Why Major in Music?
This is the second in a set of three articles designed to help
potential music majors decide if it is right for them and where they
can go with it. To read the other articles, use the navigation bar at the end of this article.
Why Major in Music?
This is a question to which every music major must developed a strong, satisfactory answer. What are your goals in pursuing a degree in music? Are they reasonable? Will they lead to a career in which you can support yourself and your family? Do you love music enough to make it this big of a part of your life?
There are many different answers to these questions; some are reasonable, some are not. This is where the trusted advice of teachers and parents will prove invaluable. A music degree can take you in a lot of directions, often ones that you never anticipated as you began. It is your responsibility to make sure you end up where you want to go.
Performance: A number of music majors begin studying with the dream of making a living off performing music professionally. The majority of them, however, will not end up doing so and only a very, very small percentage of them will make a living solely through performance. The professional music scene, whether popular, orchestral, operatic, jazz, etc. operates much like the professional sports world: a very small amount of people make very high salaries, while the majority make a small amount as a part-time job or hobby. The wise music performance major (even one that is very confident in their ability) continues to nurture a parallel career plan that can support them in the almost certain event that they will not make a living being a Michael Jackson or Pavarotti.
Education: Most music majors make preparing to be a music educator one of the central parts of their education. I believe that this is crucial, not only because music teaching jobs are much easier to come by than lucrative performing jobs, but also because I believe that the best performers are those who know enough about their instrument from teaching it. The areas in which a music student can later teach music are very broad and flexible — everything from a self-employed private teacher to a public high school teacher, to a college professor — and can be combined with a semi-professional performing career to make it more feasible. As students are pursuing their degree, they should be sure to take the required steps to qualify for these positions:
Private Music Teacher: No degree needed but strongly encouraged, one-on-one teaching and small business experience needed to be successful.
K-12 Music Teacher: Music education degree encouraged (but performance majors can take remedial classes to qualify). Teaching credential required in many states (an additional year of study).
College Professor: Doctoral degree or Masters plus extensive performance experience usually required. High school teaching experience often also important to winning position.
Musicology and Composition: A third major area that music majors sometimes pursue is in the area of musicology (including music theory, history and perhaps socio-ethnic studies) and composition. With the rare exception of a handful of movie composers such as John Williams, these areas are designed to lead towards a career of being a college professor who perhaps publishes music or books on the side. For more academic music majors, this area can be not only extremely satisfying but also fairly lucrative.
An important thing to remember about musical careers is that they are almost never simple and easy. They almost always, a least for a beginning period when careers are still developing, require either a secondary part-time job or free-lance work as a private music teacher. (A possible, common exception to this is becoming a public school teacher right out of college.) Many young, budding opera singers hold a “day job” as a bank teller or web designer while working their way up in the industry. Composers almost always sit on university faculties and teach their share of theory and history classes. Making a career in music work requires great faith in oneself, ingenuity and persistence. This, however, is not very different from the chances or demands of a business entrepreneur, financial consultant, or many other professionals. Though the financial rewards may be typically a little lower than these other areas, the job satisfaction is usually much greater.
Pre-professional Degree: A final possible career path for a college music major is often overlooked, but is extremely viable and I would encourage it: complete a Bachelors in Music and then move on a professional degree in another area such as business, medicine, law, etc. The first obvious questions would be Why in the world would you waste four years studying music theory and an instrument when you won’t use any of it in your career? Answering this question exposes some of the common ignorance of the college music major curriculum. Music majors graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and/or Science degree (like any other degree) are required to take a dozen or so “general” courses designed to give them a well-rounded education. This includes classes in the hard sciences (chemistry, physics, biology), soft sciences (philosophy, psychology, sociology, humanities), math, history, literature, foreign languages, performing arts, etc. That means that a music major will have to take many of the same classes they would have to take as any other major, and they can usually easily take the prerequisite courses to apply for a graduate program in other subjects. Making this work, however, will require some research into what prerequisites the desired professional program has and how they can be met at your undergraduate school.
Would being a music major put them at a disadvantage? On the contrary, studies have shown that medical schools take a higher percentage of applying music majors than even bio-chemistry majors. (66% to 44%, see “The Case for Music in the Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan, Feb. 1994). Graduate schools, as well as employers, are usually excited to accept music majors for the strong work ethic skills they learn from their training, as well as the artistic outlook and creativity they developed. It is not at all uncommon for trained musicians to work in a lucrative Silicon Valley software position while performing in a community or company symphony on the side (see Grant Venerable, “The Paradox of the Silicon Savior”).
This article explains the career possibilities of music majors, including some that I did not mention such a music therapy, recording engineer, music management and administration, instrument tuning and repair, publishing, TV and radio. Potential music majors should study the requirements and expected salaries for each before setting any of them as a career goal.
This article explains the feasibility of being a music major, how it compares with other majors, and what viable career paths it can lead to.
What are some of the jobs and areas I can work in with a music degree?