What is a Music Degree?

At the heart of a music degree program are classes in music theory and aural skills, music history, music technology, and solo and ensemble performance. The typical curriculum also includes liberal arts elective courses.

While the specific structure of music programs will vary from school to school, the following are examples of some of the more common components:

Arranging / Composition

  • Concepts and methodologies for writing in a variety of musical styles
  • Analyzing scores
  • Incorporating acoustic and electronic instruments into music writing

Ear Training

  • Translating music notation (written symbols) into sound and movement
  • Translating sounds into notation
  • Learning to sing
  • Learning to conduct music
  • Hearing pitch and rhythm
  • Integrating music reading, hearing, vocal performance, and instrumental performance


  • Fundamentals of contemporary music theory
  • Recognizing and analyzing basic chord progressions
  • The relationship between melody and harmony in contemporary music styles

Tonal Harmony and Counterpoint

  • Analyzing and composing music based on harmony models of baroque, classical, romantic eras of European classical music
  • Composing short works based on these models

Music Technology

  • Using different types of music production software
  • Producing arrangements using music production software
  • Recording and editing audio
  • Distributing music productions


  • Integrating traditional and contemporary styles into musical interpretation
  • Integrating posture, breathing, and instrumental technique
  • Proficiency in chosen principal instrument
  • Playing in various kinds of ensembles

Program Options

Associate Degree in Music - Two Year Duration
This two-year degree can be earned in music theory, music composition, and music performance. In many school, it is offered as the Associate of Fine Arts in Music. Coursework focuses on the fundamentals of music history, theory, and practice, often based on baroque, classical, and choir music. Sample courses typically include the following:

  • Music Reading – how to read sheet music; related terminology
  • Music Listening – different musical forms; the impact of culture on musical styles and sounds
  • Music Composition – different styles of music composition; basic songwriting

Often, students who earn an associate degree eventually pursue a bachelor’s.

Bachelor’s Degree in Music - Four Year Duration
The four-year bachelor’s degree is offered as the Bachelor of Music, the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music, and the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Musical Performance. While degree programs vary somewhat depending on the concentration, common coursework includes the topics listed above for the associate degree, as well as the following:

  • Fundamentals of Music Performance
  • Harmony – theories and principles of harmony in different music styles
  • Studies of Popular Music, Jazz, and Classical Compositions
  • Music Production Techniques / Music Technology – digital music recording; composing, editing, and publishing music
  • The Business of Music – sales, marketing, merchandising, and publishing in the music business

Master’s Degree in Music - Two Year Duration
The Master’s Degree in Music covers advanced concepts in theory, composition, and performance. Students are also required to compose a short piece of music. At this level, the available degrees are the Master of Fine Arts in Music Theory and the Master of Arts in Music Appreciation. Here is a sample list of master’s level coursework:

  • Music of the 18th, 19th, and/or 20th Centuries
  • Historical Music Techniques
  • Hearing and Performance Analysis – development of aural and analytical skills
  • Advanced Composition Theory
  • Counterpoint
  • Conducting – different conducting styles; how to conduct a short piece

Doctoral Degree in Music - Three to Four Year Duration
Ph.D. programs in music emphasize extensive research as students prepare to submit a thesis and/or an original composition. The available degrees are the Doctor of Musical Arts and the Doctor of Fine Arts in Music. Graduates with a Ph.D. almost always seek jobs as university or college professors.

  • Medieval Music
  • Renaissance Composition
  • Jazz Technique
  • Orchestral Composition and Conducting
  • Advanced Composition Projects
  • Music History and Its Influence on Current Music Styles
  • Introduction to Ethnomusicology – the study of music of different cultures, especially non-Western ones

While university professors in the field must typically have a doctorate, some schools may consider holders of a Master’s Degree in Music. When it comes to associate and bachelor’s degrees, there is no steadfast rule about which jobs require which degree. Without doubt, some orchestra members, touring musicians, session musicians, and film score composers have an undergraduate degree; others hold a graduate degree; and still others, probably, do not have any degree. The fact remains, though, a music education gives jobseekers an edge in what is a particularly competitive field.

Degrees Similar to Music

Music History, Literature, and Theory
The focus of this degree program is the exploration of the history of music styles, musical instruments, musical techniques, and what has been written about them over time.

Art and Music Education
Students who major in this field learn how to teach music and music appreciation.

Musical Theater
The focus of the musical theater degree is training in acting, singing, and dancing.

Music Therapy
Degree programs in music therapy teach students how to use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for the art of music, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Music and choreography go hand in hand, because the choreographer’s job is to create compelling dance routines in ways that convey emotion through movements that are often put to music.

Acting is another one of the performing arts that is, of course, closely aligned to music and musical theater. It is not uncommon, in fact, for students to study both disciplines, either via a double major or a major/minor combination.

Theatre Arts
A degree in theatre arts certainly has a connection to music, which is a form of dramatic expression. While music is a very specific performing art form, a theatre arts degree program offers a more general study that can be applied to performing in or producing both live theater and film.

Dance Movement Therapy
Closely aligned with the degree in music therapy, this master’s level degree program teaches students how to use dance to treat physical, psychological, and emotional impairments. This course of study is well-suited to individuals wanting to combine their love of dance with an interest in health and healing.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to the specialist knowledge in music history, theory, and composition, completing a degree in music leaves students with skills that are transferrable to numerous kinds of work:

Original Thinking and Expression
Music is an ever-evolving art, so those who survive the demands of earning a degree in the field learn to become original thinkers, who are endlessly creative and able to express themselves in innovative ways.

Self-Discipline / Focus
Dedication is one of the hallmark qualities of successful musicians. Early on in their studies, students learn that self-discipline and focus, and rehearsal after rehearsal are a way of life in the music world.

It is through keen observation and listening skills that music students come to understand that unwavering attention to detail is vital in both composing and performing musical pieces.

In a music ensemble, teamwork and collaboration are key.

Resilience and Perseverance
Anyone who succeeds in any aspect of the performing arts does so, at least in part, because they learned to be comfortable with scrutiny and criticism. Students of music naturally develop a thick skin – a resilience that allows them to learn from critiques and move forward.

What Can You Do with a Music Degree?

Opportunities span many aspects of the music industry:

  • Performance – musicians and singers
  • Composition – composers and songwriters
  • Conducting – orchestral, band, or choral conducting
  • Film Scoring – working with film/movie producers to write music that reflects and supports their story lines
  • Production – working with artists to select the right songs or instrumental pieces, find the right recording studio, and find the best musical support to create the album or record
  • Artist and Repertoire Representation – working for record labels, managing and developing current talent, scouting new talent, negotiating contracts, and helping artists make career decisions

Arts / Music Administration
Music administrators run programs of every kind and at every level: from community center hip-hop programs to city symphony orchestras and opera companies.

Arts / Music Archiving
Archivists care for permanent records and historically valuable documents, including papers, letters, diaries, clippings, legal documents, maps, films, sound/music recordings, and other records.

Areas of music teaching include music theory, music composition, music appreciation, band (jazz, concert, or marching), chorus, digital music, and specific instruments.

Communications / Media / Journalism
Opportunities in this sector include reporting on music-related news or producing editorials for music television networks and music and entertainment industry publications and websites.

Career Paths

Learn about your career prospects after graduation.

Read about Career Paths