It’s true; not all music majors are crazy about music history. Centuries of important dates, cultural movements, and multisyllabic last names can make “Music History 101" one of the most challenging courses for an undergrad to encounter. Then, there’s you. You’re fascinated by musical rivalries. You want to know how politics and music intertwine. You wonder why some of history’s greatest musicians are only a footnote. If you get butterflies over the shocking premiere of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Lisztomania, or over the cultural impact of Madonna’s 2003 VMA’s performance, you might be a music history geek—and the world may need your master’s thesis.
Getting a Master’s Degree in Music History is going to give you the opportunity to obsess about all your favorite time periods with peers and faculty members who love weird arts anecdotes just as much as you do. A master’s could also become the groundwork for your book about the rise of Motown in the 1960s, the popularity of klezmer in the 1970s, or both.
Music history is rich with details, and if your interest goes beyond rote memorization to telling a profound story, a graduate program in music history could be the path for you.
Music history buffs often love their subjects so much, they become music teachers. But if you’re not looking to work in education as a school teacher, professor, or music librarian, you’re going to need to seek out opportunities to utilize your education in this niche field.
Possessing an immense knowledge of music history and literature is going to help you if you want to work in a museum preserving audio or curating musical content, gain employment with an industry association like the Grammy Awards, or manage any sort of musical review. Private and public institutions like Lincoln Center also hire music historians, and there are opportunities for music history experts in publishing as well.
If your interest lies in the music industry, higher education in music history can help you land a job at the top. Entertainment and copyright lawyers often have secondary degrees in music, major companies like Spotify and Pandora hire music historians for algorithm and catalog research, and famed music historians like Michael Brooks have been awarded Grammys for their CD liner notes.
Graduate studies in music history may require credit hours towards a language like German, French, or Italian, which could open you up to international opportunities after you graduate. And if you see a future in academia, a master’s can guide your way to a doctoral degree, preparing you for university-level tenure track teaching positions.
According to ZipRecruiter, the average music historian salary is $47,787 a year. The pay range for this field varies modestly, which could mean that there may be that opportunities for advancement based on skill level are fewer than average, but increased pay based on location and work experience is still possible.
Whether you enroll in an online master’s degree in music history or an in-person program, you will complete coursework in many areas of music history and take seminars or research classes in addition to music electives. Your classes may be as broad as “The History of Jazz," or as specific as a seminar on one composer, such as Stephen Sondheim. Electives could lead to other specializations, such as music therapy or music education. If you play an instrument and want to continue studying, you may also be able to take performance electives in your instrument(s) of choice.
Unless your program has a non-thesis track like the University of Washington, you will also spend a portion of your graduate program on the aforementioned thesis. Your thesis could take the form of a lengthy paper, a translation, a research-based presentation, an oral examination, or some combination of the four. Master’s students often have a faculty mentor for the thesis-writing portion of graduate school, so it might be helpful to read up on various professors before choosing a school—especially if you already have a research interest in mind. Try to find a school with a professor that specializes in your topic, is highly published, and has a positive track record of working with students. This will help you get the most out of your master’s in music history experience.
Some programs provide the opportunity to further specialize within the field of music history. If you’re a jazzcat, for example, Rutgers University has a unique Jazz Research Master’s program that partners with Rutgers’ Institute of Jazz Studies, the largest public access jazz library in the world.
Your applications will most likely require two letters of recommendation, transcripts, possibly your GRE exam results, and a personal essay. You may also be asked to demonstrate your knowledge and insight to your proposed area of study with a writing sample that shows off your analytical skills. West Chester University in Pennsylvania requires an “8-15 page sample of prose writing on a musical subject." Using a paper from your bachelor's degree will be your best bet, unless you have a new focus or inspiration from an internship or real-life experience.
It might also help you gain admission if you can show that you are a musician yourself. The Jazz Research Master’s at Rutgers, for example, asks students to submit a short recording of themselves playing and a page of sheet music that they have written or transcribed. If you’re not a musician but still want to apply for a program like the one at Rutgers, you may have to attach a written statement to make your case. Being a musician tends to go hand in hand with musical research, but it’s not a die-hard requirement
All of us are music fans, but then there’s you, a person who understands the full impact of music in our culture, with all of its ebbs and flows over time. You know that music is a reflection of our history, individuality, and most importantly, our humanity. As for a master’s degree in this field, consider it a route to sharing your passion with the world—and playing a part in keeping the history of music alive.
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