Thinking of Majoring in Popular Music?

The Catawba College Vernaculars performing the Beatles Abbey Road album live at the Hard Rock Cafe in New York City’s Times Square.

Figuring out where to study popular music can be confusing. This relatively new field may be housed within music industry, music technology, commercial or contemporary music, or songwriting programs. At a few schools, it’s a distinct major unto itself, while at Berklee College of Music, popular music is integrated within every major offered.

One thing is clear: studying popular music on the college level is a growing trend. In the rapidly evolving world of music, it’s a challenge to meet the needs of students and faculty, relates Jeffrey Rabhan, chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music* at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In response, faculty and staff at ten college-level music schools have recently formed the Association of Popular Music Education (APME), to lend credence and visibility to the study of popular music. Their goal as an organization is to “seek educational opportunities for teachers and students” as well as to “develop innovative ways to create, perform, and teach popular music,” says Chris Sampson, APME chair and founding director and associate dean of the Popular Music Program at the USC Thornton School of Music. Membership opportunities will be open to anyone with a vested interested in popular music once the association receives its non-profit status.

What’s Does a Popular Music Major Study?

According to Sampson, there are typically seven basic components to most popular music curricula. The specifics will vary from school to school but areas of study will likely include performance*, a creative component, technology, music business, music theory, music history, and liberal arts classes.

1. Performance

Sampson states that being part of a band and “interacting with other musicians is at the heart of developing skills for the popular musician.” He elaborates, “Ensembles that develop understanding and skills in rock, R&B, country, blues, fusion, funk, alt-styles, etc. are becoming more available in institutions. These opportunities allow students to understand the nuances of various genres, tone production, and stage deportment. They also address the specific ensemble challenges of effectively working in an amplified environment. In addition to a diverse ensemble experience, individual instruction (one-on-one lessons with a professor) are also important in developing the facility and artistic abilities on one’s instrument and/or voice. Finally, programs should offer a wide range of performance opportunities — there is no substitute for progressing one’s skills then to get on a stage regularly in front of an audience.”

2. Creative

From the creative standpoint, Sampson sees popular music as “a living, breathing entity where new repertoire, performance techniques, and technological applications are central to the experience.” He goes on to say, “Many programs integrate songwriting, arranging, and production instruction to promote and integrate creative works from the students.”

3. Technology

“An understanding of the technological applications of music making is essential to popular musicians,” says Sampson. “Digital recording, live technology applications, and digital distribution, among other things, will become the tool box of these musicians.”

4. Music Business

According to David Fish, music department chair at Catawba College and the impetus behind Catawba’s popular music concentration, the how-to’s of building a career are essential aspects of the popular music curriculum. Fish underscores the importance of including pre-professional academic as well as experiential opportunities. Chris Sampson at USC emphasizes the need to introduce popular music majors to relevant publishing, marketing, music contract negotiations, and relevant legal concepts. He says, “The successful musician will understand, navigate and leverage this information to their benefit.”

5. Music Theory

As in any area of music, a solid background in music theory and aural skills is critical. Sampson encourages students to include “classes (arranging, harmony, etc.) specific to popular music, as there are voicings, rhythmic elements and practices specific to the field.”

6. Music History

Understanding popular music within a larger historical and cultural context is important. It brings depth and perspective to performance, business, and communication, and gives popular music the serious consideration it deserves.

7. Liberal Arts

Liberal arts classes are sometimes thought of as irrelevant by students. According to Chris Sampson, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Popular musicians often seek to connect with many people through their music,” he says. “How better to connect with these people than by better understanding the world around you?”

Jeffrey Rabhan at NYU concurs. “Students need to become citizens of the world because this is an arena that knows no boundaries,” he says. He recommends study abroad for this purpose, where students study everything but music so they can round out who they are as people.

*NYU’s program, housed in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, is a non-performance major.

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