Planning to Major in Music

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 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.

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