Is a Music Degree Worth It and Does It Prepare You for a Music Career?

Singing or playing an instrument is a joyful experience for some people. Making music can be exhilarating, according to professional musicians, who note that the thrill of producing one beautiful melody after another never gets old.

But the training required for a music career is rigorous, musicians warn, emphasizing that music bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees aren’t easy to earn.

“If you’re going to get a music degree, you’re also going to have to practice your instrument — no matter what — and I feel that that’s something that people don’t realize, that it’s also a commitment to your instrument, and that requires hours and hours a day on top of your academic requirements,” says Eugene Uman, the executive and artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center.

Uman, a jazz piano instructor at Amherst College in Massachusetts, urges prospective music students not to underestimate the amount of effort necessary for a music degree.

“It’s not like going to jazz clubs and just hanging out,” he says. “There’s a lot of discipline required … People might come into it thinking that, because it’s music, it’s all about just being intuitive and going with the flow, but there’s a lot of work involved.”

[Read: What You Need to Know About Becoming a Music Major.]

How to Decide Whether to Pursue a Music Degree

A good ear and a knack for producing lovely sounds is not sufficient to become a successful professional musician, other experts agree.

“The person well suited to pursue a career in music will be one that can embrace the grind of incremental, systematic improvement for the sake of their passion,” Mark Clodfelter, interim director of the University of Delaware School of Music, where he is a trumpet professor, explained in email. “They find meaning in repetition with an appetite for a peak performance in much the same way as an Olympic athlete. Talent is only one part of the equation and tends to be superceded by work ethic and tenacity. If you are looking for a ‘get rich quick and easy’ path, music is not for you.”

The median hourly wage among U.S. instrumentalists and singers in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $31.40. The bureau notes that the stress of finding paid gigs is one downside of being a musician, since people within this field tend to have lengthy dry spells where they have trouble securing work. The bureau also suggests that the amount of competition within this field is enormous, since so many people desire work as musical performers.

The bureau notes that no formal education is required for employment as a performing musician, and while experts agree that there are ways of breaking into the music industry without a college or graduate degree in music, they note that such a degree can make it easier to secure auditions since it bolsters credibility.

Meanwhile, for musical directors and composers, the median annual salary was $52,250 in 2020, BLS figures show. The bureau suggests that a college degree is sometimes mandatory for choir director jobs and that a master’s degree is usually necessary for symphony conductor roles, but notes that songwriters who compose popular music do not need a degree.

When evaluating these compensation statistics, keep in mind that famous musicians, conductors and composers sometimes earn astronomical salaries and become millionaires, and this is especially true if they are chart-topping recording artists. Performers affiliated with world-renowned orchestras, choruses or bands may earn six-figure salaries.

“The one advantage in a creative field, is that for the individual who truly achieves at the highest level, the sky is the limit,” Clodfelter says.

[Read: Everything About Acting School and How to Become an Actor.]

Brandon Elliott, a music professor at Moorpark College in California who also performs as a conductor and tenor singer, notes that there is significant variation in the compensation of instrumentalists and vocalists, with some being paid low or modest wages while others are rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

Elliott, the artistic director of the Choral Arts Initiative nonprofit organization in California, suggests that mainstream musical genres such as pop and R&B tend to pay the best wages. “Where masses of people consume, that’s where the money is,” he says.

Pianist, composer, arranger and scholar Deanna Witkowski, who wrote the book “Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul,” suggests that the career choice is a calling for most professional musicians, meaning that they can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.

Elliott notes that an undergraduate degree in music doesn’t require someone to pursue a career as a musical performer. “If you’re thinking you want to be a music major, be a music major, especially if you have a passion and care for it,” he says. “What we get our degree in does not have to directly translate into what we call our profession for the rest of our lives.”

However, he suggests that anyone contemplating a graduate degree in music should seriously consider whether they want to make music the focus of their career before deciding to pursue such a degree.

[Read: What an MFA Degree Is and What You Need to Know.]

Adam Cole, the director of Willow Music – a music program affiliated with a private school for young children in Georgia, notes that music degrees are mandatory for certain areas of the music industry.

“Degrees are absolutely necessary for anyone entering a field where credentials count: Opera and other classical performance jobs, jobs teaching jazz, classical or ethnomusicology, and music education jobs in primary and secondary education,” Cole wrote in an email. “They are largely unnecessary for people working in the entertainment industry — touring musicians, studio musicians, producers, songwriters.”

Cole, who earned both a bachelor’s and master’s in music from Georgia State University, added: “I wouldn’t necessarily discourage someone in the entertainment industry from getting a degree, as the knowledge can only help them excel, provided they have networking skills and some street-smarts.”

Music Careers: What You Can Do With a Music Degree

Though many people are drawn to studying music because they enjoy entertaining others on stage and performing in concerts, there are various ways to use a music degree, including some behind-the-scenes jobs. Here are some examples of music-related occupations, some of which require a specialized credential:

— Band leader

— Music agent

— Music educator or teacher

— Music historian

— Music composer

— Music performer

— Music producer

— Music promoter

— Music scholar or researcher/musicologist

— Music therapist

— Music theorist

— Songwriter

— Sound engineer

Experts note that Broadway shows, movies, symphonies, TV commercials and video games frequently require original music, which creates employment opportunities for songwriters. Musicians who are business-savvy and willing to create music in multiple genres tend to be paid the best, experts say.

Types of Music Schools and Programs

Music degrees can be earned at either performance-focused conservatories or general colleges and universities, and experts say there are pros and cons to each type of music program.

Elliott contends that the advantage of pursuing a music major at a regular undergraduate institution is that there is flexibility in case you decide music isn’t the correct course of study for you, in which case you can switch concentrations. It also supplements lessons in music with courses in other areas, which makes it easier to find work outside the music industry.

Because music performance conservatories emphasize music and performance skills, they are ideal for people who are determined to become musicians and who want to concentrate on training for their dream jobs, Elliott says.

Music programs often require prospective students to audition or submit a portfolio of their work to demonstrate their talent.

Elliott warns, however, that talent alone is usually not enough to get into top-flight music programs, which tend to screen candidates based on their ability to read music and their receptiveness to critical feedback.

Witkowski, a Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh, notes that one advantage of higher education in music is that it gives time and space to develop a craft and grants access to mentors. Such schooling also provides students networking opportunities with classmates and teachers who can serve as professional contacts, says Witkowski, who has a master’s in jazz piano performance from City University of New York–City College and a bachelor’s in classical piano performance from Wheaton College in Illinois.

Though music school isn’t mandatory for a music career, it is typically expected for classical or orchestral music jobs, Witkowski explains. “So music school makes sense for some situations and not for others.”

Searching for a grad school? Access our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.

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