Do You Need a Master’s Degree in Music? Here’s How to Know.

Do You Need a Master’s Degree in Music? Here’s How to Know.
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Allie Lembo profile
Allie Lembo May 21, 2019

As Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

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They say that if you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. There’s only one problem: in 2019, it’s not always easy to find jobs in your field of choice. If your dream is to spend your career engaging with music, you will need to prove your dedication in order to achieve it.

A Master’s Degree in Music (MM) is a requisite for jobs in composition, conducting, or teaching at the postsecondary level. This degree can also help you develop a career in performance and production. Most importantly, in an extremely competitive field, a master’s in music will connect you to the profession and set you up for meaningful long-term work.

If you earned your undergraduate degree in music and want to take it to the next level, or are passionate about career-changing into the field as a graduate student, a master’s will build on your talent and skills and prepare you for success in the job market.

Who needs a master’s in music?

While it’s possible to work in the music industry with only a bachelor’s degree, there are some careers that require advanced education. Music directors, for example, run major orchestras and may need the business knowledge and hands-on experience that graduate school can offer. And those with an interest in music theory and scholarship depend on master’s programs to develop their research and writing skills.

But not every music-adjacent profession has the same educational expectations. Many master’s in music students pursue this degree for artistic rather than career reasons. They want to advance their craft, and they know that a graduate-level program will help them do this. A master’s degree in brass performance may not directly guarantee new job opportunities, but it will make you a stronger musician and give you a competitive advantage when auditioning for ensembles and studio work.

A master of music may also help you network within the music industry. Faculty members are likely to be practicing musicians, composers, and conductors, which means they’ll have connections to job opportunities once school is over. In addition, as a master’s in music student, you’ll get to zoom in on your particular field of interest, be that choral music, orchestral performance, or education. This will increase your professional qualifications and marketability.

It’s expected that you will already have highly-developed musical skills going into a master’s program, but graduate-level training will help you refine your technique and get more out of the time you spend practicing. You’ll be able to concentrate in an instrument of your choice (like viola or trumpet) or in a field (like music therapy) and take elective courses in everything from business to music journalism. Unlike a master’s in music education, which prepares students to be K-12 music teachers, or a master’s in music composition, which has an even more narrow focus, a master’s in music has a wide scope, bringing in research, theory, skill development, and academic scholarship.

How do I apply to master’s degree programs for music?

Some MM programs will expect you to have credit hours in music theory and music history from your undergraduate studies, and additional experience in a concentration area like vocal performance or an instrument. If you’re seeking a performance-based degree, there may also be portfolio requirements, including attending an in-person audition or submitting a recording in which you demonstrate your talent and mastery. In fact, at some schools, this audition may be the most important part of your application.

If you’re applying to a top-tier program, you’ll need a strong academic transcript, and you may be required to submit GRE scores as well. Most programs will ask for at least two recommendations from professors or professional contacts who know your work. Finally, you’ll need to submit a personal statement. This should speak to who you are, and explain your reasons for pursuing a master’s in music.

What’s the most important thing to look for when choosing a master’s in music program?

Music is a competitive field, so it’s important to find a program that’s closely aligned with your career goals. If you want to play your instrument on a professional level, a program like the one at Yale School of Music might fit the bill. In this well-known MM, performance majors play in the Yale Philharmonia and in the New Music New Haven concert series, graduating with a master’s degree and additional resumé credits.

Aspiring conductors, on the other hand, might be drawn to Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s <a href=“” target=“_blank”>orchestral conducting program, where they would study under prolific conductor Bruce Hagen and gain hands-on experience conducting the Boston Conservatory Orchestra.

If you select an MM program that has fewer professional opportunities built into the curriculum, you’ll want to consider the area where that program is located. Does the school’s surrounding town or city have an established music scene? Or will you be trying to develop your career when the closest orchestra is 200 miles away?

A master’s in music is a big investment, so it’s worth finding a program that will connect you to paid work.

Your future with a master’s in music

If you’ve read this far, we know that you’re deeply passionate about the subject. Music is an age-old craft; as such, there are plenty of paths you can take after developing your expertise. For some, it’s all about the art. If that means living in a one-bedroom and busking in the subway, it’s totally worth it for the love of the instrument. But this may not be the right choice for everyone.

If you crave stability and structure—and don’t mind working at a desk most days—you could pursue a role as an arts administrator. If you’re drawn to helping people, music therapy could be the best fit. And if you love researching music and want to spend your time in academia, a master’s could be your launching pad to a career teaching at the university level.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that “Without music, life would be a mistake.” A master’s in music will plant the seeds for lifelong work in this vibrant field. It will encourage you to make music your life—as if it isn’t already. And it will prepare you to compete at the highest level with finely-tuned skills (pun intended) in your area of interest.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: MusicLiberal Arts & Humanities