Majoring in Composition & Where It May Lead

Majoring in composition can open many doors to jobs, connections, and endless possibilities for creativity. Here’s what you need to know.

By Caitlin Peterkin

Think about the last movie or television show you watched. Do you remember the soundtrack or score? What about the music in a philharmonic orchestra or opera you’ve seen?

While these are obvious examples of composers’ works, and reflect one of the most common career paths for those who pursue a degree in the field, composition majors have gone on to jobs such as writing art criticism, being a music director for a church, and working at a music publishing house. This variety of career opportunities comes from rigorous training and studies, making connections, and plenty of creativity.

Getting There: Examples of What to Expect

Many universities, colleges, and conservatories throughout the country offer degrees or concentrations in composition at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

At Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, the Bachelor of Music in Music Theory/Composition offers courses in composition, orchestration, electronic music, music history, and advanced theory and analysis. Students also are required to take 12 units of ensemble work. A  jazz-emphasis track is also offered for those interested in jazz composition.

“One of the most important aspects of the program is that we emphasize performance,” says associate professor Joanne Metcalf, “so that by the time a composer graduates, they have had many performances of their compositions and have assembled a solid portfolio of scores and recordings of their music.”

At Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the Bachelor of Music in Composition also places an emphasis on performance, including piano and keyboard proficiency and major ensemble requirements. The curriculum includes music theory and literature, music history, notation and calligraphy, orchestration, and electronic studio resources. Liberal arts courses in foreign language, math, English, and humanities are also expected for students to complete the degree.

The BM in Composition at Ithaca College School of Music provides not only a foundation in traditional Western music, but also exposure to jazz, electronic music, film scoring, and other media. Interaction between composition students and students in other departments is highly encouraged –– film students seek composition majors to score their films while musical theatre majors perform student composers’ works.

Dana Wilson, professor of music, adds, “Composers are required to have a piece played on a composition recital at least once each semester, to develop a specific portfolio, and to give a complete senior recital.”

Another college that encourages inter-departmental collaboration is Cornish College of the Arts. “Students are absorbed in music making, practice, and rehearsals from morning to midnight with lots of opportunities to also collaborate with students from the other artistic disciplines – theater, dance, film, etc.,” says Kent Devereaux, department chair. The BM in Composition allows for exploration in multiple musical traditions, and seminars in composing for jazz orchestra, chamber ensemble, percussion, dance, and more.

Characteristics of a Strong Composition Candidate

• Passion & Curiosity
“When we review composition portfolios, we’re looking for evidence of curiosity and imagination,” says Metcalf at Lawrence Conservatory. “We’re interested in young composers who have opened their ears to compositional developments of the past 25 years – or at least the past 100 years – and tried to implement them in their compositions, rather than trying to imitate composers of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

• Creativity & Imagination
“In evaluating compositions submitted by applicants, we are looking for engaging musical ideas which emanate from creative impetus, musical sensitivity, curiosity, invention, and a substantial appreciation of the experience of creating, performing, and critically listening to music,” says David Dzubay, chair of Indiana University Jacobs School of Music composition department. “The works should display imagination in their use of melody, rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, and texture, and demonstrate the composer’s awareness of elements of extension, development, variation and contrast in creating a formal structure.

• Discipline
While Cornish College of the Arts looks for an individual, distinctive voice and curiosity, Devereaux says, “We also want to see evidence that a young aspiring composer understands the amount of discipline and hard work it takes to learn the craft of composing, so when they graduate from Cornish, they have the skills they need to compose for just about any situation.”

• Basic skills & knowledge
“What high school students need to know is that being a composer is a combination of being creative and having actual skills,” says Ed Smaldone, director of Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College. “You need to be a creator, an imaginative, out-of-the-box person, but you need to know what’s in the box at the same time.”

What Are Auditions Like?

Look at the audition requirements for composition majors at schools you may be interested in attending. You’ll see that composition majors are typically asked to submit a portfolio of manuscripts of original compositions. Often, but not always, instrumental auditions are not necessary. Pay attention to the details of what each school expects, since every school is different. Many schools also require an interview with faculty. And some require a pre-screen, where you’ll need to submit a portfolio (details of which are spelled out by each school) to be considered for an interview, along with an audio recording of a live performance of your compositions.

4 Tips for Becoming a Composer

1. Listen, listen, listen!
“Expose yourself to composers from different time periods and who compose in different styles,” says Devereaux. “Students today have access to more music than ever before so I always encourage composers to just explore and listen to as much as possible.”

2. Go online.
“Get on SoundCloud and YouTube and seek out music by living composers that will fire your imagination – composers like David Lang, Steve Reich, Jacob TV, Louis Andriessen,” suggests Metcalf. “And start getting to know the music of some of the important figures of the last century: Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Ives are good to start with.”

3. Learn to play the piano.
“Piano is an important tool to be able to realize and experiment,” says Smaldone.

4. Learn to improvise.
“The ability to improvise is crucial for composition – if you can’t improvise, you have no idea how to make things happen in real time,” emphasizes Smaldone.

5. Network.
Both Dzubay and Wilson suggest getting to know many performers. Not only will they expose you to new material and help open your mind, but it is crucial to have experienced musicians to play your compositions live, which is “the ultimate learning experience.”

Is Grad School Necessary?

While students with an undergraduate degree can go on to have successful careers, many professionals in the field encourage pursuing advanced degrees, especially if teaching is a goal.

“In general, I’d recommend at least another two years of study in composition for a composer’s technique to fully come to fruition,” says Lawrence Conservatory’s Metcalf.

Devereaux estimates that about half of Cornish students go on to pursue grad school. “It’s definitely something that we encourage because it allows the student to further broaden their base of understanding and continue to hone their craft,” he says. “We’ve also been very successful at getting all of our grads into the top composition grad programs with full scholarships and TA positions, so why wouldn’t they?”

Career Paths in Composition

Besides traditional composing, film composing, and teaching, composition graduates have gone on to a variety of positions, including:

  • Arts administrator
  • Arts writer
  • Arts consultant
  • Band manager
  • Choral conductor
  • Music producer
  • Publisher
  • Theater company owner

Caitlin Peterkin is a writer/editor and arts enthusiast who has worked as program manager for Earshot Jazz (Seattle) and has written for, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Paste Magazine. She graduated from Indiana University Bloomington with a B.A. in Journalism and a minor in Music.


  1. Julia

    I have a BA in English but am passionate about pursuing a career in music (specifically music composition for piano). I took piano lessons as a child and still play but don’t have any formal schooling under my belt. Since I already have a BA, I’d be looking into a graduate/Master’s program. I am wondering what my options would be considering my relative lack of experience. I know how to read music and even had a job as a piano teacher for a year, but I have never actually written out any compositions and don’t have a portfolio of work to show. Any suggestions?

    • Take a look at the application/audition/portfolio requirements for graduate programs in music composition. This will tell you what you need to know in order to proceed. Note that there are also other ways to improve your proficiency, learn music theory, and study composition beside getting a degree. Consider community colleges as well as online programs where you can learn more.

  2. Britney

    I’m a junior in high school and I’m interested in majoring in composition in order to get into the media/commercial/film area of work. Do you think it is very important/necessary to get a high school composition instructor before applying for college?

    • Look at the application/audition requirements at schools you may want to apply to. You’re likely to see that an interview and a portfolio of your original scores and recordings are part of the application process. A video of you performing on your primary instrument may also be required. If you don’t feel like you’ll be ready to meet these requirements by next fall, it would be good to get assistance now. Also plan to take a summer music program where you can focus on the areas where you fall short in order to be ready to apply to music schools in your senior year.

  3. Micah

    I’ve been perfecting a song solely within the confines of my own mind for the past 5 years, and it’s so frustrating not being able to do anything about it. And that’s not the only thing; I have dozens of other little themes and ideas swimming around. I think a degree in music composition could help me.

  4. Gabriel

    What I really hope to do one day is make Electronic music for the masses, just because great artists have inspired me with their writing and creativity. I’ve been learning the technical side of production at home, so I’ve been considering getting a degree in Composition after high school, since I want to know how the emotional aspect of music works. After all, drawing inspiration from multiple genres (such as classical for a composition degree) would give me a bigger pallet to work with. Is it worth going after this major in my case?

  5. Joan

    I’m an international student interested in majoring in music composition, but I was wondering what are schools looking out for when they look at our compositions that we send in as portfolio? Also what are the success rates in getting in?

    • Every school is different. So we suggest you contact each one you’re interested in applying to and ask this question if it is not already answered on their website under their audition/portfolio requirements. Schools that ask for a portfolio often want you to interview with them as well.

      The acceptance rates also vary from school to school depending on how large the department is, how competitive the school is, how ready and able they feel you are for their program, and whether they think their program can provide the education and training that will help you take your music up many notches.

      Most students apply to a range of schools including one that they are likely to get in to and would be fine going to but not their top choice (“safety” school); a school that may be beyond their abilities but worth trying for anyway (“reach” school); and a few schools in between for which you think you’re a good fit from everything you’ve learned about the schools and know about yourself (“match” schools).

  6. Nyne

    I’m entering my senior year of high school. My parents want me to become a lawyer but I love music. I’ve been playing ever since I was 8, and I recently became interested in music composition as a major to go to college for. I know I want to go to college for music and I started playing around with writing pieces, and I really enjoy it, but I don’t know for sure if its what I should do. Any advice?

    • First, look at the application and audition requirements at schools you’ve been thinking about applying to. Do you think you’d qualify? Then, look at the required classes for composition majors. How excited are you when you realize what you’d be studying? Are you equally interested in pre-law and going to law school? It’s not unusual to be unsure of what you want to focus your career on at this point – for a lot of students, that’s what they go to college to find out. Liberal arts schools with strong music departments offer the opportunity to explore your interests before committing to a single focus and also typically allow you to double major, so consider that route as an option.

    • The B.A. degree requires less music classes than the B.M. Check out this article on music degrees for more information.

      If you choose to go on to graduate school in composition, it’s possible you’d need to make up a few classes if you go the B.A. route. However, the B.A. does allow you to take more electives, and you may be able to use them to deepen your study of composition and related areas. We suggest you talk with the music faculty at schools you’re considering to find out about the options they offer and how you can get what you want.

  7. Christopher

    I am interested in transferring from a community college to study composition. I recently received my decision letter from a major contemporary school and didn’t get in. I also received an invitation to another major school in NYC after passing the prescreening round. I have 3 auditions next month and two of them only consists of interview, tests and review of my scores. Whats the best approach to an audition like this in which I don’t have to play my primary instrument? Just bring my scores and….?

    • Congratulations on getting through some prescreens! Have you read our article about transferring from community college to a 4-yr. school? It may be insightful for you.

      We assume you’ve read everything on the sites of the schools you’ve been invited to audition at. If you have any questions about each of them, it’s always best to contact the admissions office as well as the department you’re applying to. It’s a great way to make yourself known before you actually show up for your audition. And it shows you’re a serious candidate.

      We assume whatever you will be auditioning with will be an excellent reflection of the kind of student you will be. Remember that the schools are auditioning for you, too. The audition is all about finding the right fit, for both sides. We encourage you to read as many of our audition articles as you can – there are all kinds of suggestions and tips in each of them.

  8. Reagan

    I am considering majoring in music composition but I have never had piano training at all. I know what each key is but I can’t play anything I write… It can be frustrating but I’m willing to learn. I don’t really know where to start though. What is your advice?

    • All schools are different in terms of application and audition requirements, but as a general rule of thumb, being proficient on piano is vitally important for majoring in music composition. And these days, piano proficiency is expected of music majors in general at most schools. For applying to a conservatory or music school, you would also likely be asked to show samples of your compositional work. Whether you can get yourself to the level of proficiency necessary to make it through the audition process through private lessons and daily practicing depends on how close (or far) you are to the time when you’ll need to be auditioning. Another route to consider would be a liberal arts college with a strong music program, where you would not need to audition and could explore music composition along with other areas of interest. Note that were you to get accepted into a composition program, you’d be expected to take several levels of music theory. Gaining at least a basic foundation in music theory before college would therefore be advisable.

  9. P.

    Considering the historical gender imbalance in this field, I think this article could have had at least one female student composer, rather than three males.

    • Braden

      Don’t make this a gender thing. It has nothing to do with it and it wouldn’t make a difference if there was a female student up there. Of course women can become composers, as to the women reading this, GO FOR IT! It is an amazing field of work and I believe anyone can do it.

      • SB

        I’m a woman interested in and pursuing music composition (working on my masters). P, there is no wrong in doing so, and as Braden said, don’t make it a women vs men thing. It’s just petty. Just do what you love and strive for YOUR best, not in trying to get noticed in opposition to the opposite sex. Focus on what you love. All that other stuff doesn’t matter. What brought you to the site was your love for music, so let’s keep it at that and get the help we need to succeed! I love that I found this site. It’s awesome to know it exists so I can share it with others.

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