What is a Music Theory And Composition Degree?

Music theory – the fundamentals of which are melody, harmony, and rhythm – tells us how music works. It is how musicians and composers explain what is heard in a musical composition. A musical composition, then, is the collection of notes, melodies, rhythms, lyrics, and harmonies that give it life. Degree programs in music theory and composition explore how these elements combine to create music, the art form whose medium is both sound and silence.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Music Theory and Composition – Four Year Duration
Students who earn this undergraduate degree gain foundational knowledge in music theory and develop their individual composition voice. They study music from different eras, orchestration, and analytical and performance techniques as they complete a range of composing projects. Most programs allow students to choose a musical instrument concentration within the major.

Here is a sample curriculum:

  • Theory – the fundamentals of pitch, rhythm, and timbre; introduction to harmony
  • Theory – harmony and counterpoint (the art of combining different melodic lines in a musical composition) of the Baroque and Classical Eras
  • Theory – an examination of the phrase structure, form, and harmony of music from the Classical Era through the late 19th Century
  • Theory – analysis of selected works composed since 1900
  • Basic Electronic Music – introduction to electronic and computer music
  • Orchestration – the instruments of the orchestra, orchestration techniques, arranging and orchestrating works in student ensembles
  • Tonal Counterpoint – 18th Century counterpoint in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Aural Skills and Performance – ear-training, sight-singing (the ability to read and sing music at first sight), and dictation (turning what you hear into a written score)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Eras – Western music history, highlighting music before 1600
  • Baroque and Early Classical Eras – music of the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Classical and Romantic Eras – music of the 18th and 19th centuries
  • The Modern Era – music of the 20th and 21st centuries
  • Composition with Musical Instrument Concentration (example: piano) – lectures and laboratories, development of a portfolio of original compositions
  • Chorus Ensemble – rehearsals and performances
  • Orchestra Ensemble – rehearsals and performances
  • Recital – rehearsals and performances

Master’s Degree in Music Theory and Composition – Two Year Duration
Most master’s programs in music theory and composition require that applicants hold a bachelor’s in the discipline. Proficiency in a foreign language, typically German, may also be required. At the master’s level it is not uncommon for schools to offer more targeted concentration options. Examples include songwriting, screen/film scoring, and concert music.

Here are coursework samples for two of these concentrations:

Music Theory and Composition – Songwriting Concentration

  • Songwriters’ Forum – analysis, review, and exploration of the tools used by distinguished composers and lyricists, with the goal of improving writing in various styles and genres
  • Songwriting History and Criticism – detailed study of influential songs and recordings through musical analysis, critical listening, and examination of songwriting and recording techniques
  • Private Composition Lessons – one-on-one sessions in composition in all forms and styles with Songwriting faculty
  • Contemporary Scoring – immersion in creating music for a range of visual media including movies, shorts, television, and animation; synchronizing music, traditional and digital orchestration, production and mixing
  • Music Publishing – the business of music publishing including copyright law, artist and repertoire, contracts, and licensing
  • Independent Capstone – writing and/or recording of a group of songs, recital and final written project

Music Theory and Composition – Screen / Film Scoring Concentration

  • Compositional Process in Symphony – planning and composing large-scale symphonic works
  • Private Composition Lessons – one-on-one sessions in composition in all forms and styles with Songwriting faculty
  • Contemporary Scoring – immersion in creating music for a range of visual media including movies, shorts, television, and animation; synchronizing music, traditional and digital orchestration, production and mixing
  • Composers’ Forum – presentations from composers and concerts, networking with visiting composers, attending concerts
  • Scoring Techniques – for film and animation or video games
  • Screen Music – history, analysis, and aesthetics of music for the screen
  • Music Editing for Screen Music – the music editor’s processes of shaping a film soundtrack, related recording session group projects
  • Orchestration – the fundamentals of writing for orchestral instruments, the creative process of orchestral thinking, score analysis
  • Advanced Orchestration: Screen Scoring – hands-on orchestration for film and media, analysis of scores written for the screen, student evaluation of live recordings of their work
  • Independent Capstone – creation of a portfolio of multiple recordings; orchestration, recital, and final written project

Doctoral Degree in Music Theory and Composition – Three to Four Year Duration
While doctoral programs in music theory and composition exist, most schools offer distinct programs or concentrations in either music theory or composition. Typically, doctoral candidates are required to take only a small number of compulsory courses, allowing them to customize their curriculum with a faculty advisor to focus on their interests. Many graduates with a doctoral degree go on to teach at the university level.

Here is a snapshot of typical compulsory coursework for doctoral candidates, regardless of their chosen focus:

  • Research in Music
  • Current Topics in Musicology and Theory
  • Doctoral Seminar in Music Studies: Music Theory and Analysis
  • Doctoral Seminar in Music Studies: Music History
  • Doctoral Seminar in Music Studies: Music Composition
  • Dissertation

Degrees Similar to Music Theory And Composition

Film Scoring
Degree programs in film scoring teach students how to create music for film, television, video games, and virtual reality experiences. The typical curriculum covers scoring terminology, techniques, and aesthetics and includes at least one hands-on project of scoring a short film.

Depending on the level of degree, programs in this discipline may include courses in music history, theory, composition, ear training, and performance, as well as production techniques and methods and the business of music.

Music Management
Degree programs in music management combine traditional business classes with specialized music business courses in artist management, copyright law, publishing, concert promotion and marketing, and public relations. In other words, they prepare students to enter a field that is multifaceted and often pressure packed, in which responsibilities range from making sure an artist has everything packed for a tour to maintaining their social media presence to generating a top 10 hit.

Music Therapy
Music therapists use music as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a patient express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

Skills You’ll Learn

Completing a degree in music theory and composition leaves students with skills that are transferrable to numerous kinds of work:

Attention to Detail
Attention to detail is vital in composing music pieces. Each and every note tells a part of the story that the composer wants to tell.

Original Thinking and Expression
Music theory and composition 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 music professionals. Early on in their studies, students learn that self-discipline and focus and trial and error are a way of life in the music world.

Many renowned music pieces are the result of collaboration between composers.

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

What Can You Do with a Music Theory And Composition Degree?

These are the most common roles for music theory and composition graduates:

  • Arranger / Music Arranger
  • Composer’s Assistant
  • Composer – Concert and Stage
  • Composer – Film
  • Composer – Musical Theater
  • Composer – Television
  • Composer – Video Games
  • Conductor
  • Copyist – Concert and Stage – proofreads scores and prepares individual parts for performances and recording sessions
  • Freelance Composer – may write for businesses, event production companies, software and hardware developers, non-profits, films, and TV shows, and music libraries
  • Music Director – Orchestra – fills the multiple roles of conductor, artistic director, and community arts leader
  • Music Editor – edits and synchronizes the music used in films and television
  • Music Journalist / Critic
  • Music Professor
  • Musical Theater Adapter – fuses existing music, lyrics, and stories with original content to create brand new musicals
  • Orchestrator – Concert and Stage – takes a composer’s musical sketch and turns it into a score, assigning instruments and voices according to the composer’s intentions
  • Proofreader – examines music notation and corrects errors or ambiguity
  • Session Conductor – help prepare and lead orchestras in recording studio sessions, typically in the film, television, and video game industries
  • Staff Writer – create songs for other artists to record and perform
  • Teaching Artist – a practicing professional artist who has a dual career as an educator
  • Transcriber – uses specialized computer programs to create sheet music and, sometimes, new arrangements from musical recordings


See which schools are the most and least expensive.

Read about Tuition