Music School & Music CareersHow to Become a Musician

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Music sales across the globe totaled $15 billion in 2014 alone, according to IFPI, with the majority of money split evenly between digital and physical copy sales. Music is a hugely diverse industry, with position for skilled musicians spanning areas ranging from producing and mixing to performance and orchestration. Whether your aspiration is to lead a world-class symphony, land a gig on the road or compose film scores, the following guide can help. Information about the variety of degrees is included, as well as an in-depth discussion on popular careers in the field.

Music Degrees and Careers At-a-Glance

Completing a music degree opens up a wide world of possibilities for graduates because music plays such an integral role in society. Whether focusing their efforts in composition, performance, teaching or theory, graduates find jobs in symphonies as orchestra members, at schools as teachers, on the road as touring musicians, in studios as session musicians or working with film directors to compose scores for movies and documentaries. They may use their talents to produce music or teach others how to play instruments, and each day promises the opportunity to use artistic and creative skills to produce a beautiful work of art.

How to Get a Music Degree & Career in Music

Step 1
Start Practicing at an Early Age
Whether parents or guardians elect to bring children to toddler music groups, start them in private lessons at kindergarten or encourage them to join a school band in elementary school, all of these are prime times to begin music lessons. In the same way that children more easily learn a second language, picking up an instrument while young provides for easier access to proficiency. Years of practicing and lessons may have felt like a chore at the time, but they serve students well in their future endeavors.
Step 2
Keep Practicing
Ever heard of the 10,000-hour rule? This theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell states that it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a talent, and music falls into his framework. Anyone who has ever devoted themselves to an instrument knows that, despite passion for the music, there are days when the last thing you want to do is practice. Running scales isn't as glamorous as playing in front of a crowd, but the musicians standing on stages and playing for adoring fans are the ones who pushed through seasons of monotony and continued perfecting their art. Stick with it.
Step 3
Complete a Music Degree Program
Like many other disciplines considered an art form, degree requirements are less stringent than those found in areas like business and law. Even if a degree isn't required, there are components of music composition and performance that may not be learned simply through practice and lessons. Understanding theories behind how music is formed and made serves as a foundation for creating new music, while taking part in college ensembles and performances gives students skills they'll need for future gigs.
Step 4
Get Your Name Out There
The majority of different professional paths in music are unconventional in their advertising and hiring techniques, and many positions are filled through word of mouth or contacts within the industry. While teaching positions tend to be more formalized, road gigs, session calls, and film scoring roles are highly competitive and most producers and directors use their networks to find suitable musicians. Whether offering private lessons, playing local shows, regularly updating music pages, or attending concerts, staying in front of industry professionals who call the shots is a crucial component to finding success as a musician.

What Music School
Programs and Degrees Are Available?

Find the Right Music School

Career Goal and/or educational needs Associate Bachelor's Master's PhD
I took music lessons for a few years when I was younger, but haven't picked up my instrument in years. While a four-year degree is too intensive, I would like to relearn to play and learn more about the theory behind how music is made.
Having taken years of lessons and played in the high school band, I know that music is my passion. The next step is to continuing practicing and bettering myself, but to also examine music at a collegiate level. I'm excited to join ensembles and dig into music history.
I've been playing my whole life and my professional career has revolved around music, but I'm ready to commit myself to further education in hopes of gaining a leadership role in music, perhaps as an orchestral conductor or lead film scorer.
I've enjoyed the sometimes unpredictable life that comes with music – particularly my time on the road – but I'm also ready to find a more stable position, and teaching is the path I want to follow.

Degrees from Music Schools & Programs

Degrees in music range from two-year associate programs offered by countless community colleges to PhD programs at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Use the following descriptions to identify the type of program that best suits future interests and goals.

Associate Degree in Music

An associate degree in music provides students with the foundational knowledge and skills they'll need to further develop their performance or composing skills without requiring four years of study. Most associate programs are tightly focused on courses related to music, while undergraduate degrees also include studies in the liberal arts or sciences.

Music Reading

This introductory class exposes students to the basics of reading sheet music, including common notations, important terminology, signatures of key and time, scales, meter, rhythm, triads and intervals.

Skills Gained

  • Ability to read sheet music

  • Understanding of common terminology

  • Awareness of different ways of playing music and how it is conveyed in written form

Listening to Music

Students learn how to be active listeners in this first-year course and are asked to consider music as both an art and a science. Music from across the world will be studied and dissected throughout the term.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of different musical forms

  • Ability to explain how culture informs musical styles and sounds

  • Awareness of the different functions of music

Music Composition

Students are exposed to the basic rules of music composition, including common techniques for creating original sounds. Some of the areas covered include songwriting, formal vs. informal structures, score development, and the use of melodies and harmonies.

Skills Gained

  • Development of elemental songwriting skills

  • Ability to discuss different styles of music composition

  • Understanding of how harmonies and melodies are used as tools

Bachelor's Degree in Music

Music is a popular choice at the undergraduate level as it provides the educational foundations that some employers may be seeking while also exposing students professional study in the art of music. Although students at this level have likely been practicing their instrument for a number of years by the time they reach college, these programs help them develop skills in areas of group performance, individual playing, theory, ear training and composition.


Typically required for more than one semester, harmony classes introduce students to harmonic theories and principles throughout different styles of music. Students will be expected to display an understanding of the similarities and differences in harmonic development in areas of jazz, popular music, and classical compositions.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of chord structures

  • Ability to use major and minor keys in composition

  • Awareness of how harmonics vary by genre

Music Technology

This course teaches students about digital music recording of MIDI files, including how to create, edit, and publish them. In addition to classroom learning, students spend time with the technology and gain hands-on experience.

Skills Gained

  • Awareness of the history of electronic music
  • Ability to compose and edit pieces created on MIDI equipment
  • Development of the skills necessary to meet industry standards of digital recording

Music Business

Although most musicians plan to compose, play, or record music, it never hurts to understand the business side of the industry. This course introduces students to the inner workings of the music industry and acquaints them with various professionals they'll work with throughout their careers.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of how music is marketed and sold
  • Awareness of the music business industry, including music law, live promotions, management, road crews, merchandising, and publishing
  • Ability to navigate industry standards in music business

Master's Degree in Music

A master of music is a popular choice for individuals seeking professional and advanced roles in music; at Yale University, 70 percent of music students are enrolled in this graduate program. Aside from core studies in areas of theory, music history and ear training, students have much room to personalize their studies to future interests and specialize in a particular area of music. Common courses include:

Hearing and Analysis

This course requires students to explore many different styles of music with the end goal of developing aural and analytical skills. Coursework requirements typically includes the composition of a short piece of work demonstrating their understanding of style choices.

Skills Gained

  • Awareness of different composition choices

  • Understanding of how to analyze aural components

  • Development of original composition


Students are introduced to the art of conducting in this foundational course. Throughout the semester, learners examine popular conductors throughout time while learning proper baton technique, hand movements, and orchestration.

Skills Gained

  • Ability to conduct a short piece
  • Understanding of how to read scores
  • Awareness of the different styles of conductors throughout time

Individual Instruction

Taken every semester of a master's program, private lessons in the student's primary instrument encouraged continued learning and refinement through advanced studies in composition, performance and conducting.

Skills Gained

  • Development of specialized skills in composing, performing, and conducting
  • Ability to continue learning new skills
  • Understanding of the importance of consistent practice and learning

PhD Degree in Music

The vast majority of students electing to study music at this level intend to work in a teaching or research position upon graduation, and curriculums are designed to move them closer to that goal. A mix of class lectures, laboratory meetings, private lessons, and group performances are underpinned by advanced study of the theories and frameworks that inform the discipline.

Advanced Composition Projects

This course includes both classroom meetings and laboratory time in an attempt to expose students to the deepest study of composition. Students must be reviewed by a jury after this course to ensure their work is on track.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of advanced composition theories
  • Development of composition skills to a fuller extend
  • Ability to discuss theories of composition

Historiography in Practice and Theory

Students are exposed to the many different topics in music that have been theorized over time, ranging from timbre and rhythm to psychoacoustics and notation.

Skills Gained

  • Awareness of varied theories related to music practice and composition
  • Understanding of how the past influences current musicality
  • Ability to discuss music history throughout time

Foundations of Ethnomusicology

This course in ethnomusicology the study of music within a cultural context, exposes students to the anthropological aspects of the discipline. Coursework includes reviewing the work of foundational ethnomusicologists who popularized the field while also asking students to think about music differently.

Skills Gained

  • Ability to recognize how culture affects music
  • Understanding of ethnomusicology as a discipline
  • Awareness of the founding members of this branch of musical study.

Career Paths in Music

Although sometimes glamorous and always exciting, being a musician isn't the only career option in the field of music. Individuals can find themselves doing almost anything from headlining a major tour to teaching kids. The following positions are some of the most common in music that provide individuals with an opportunity to pursue a passion, while also showcasing their talents, creativity, and skills.

A&R Representative

A&R reps typically work for record labels. In addition to managing and developing current talent, A&Rs also find new artists to work with and sign to the label. This process includes scouting out talent, reviewing demos, negotiating contracts, and helping artists make career decisions once they've signed on with the label.


A postsecondary degree in music, merchandising, business, communications, or marketing is typically required.

Music Therapist

Music therapists utilize music as a form of treatment to help patients with psychological, developmental or emotional issues. They may work with the patient to compose songs, or play music while the patient engages in other therapeutic activities. Due to the universal nature of music, this type of therapy is often used with patients that have trouble communicating in a conventional way, such as young children or those with learning disabilities.


Bachelor's or master's degree in music therapy. Students can also opt for the graduate equivalency program, which lasts approximately two years.

Music Composer

That catchy earworm from a commercial you heard the other day? A music composer is responsible for creating that tune. Music composers write or compose music for any number of needs, including movies, television shows, commercials, video games, orchestral concerts, and musical theater performances. They also frequently write song lyrics, play instruments, give music lessons and assist other musicians and artists to create or record music.


Formal higher education is not required; however, a bachelor's degree in music theory or music composition can enhance a resume.


The title ‘instrumentalist' is an all-encompassing term for a musician who plays one or more musical instruments. Where they play is practically limitless, and instrumentalists can be found in orchestras, bands, or as solo artists. They may also be primarily a touring artist and perform across the country and throughout they world, or they may be located in a primary location, such as a major city's symphony. Job tasks may also include teaching others how to play via music lessons.


Those who want to play in a formal orchestra or other extremely competitive group benefit from a bachelor's or master's degree in a music-related field.

High school music teacher

High school music teachers work with students to either begin learning an instrument or advance their existing knowledge from previous classes. Areas of teaching vary but can include music appreciation, band (jazz, concert or marching), music theory, chorus, music composition, digital music, or a specific instrument such as guitar or piano. In addition to music instruction, these professionals may also teach another subject, such as drama or public speaking.


All states require public high school teachers, including music teachers, to have at least a bachelor's degree, preferably in an area related to the subject they teach. A master's degree may be required in some states.

Music Journalist

Think about your favorite articles in Rolling Stone or Billboard and you'll get a good sense of what a career in music journalism entails. Whether reporting on music-related news or producing longer form editorials, the life of a music journalist is varied and interesting. Pieces cover a range of topics, including forthcoming albums, tour reviews, interviews, or news within the industry. In order to stay up-to-date with what's going on in the industry, music journalists attend social events such as release parties and concerts, and rub elbows with notable individuals in the process.


No formal education is required; however, a degree in English, communications, journalism, or history can be helpful.

Record Producer

An extremely popular, prestigious and coveted position, record producers work with their artists to pick the best songs, find the right studio for recording, and identify top musical support to create the album or record. This support team includes a music arranger, sound engineer and background singers or instrumentalists to contribute to the overall sound. Even after the recording is done, the record producer oversees the sound editing and makes decisions as to how the final product will be marketed.


A graduate degree in music or a music-related field is recommended.

Music Librarian

A music librarian organizes and oversees a wide collection of different types and forms of music, including both recorded and sheet. In addition to filing, cataloguing and archiving musical media, the librarian may also be asked to help choose certain types of music used in media to ensure it means requisite broadcasting standards and levels of sound quality.


A bachelor's degree in library science or a music-related field is generally needed, followed by a master's degree in library science.


Also known as a maestro, conductors direct musical groups for the presentation and playing of a musical piece. At a minimum, a conductor will use hand and other gestures to control a group of instrumentalists or vocalists and ensure everyone is playing in the correct tempo, rhythm and style. Most conductors also spend time before a performance reviewing and studying a piece to be played so s/he knows the best way to conduct it, from either a technical or interpretive point of view.


A bachelor's or master's degree in music theory, composition or other music-related field is necessary.

Components of a Successful Music Career: Skills, Tools, and Technology


The world of music requires more than just talent. The following skills will be valuable to anyone who is seeking a career within the industry.

  • Musical gift

    Many people enjoy writing, playing and listening to music, but that doesn't mean they are exceptionally talented in it. A person needs to be very good at what they are doing to make a career out of it, especially in a competitive environment like the music industry.

  • Creativity

    Much of an individual's success in music comes from being original and creating something unique. Because careers in music generally have no set path, creativity is key. The most successful people working in the industry know where they want to be and that getting there may entail unexpected changes or exploring routes never envisioned before.

  • Networking

    A career in music is especially unique in that it relies heavily on knowing the right people. To be successful, musicians and music professionals must be ready to promote their own work and ask acquaintances or colleagues to put a good word for them.

  • Patience

    It might take a while to get that big break or land a dream job in music, with some of the most successful music icons spending over a decade honing their craft before gaining fame. There will likely be many failures and rejections along with the way, in addition to working less exciting jobs to pay the bills. Reaching professional and musical goals takes time, so the majority of people who succeed in this arena do it for the pure love of music.

  • Hard work

    Even with knowing the right people and having amazing talent, hard work is still very important for jobs in music, especially for careers as instrumentalists, conductors or vocalists. Author Malcolm Gladwell espouses the idea of the 10,000 hour rule, stating that to truly become exceptional at something, a person needs to practice at least 10,000 hours. Putting that amount of time toward anything requires discipline, concentration, perseverance, and plenty of hard work.

  • Technology & Tools

    Because music careers are so varied, it's difficult to pinpoint the exact tools and technology required for success in the field. The tools or technology used is largely dependent on the particular job. For example, an instrumentalist's primary tool will be the musical instrument he or she is proficient in playing. Even a music composer, while having a level of familiarity and proficiency with musical instruments, may work primarily with a sound synthesizer, musical instrument digital interface, and computers when composing or arranging music, instead of handling actual musical instruments.

    In addition to any of the plethora of musical instruments and equipment listed above, other types of tools and technology used by those with a career in music may include:

    [accordion title="" limit="5" component-theme="primary" controls="false"] [accordion-item title="Tools & Technology You May Use"]
    • Baton
    • Audio mixer
    • Condenser microphone
    • Amps
    • Portable digital recorder
    • Headphones
    • Music recording software
    [/accordion-item] [/accordion]

Music Career Salaries

Compensation for individuals working in music varies greatly. Factors include the type of role, location, and how successful an individual is in leveraging knowledge and creativity. The chart below lists median salaries for the top music professions.

Producer and director
Post-secondary music teacher
Sound engineering technician
Music instrument repairer and tuner
Musician and singer
Music director and composer

Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook in the Music Industry

Given the nature of the field, it is unsurprising that job growth in this arena can be wildly different, depending on the position. While choreographer roles are expected to grow by 24 percent between 2012 and 2022 due to the popularity of dancing in pop culture, directors, composers and musicians will see only a 5 percent growth during the same period. One of the reasons for this slow growth is that many of the employers for these types of jobs – operas, orchestras and musical groups – typically have limited amounts of funding.

The following states offer the highest projected growth for various music professions from 2012 to 2022.

Producer and director

1. Utah
2. Washington
3. Colorado
4. Oregon
5. Texas
6. Arizona
7. Connecticut
8. Montana
9. Tennessee
10. Florida

Sound engineering technician

1. Utah
2. Colorado
3. Arizona
4. South Carolina
5. Georgia
6. Washington
7. Texas
8. Tennessee
9. Ohio
10. Kentucky

Music instrument repairer and tuner

1. Oregon
2. Montana
3. Washington
4. Alabama
5. Texas
6. Wisconsin
7. Kansas
8. South Dakota
9. New Mexico
10. Indiana


1. Oregon
2. Utah
3. Alabama
4. Virginia
5. California
6. Kentucky
7. Mississippi
8. Wyoming
9. South Dakota
10. Texas

Musician and singer

1. Washington, D.C.
2. Utah
3. Kentucky
4. Tennessee
5. Texas
6. Indiana
7. Montana
8. Virginia
9. Arizona
10. North Carolina

Music director and composer

1. Tennessee
2. Utah
3. Texas
4. Washington, D.C.
5. Colorado
6. Georgia
7. Florida
8. Indiana
9. Virginia
10. Nebraska

Music School and Career Resources

American Federation of Musicians

In addition to a variety of resources, the AFM also maintains and extensive portion of their website devoted to helping young musicians get their start.


ASCAP is comprised of more than half a million music professionals in the world, including composers, music publishers, and songwriters and helps ensure musicians receive royalties.

Being a Session Musician

John Garden is a composer, mixer, and musician with decades of experience. His website includes a section devoted to sharing everything he knows about being a session musician, including how to find – and keep – work.

Nashville Musicians Association

Nashville a.k.a Music City has long been a concentrated city for musicians, and the NMA connects musicians in the city with jobs.

Music Teachers National Association

Formed in 1862, MTNA has been the leading voice for music teachers in America for more than 150 years. Today the member-based organization provides collegiate chapters, student resources, and a variety of publications.

Related Careers at a Glance

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