Music degrees prepare students for careers not only as professional musicians but also as the people who play important roles behind-the-scenes.
And there are plenty of ways students can earn these degrees, from two-year associate programs that can give people the knowledge they need for entry-level jobs to doctorate programs involving years of research.
Anyone interested in becoming a music teacher will take education classes as well as hands-on instrumental courses to hone their own skills before they instruct others. Performers looking to become professional musicians or singers may choose to immerse themselves in a conservatory program in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in music, in which they’ll dedicate most of their studies to music classes.
These degrees also can prepare people to work in the business side of the music industry, which can land them jobs at record labels or working with artists directly, such as an agent. Or, they can learn more about the technology involved in making music, which can prepare them for jobs in fields like sound engineering.
Below, we’ll break down the different levels of music degrees available and how to earn them, along with a look at some of the schools that offer the programs.
Bachelor of Music (BMus or BM)
The standard presented at most conservatory programs, BMus degrees typically require students to earn 70% to 80% of their credits in music classes.
This program is more intensive than other music degrees, geared toward people who aspire to work as performing musicians, whether it be in a studio as a backing musician or in a professional band or orchestra.
Students focus on a family of instruments or a single instrument, although schools usually require them to have skills in a secondary instrument.
Example program: Northwestern University Bienen School of Music students can choose to enroll in a Bachelor of Music program.
Students focus on musical performance, with options to hone in on specific instruments, instrument families, or jazz studies. Or, students can concentrate on Music Studies, which looks at the actual makeup of music, such as theory and composition, or music education. Northwestern also offers the BMus as an “ad hoc” second major.
While the degree requirements vary by major, Northwestern’s BMus students generally take core courses such as music theory and conducting. Depending on their degree focus, they then hone their studies with either instrumental performance courses or topics in areas such as musical history.
Bachelor of Arts (BA)
The BA is best for students who want a well-rounded academic education or who want to double major. The undergraduate program consists of fewer music credits than the BMus degree, typically 30% to 60% of students’ total courses.
Students round out their coursework with classes in the liberal arts, giving them the experience that can prepare them to work in an area besides music. Needing fewer music-based credits also gives students more freedom to fit in time to study abroad and still graduate on time.
Example program: Michigan State University has a BA offering for music majors.
While the program does not prepare students to earn a music teacher certification, it may set them up to enter a Master of Music program.
MSU’s program requires prospective students to audition for faculty members in person on campus. During their studies, BA music students often connect their major to another subject, sometimes through electives.
Alumni who earned this degree have gone on to work at businesses such as Apple and Google as well as for radio stations and performing arts centers. They’ve landed jobs as not only performers and composers but also church music directors and entrepreneurs.
Bachelor of Science (BS)
While very similar to the BA, the BS is often used to pursue music production, music business, and music recording. Sometimes, schools may even offer a BS in Music Education instead of a BMus.
Music production and recording can involve studying more specific fields, such as sound design or audio engineering, leading to behind-the-scenes careers in the entertainment industry.
Music business, meanwhile, involves precisely what it sounds like: working in the music industry, whether it be as a record company executive or a music lawyer (after additional legal education).
Example program: Northeastern University offers a BS in Music, which mixes business and music production classes.
Students at the Boston school choose from one of two concentrations: music technology and music industry. Music technology students learn how to use digital sound technology in various industries and fields such as film, apps, and theater.
The first of its kind in the city, the music industry program teaches students about the ins and outs of the music business and the different jobs they can pursue, such as artist management or working for a music label.
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
The BFA typically is reserved for musical theater majors.
Like the BMus major, the BFA is an intensive, conservatory-style program that prepares students for a performing arts career.
Students will dedicate about 65% to 75% of their credits to music courses, not leaving much room for electives or study abroad trips.
Example program: At Kent State University in Ohio, students can earn a BFA in Musical Theatre as part of a well-rounded liberal arts education.
Students take classes about the history and practices of the theater industry alongside training in dance, acting, and music. The department also keeps an eye on students’ progress throughout their time at Kent State, evaluating them at the end of their first three years so they can stay on track toward their goals.
Seniors look ahead to life after graduation by preparing head shots and getting ready to audition. They then show off all they’ve learned in the annual Musical Theatre Showcase in New York City, which casting directors, agents, and other industry professionals attend.
Alumni have gone on to work in major theater cities such as New York and Chicago, while others have pursued MFAs.
Master of Music (MM or MMus)
The Master of Music is a graduate degree that full-time students can complete in two years. People who already have a bachelor’s degree in music or a related area are ideal candidates for the MM, as those working in the field want to add to their resumes.
Master’s degree programs can focus on performance, including music therapy, or more technical aspects of the field, such as pedagogy or music production.
Students take classes but also perform in ensembles and recitals. They also should expect to have to take a comprehensive exam to complete their degree.
Example program: The New England Conservatory awards the Master of Music degree in more than a dozen majors.
Students can choose from specific instruments across the orchestral spectrum as well as vocal performance and pedagogy. Other majors include jazz, composition, and different types of conducting.
The Boston-based school also provides opportunities for students to learn from top-notch professionals through masterclasses featuring “musical luminaries.”
In addition to training in their major, students will take lessons in areas such as music theory plus electives.
Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
The MFA usually is a master’s degree in Musical Theatre, which provides students further training in not only theater but also dance.
Some schools have more specific MFA programs, focusing on subjects such as dance/choreography and sound design.
MFAs are considered terminal degrees, and alumni may be able to pursue teaching opportunities at the collegiate level with such a degree.
Example program: The Boston Conservatory at Berklee offers a 2-year MFA in Musical Theatre.
This diverse, extremely selective program provides students who already have professional experience with further theatrical training at the hands of faculty as well as guest artists.
And the conservatory’s location in one of the nation’s leading cities means students can attend shows around Boston, from community theater on up to professional productions.
The school describes its students as committed to exploring their potential and making connections with professionals to help them further their careers.
The program, which takes five semesters to finish, has produced so many Broadway performers that Playbill included it on its list of the 10 most-represented colleges on the Great White Way for three years in a row.
Doctorate of Musical Arts (DMA)
The DMA is a terminal degree in which a student completes a musical project, such as a concert or album release, as his or her thesis.
Students pursuing a DMA likely are interested in teaching at colleges or universities and can focus on concentrations such as composition or performance.
DMA programs generally take three or four years to finish, with half that time spent in class and the remaining time dedicated to finishing a thesis or dissertation.
These fields include performance on specific types of instruments as well as composition, choral music, and teaching and learning. DMA students also strengthen their background by choosing another academic field and two elective fields to study. They end their time at USC with a comprehensive exam that can also include projects or research papers.
USC also offers PhDs, which we discuss next…
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The PhD is a doctorate degree for which students must complete a thesis paper as their final project is a thesis paper.
People who want to focus more on research will want to pursue a PhD rather than a DMA, as PhDs sometimes do not require students to engage in performances.
Example program: The PhD program at Princeton University is fully funded, so every student receives a year-round stipend for the five years it takes to complete the program.
Those who successfully take the exam then start working on their thesis, which, for composition students, involves crafting and original musical work plus an essay. Musicology students also are expected to attend conferences and teach in the department while they finish their dissertations.
The Ivy League school offers other perks as well, including funding for research and summer language study, as students must fulfill a language requirement to earn their degrees. Students who finish the five-year program may be nominated to receive funding for a sixth year.
Artist Diploma (AD)
The Artist Diploma is a 2-year degree focused on helping a musician become a stronger performer.
Performers usually pursue an AD after earning a bachelor’s or master’s, but in some conservatories, the AD is considered a more exclusive program, admitting a limited number of high-caliber students.
AD programs generally do not involve any liberal arts studies, instead having students focus on music-based classes.
Example: Boston University offers an Artist Diploma in music, which is considered a specialized, non-degree program.
It aims to develop students’ proficiency in musical techniques and their knowledge of different styles of music.
Students, who will present three recitals during their two years living at BU, also are expected to expand their artistic judgment so they are prepared to work as professional musicians.
BU’s program is open to anyone with at least a bachelor’s degree or other music diploma. Applicants also need to audition in person and submit a recording.
Associate’s Degree (AA)
The Associate degree is a 2-year music degree students often pursue at community colleges. Students who earn this degree often can find entry-level music jobs or transfer their credits to another institution to count toward a bachelor’s degree in music.
While the focus of an AA depends on the school, some allow students to concentrate on music education or performance, while others are geared more toward rehearsal and conducting. Students can expect to take courses ranging from music theory to music history.
Example program: Fullerton College in California offers two options for obtaining an AA degree in music.
In the Music Associate in Arts Degree program, Fullerton students gain basic knowledge of music and earn credits to take with them into a four-year music program at another school. They also will be prepared to start working in the music industry.
Students who want to carry their credits on to California State University campuses to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music should pursue the Music Associate in Arts Degree for Transfer, aka the Music AA-T Degree.
In this degree path, students finish certain transferable credits and gain priority admission to a CSU bachelor’s music program.