations, public arts agencies, and record label companies. Note that courses offered at some schools in arts management may overlap with courses offered at other schools within music industry programs.

Popular Music

Popular Music is offered at a growing number of schools as a degree program for vocalists, instrumentalists, and songwriters as well as those interested in audio recording. More often, pop music is offered within the context of music business or commercial music. But look for more opportunities as schools recognize the demand for these programs.

It’s currently easier to find schools that offer just one or more classes or the opportunity to minor rather than major in: contemporary pop/rock, folk-rock, country, Rhythm & Blues, Urban, Latin/Salsa, and contemporary Christian music.

Jazz Studies

Jazz studies may be performance-based or more academically-based, so be clear about the direction in which you want to go. Jazz is often included in other majors such as performance, music history, and music education, but if you are a die-hard jazz person, you may want to find a jazz-specific program, even a free-standing jazz department.

Auditions are on jazz-eligible instruments – typically brass, woodwind, and percussion or rhythm. Guitar may be included in the jazz program or in a separate guitar major.

A jazz-intense performance curriculum is likely to include private lessons, improvisation, combos and orchestras, music history, theory, composition and arranging in addition to general requirements and a few electives.  Note that some schools require jazz majors to take classical lessons on their primary instrument.

Musical Theater

Depending on the school, musical theater is offered as a major in and of itself; as a concentration within the drama or theater department; or as a focus within the vocal performance program of the music school or department. It’s worth talking with schools as well as people who have taken different routes in musical theater to figure out which way would work best for you.

Music Education

If you are passionate about sharing your love of music with students anywhere from pre-school through college and graduate school, you may want to look at becoming a music ed major.

With a bachelor’s degree, typical job opportunities are in: primary, elementary, and secondary schools; teaching in a private studio; and directing high school band, orchestra or choral music. Graduate level training is typically required to teach university-level classes as a tenured professor, although some schools do allow extraordinarily talented musicians without graduate degrees to teach some classes. According to NAfME (National Association for Music Education) advanced degrees are also recommended for working as a music supervisor/consultant and as a university music school administrator.

Music education majors typically select a vocal/choral, instrumental or general music track. Most schools’ required coursework includes:  vocal or instrumental lessons; music theory; music history; child psychology and classroom management (for K-12 teaching); technology classes; student teaching; and conducting. Prior vocal and/or instrumental proficiency (on at least one instrument) is required of music ed applicants.

You can typically graduate as a performance major and then go back to school for approximately one year (including a stint as a student teacher) in order to gain a master’s degree and certification and licensure as a music educator.

Most important is that you choose to become a music teacher for the right reason: because you love it, as opposed to it being a fall back plan because your other career intentions did not pan out.

Music History

Majoring in music history means focusing on the history of music of Europe and North America, including all periods, styles and genres. Music history majors are proficient on an instrument and will likely be expected to play in a school performance group. However, music history majors typically pursue an area of music other than intensive performance.

Schools that offer a bachelor’s degree in music history (often with music literature) require about a third of the classes in music history and literature, a third in performance and musicianship, and a third in general studies. According to the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), the ability to read foreign languages (typically German, Spanish, French) is also required.  Some schools offer performance versus research tracks. Many music schools  offer music history only through graduate programs in musicology and ethnomusicology.

Music Industry

Some schools call this major “music business” while others house their music technology curriculum within their industry program.  Coursework typically  includes classes in music management and business, contracts and legal issues regarding intellectual property, music publishing, accounting and finance, music promotion, and music administration. Courses offered in arts management at one school may be similar to those offered in music industry at another school.

Music Technology

Students who want to combine and experiment with music as well as technology may want to major in music technology. Fields within music technology, which may at some schools be majors in themselves, include music engineering technology, music production, recording, and audio and sound engineering. Each school will differ, but in general, a music technology major will learn to use current technology and equipment for recording, production, composition and performance. It’s therefore advisable to investigate the studio facilities as well as class size at schools you are considering.

Music Theory and Composition

Some schools may separate these into two distinct majors; others may include music arranging and/or editing within this major. Most music majors will find that they are required to take some music theory classes in order to graduate. But those who want to focus on the relationship of melody, harmony, and rhythm combined with the design and structure of chords as well as on creating their own compositions will want to consider majoring in this field. Typical requirements: composition, theory, aural or ear training, ethnomusicology, performance, and music history.

Music Therapy

According to the American Music Therapy Association, “Music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions” and is used in a variety of healthcare and educational settings to “promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation.”

Music therapy is considered an allied health profession and therapists are trained as musicians as well as helping professionals. Coursework includes music; psychology; biological, social and behavioral sciences; music therapy-specific classes; and general studies.

Graduates with a bachelor’s degree in another area can complete the degree equivalency program in music therapy offered by most AMTA-approved universities by completing only the required coursework (without having to earn another bachelor’s degree). A Master’s in music therapy is also offered by a number of schools.

Performance

Performance majors take 65% of their coursework in performance and performance-related classes. Some schools include pedagogy, accompanying and collaborative performance (vocal and instrumental chamber music, conducted ensembles and opera), while others offer those as part of a graduate program. Other schools offer classes and even an emphasis in early music or historical performance.

Performance majors typically study brass, guitar (classical, studio, jazz), keyboard (piano, harpsichord, organ), percussion, strings, woodwinds or voice. They focus on heightening their performance skills through extensive practice as well as ongoing lessons; developing their own, personal style; and preparing to perform professionally as soloists and ensemble orchestra members.

Vocal performance majors (choral music, choral music education, classical, jazz, opera, studio music) are typically required to take diction classes and complete specific foreign language requirements. They participate in opera as well as other choral and recital performances.

World Music or Ethnomusicology

Students who want to study forms and methods of musical expression throughout the world as well as specific cultural styles of music will find undergraduate majors in world music and/or ethnomusicology at some schools. Consider whether you also want a performance emphasis or an academic, research-oriented focus.

Comments

  1. Olivia

    I am a junior in high school, about to enter my senior year. I play the violin, and I have been only playing for one year, and I am self taught. What are my chances of getting into a music college and what are the standards for an audition?

    • Every school has its own audition (and application) requirements. So check those for any school you’re interested in. Note that this is is very easy to do if the school is listed on MajoringInMusic.com.

      Also think about why you want to major in music and what you’d want to do with it once you graduate.

      As a newcomer to the violin, you would be vying for a spot along with students who have had lessons and have been playing for much longer. So you’d probably want to look for a less competitive school.

      A great way to increase your playing performance proficiency is by taking a summer music program. Some still have room for beginners but act now to sign up.

      And seriously look at private lessons through a community music school, community college, private studio, college, or perhaps a teacher at your high school – to get yourself on a strong practice schedule, get feedback, learn to play in the least injurious way for your body, and to see whether this really is the right path to pursue.

  2. Maddie

    Hello, I am a cellist and I really want to major in music. I want to be a teacher of some sort, but not a band teacher- orchestra is my home. Most of the school districts surrounding my home have gotten rid of orchestras and just have band. Music history sounds cool, but I am not sure that anyone would be into it, if it was what I were to teach. Any suggestions?

    • We suggest you read this article: What Can You Do with a Music Degree as well as this one: Entrepreneurship Training for Music Majors. You’re correct in thinking that there aren’t enough orchestra jobs for all the proficient musicians who want them, but there are so many other things you can do with a music degree if you don’t land a seat in an orchestra but do get the right kind of training. Music history, by the way, is a class you’ll need to take if you’re a performance major. Musicology is a more academic field of music that combines the history and cultural aspects of music. It requires a great deal of writing and research, as well as foreign language study. To teach musicology, you’d need at least a Master’s degree but more likely a PhD.

  3. Marisol

    I’m having a bit of a problem, I’m a singer (vocalist if you will). I’ve been singing all my life without any training, I’m 18 and graduated last year. I went to JWU Charlotte thinking that I wanted to major in Hotel and Lodging, obviously that wasn’t the case. But, I was thinking and all I want to really do is sing. I’ve played a few instruments in high school, but I haven’t in a really long time. I can’t read music anymore, but if you play it for me I could play it back without missing a note, that goes for singing too. I don’t really know what to do though because they usually make you audition..

  4. Desiree Dolan

    Undergraduate degrees in the Arts typically require two semesters of intermediate level foreign language. For many of us, this means two years of language: 2 semesters of elementary and 2 semesters of intermediate. This site is extremely helpful, and I will be referring it to my advisees. I wish that high schools were more informative with regard to the academic nature of fields in the arts. All too often, these subjects are treated as extracurricular activities rather than academic-based fields. Thank you for offering guidance to our young people.

  5. Ashley

    I know when you go as a music education major you choose which instrument as kind of like your primary instrument, is there guidelines to what instrument this has to be? I’m a percussionist and a bass guitarist, would I be able to use bass guitar as my primary study instrument?

    • Just make sure that the schools you apply to offer applied lessons on the instrument you consider your “primary” instrument. As a music education major, you will also be taking technique classes to give you a basic background on instruments other than your own. Check the guidebooks of schools you’re interested in to see the required classes you’d be taking.

    • Look at the websites of schools you’re interested in. Look at the majors offered and then look at course catalogues or view books to see what classes you’d actually be required to take. See whether applied lessons are part of the curriculum and whether there’s an additional fee for lessons. Note that keyboard proficiency is expected in most music programs these days and if you don’t already have that, you’ll likely be required to take at least one class to gain it.

  6. CLEO

    I’m interested in producing (creating) electronic dance music and dj-ing / mixing and also some studio work…..what would be a good major or schools that offer this? I play 3 instruments and have decent music theory and have composed things before too. Thanks.

  7. James

    I want to write music as my major for college and as a most possible career other than teaching music. If I wanted to learn how to write/compose music how would I do that other than basic music for the instrument I already play (baritone saxophone/ sax family) I love any help and would love any thing you have to say!

    • Sounds like you’re looking at composition as a major. Take a look at our article, “Majoring in Composition and Where It May Lead” – Then look at the audition requirements at schools with composition programs and see if you have the background you’ll need. Otherwise, look for other opportunities through electives and possibly private lessons to learn more. Be sure to look at liberal arts colleges where you may be able to study composition without the same audition requirements that conservatory-model programs require.

  8. Agustin

    I’m interested in music production, composition, performance and management.
    Which classes and majors should I be looking at that can cover all these?

    • What do you want to do with your education and training? And what skills and training do you already have? When you can answer those, look at schools and the requirements for getting into majors you named: performance, composition, music management, and production or technology. Also look at the required classes for each major. Which ones matche your skills and career goals? To learn more about all of these areas, read articles on MajoringInMusic.com about each one.

  9. Kaelani

    What classes do I need to take if I want to become a music teacher? I heard the classes are really hard though. How true is that? And what should I expect? Any tips?

    • Most schools will require you to audition on your primary instrument in order to be considered for admission. You will also be taking a number of music theory classes as a music major, so getting some music theory under your belt before you head to college will be very helpful. Getting some volunteer experience working with the age group you’re interested in teaching will also be very beneficial as well.

  10. I’m still in high school but I need to really plan ahead on my major, music. I know I’m going to take Music Education but I’m confused on what I need to take in order to learn different instruments. At my school, music is not really explained to where I know what major classes I need to take, so I need help. For example, I want to be a choir teacher and become, in some way, a Youtuber of a different type of entertainment, I think. So, I know some Youtubers I watch, went to college for a type of engineering so now I’m confused about my classes in the future. I know some of this makes sense but some does not make sense, but I hope anyone understands this. Thank You!

    • We are not aware of language requirements for music therapy majors. Take a look at the curriculum for music therapy majors at any of the schools you’re considering and you’ll see what you will study. Also look at the application and audition requirements. You can visit a number of the schools’ websites from any music therapy article here on MajoringInMusic.com.

  11. Michelle

    I want to do music performance but does it only focus on one section of instruments or can one learn of all of them? I want to learn about brass, guitar, keyboard, percussion, strings, and woodwinds. Do you know if they offer all of these in one?

    • Look at websites of music schools – you can start by viewing the participating schools on MajoringInMusic. You’ll see that students apply and audition on their primary instrument (which can be voice). To be accepted as a performance major, your audition needs to be strong enough to show that you’re ready for the more intensive learning that a college music program provides. Students who are accepted then study this with a professor whose focus is the same instrument. Many music schools offer the opportunity to study a secondary instrument as well, and of course learn other instruments more informally. We assume you are just at the beginning of the process of considering music in college, so we highly suggest you read articles in the “Preparation and Planning” tab on the homepage navigation bar of MajoringInMusic.

  12. The information you have shared is very good. It will help future music students to be clear as to what they really want to do. If I have time I would love to do music technology in the future. Thank you for the info. I will definitely share this with some of my high school students.

    • Every school is different. Those that offer both programs may allow you to double major or major in one and minor in the other. You may also want to consider a BA in Performance so you have time for the work in Music Production. Once you find schools that offer what you are looking for, talk with their admission offices. You can also use the forms on MajoringInMusic.com participating school pages if any of these schools have the programs you’re looking for.

  13. LeeAnn

    Music Therapy seems very interesting to me, but I’m not sure how much science is required for the major/job. How many sciences or which types of science would be required?

    • This is a music-focused curriculum, with classes in psychology, clinical coursework, internships in mental health, special education, or health care settings. There are some science credits you’ll need, but science is not the focus of music therapy programs unless you are heading to a neuroscience-based program such as at Colorado State University. To learn more, look at the music therapy curricula at schools offering this degree program. You can start by reading articles about music therapy on MajoringInMusic.com and visiting the websites of schools listed in those articles. Also visit the website of the American Music Therapy Association.

    • It totally depends on the major. Yes, for majors like musicology, classical voice, collaborative piano. Check each area you’re interested in and schools where you might like to study, to see if there are foreign language requirements.

  14. Maria

    I am very interested in Music Therapy but the college I want to attend doesn’t offer that specific major. The administrator said I could take the necessary classes to build my own degree but I’m not sure how that will benefit me when it comes to getting a job. Any suggestions?

  15. Claire

    If you were to major in theory or composition, how much focus would you need to put on the instrument you study? What instruments can you choose from?

    • Every school is different. Check with the schools you’re interested in to see if there are recommended instruments for theory or composition majors.

      Dr. Rocky Reuter, Head of the Composition Area at Capital University Conservatory, says there is no specific recommended instrument for composition students. He also shares that at Capital Conservatory, all students audition on an instrument and, once accepted, they all take 1 hour lessons on that instrument. Prospective composition majors also have a separate audition and must provide a portfolio as well. But again, every school is different – for instance, at University of Denver Lamont School of Music, prospective composition majors do NOT audition but are required to provide a portfolio with an optional recording. ALL schools are very specific about what needs to be included in the portfolios they require.

      Note that most if not all schools will require you to take basic keyboarding – some will allow you to test out of this if you are already at what they consider to be a high enough level of piano proficiency. Also note that not all music schools offer an undergraduate major in music theory, and that music majors at any school will be required to take several levels of music theory classes in order to graduate.

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