Mozart. Gershwin. Williams. These are just a few of the many composers who receive rock-star level recognition for the mark they’ve made on music history. If you’re looking to create grand, sweeping odes, smash-hit musical scores, memorable film soundtracks, or catchy (and addictive) jingles, you’ll need a strong background in music composition. And most likely a master's degree.
Most undergraduate music programs include courses in composition, but pursuing a a master’s in music will take your skills to the next level. With a master’s in music composition, you’ll gain experience, build your industry network, and compose musical pieces for ensembles and events.
The first thing to know about the music industry is that competition is fierce. That's why a master’s in music composition is important: not only will a master's degree help you stand out, but you'll have opportunities to study under experts and may even have some of your pieces produced.
Another (obvious) reason to get a master’s in music composition is to refine your skills as a composer. But if you don’t see a future composing operas and film scores, an advanced degree might be all you need to land jobs in music publishing, as a music director, or as a music/ teacher.
It’s possible to become an excellent composer without a master’s degree, but two years of study with the finest professors in your field—coupled with ample opportunities to see your work performed by graduate-level musicians—will make a big difference in kickstarting you career.
Many undergraduate music degrees emphasize performance over composition. If you’re coming from a performance-based bachelor's program, look for a music composition graduate degree that will let you produce as much work as possible. You should also know what you want to compose. The music for both Swan Lake and the Nintendo Wii were created by composers; which medium is more appealing to you?
A general music composition master’s degree will often include classes in orchestration and electronic music, but sometimes you need to get a feel from a school to understand whether they favor jazz, classical, or contemporary music. Some schools won’t offer all three, and many will be stronger in one area over another.
If you already know what type of music you want to compose, that can narrow your options. For example, if you have your heart set on writing music for Hollywood, London’s Royal College of Music offers a Composition for Screen concentration for aspiring film and TV composers. Beyond mastering the craft of compsing film scores, you'd join one of the highest-ranking schools of music in the world, with a long list of notable alumni like Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Another option is to pursue a master’s degree in film scoring instead of a master’s in composition. USC Thornton School of Music’s Screen Scoring program is one of the best in the country for its stellar faculty, partnership with the USC School for Cinematic Arts, proximity to Los Angeles, and opportunities to work in Hollywood.
You might also consider the backgrounds of the faculty, to gain insight into the school’s focus. If most of the professors have jazz backgrounds, the student body probably favors jazz, too. If you’re hoping to spend two years immersed in opera, a program faculty full of jazz composers may not be for you.
Opportunities for “real world" practice are also extremely important in a master’s in composition program. If your goal is to compose for live orchestras, for example, it will be helpful to seek programs that partner with the university orchestra or with another orchestra in the area. Look for schools with smaller ensembles, who collaborate with and perform original pieces by graduate students. As Johannes Brahms once said: "Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind." The best way to improve your craft as a composer is to hear your work performed, and make adjustments accordingly.
To apply for a master’s in music composition program, you need to submit an online application with transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, a CV, and a GRE score (in most cases). You will also need to have completed a certain number of credits in music theory, history, and analysis during your undergrad. Because music composition master’s programs expect some amount of experience coming in, you may be asked to share a portfolio of original compositions and/or a recording of an original song.
If you’re still in college and considering graduate school, you may want to get advice (and an early letter of recommendation) from your favorite professor(s). But for music composition programs, it can be beneficial to leave a year or more in-between bachelor’s and master’s study. This will allow you to include your undergraduate senior thesis project in your portfolio, and to gain some real-world experience before jumping into grad studies.
Music composition demands complete silence and solitude, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend grad school in isolation. When you’re not composing or rehearsing during your master’s program, you should be making connections—especially in other departments. Befriending musicians and other graduate students who are looking to enter the music industry might have a greater impact on your future career than any other part of your studies.
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