While mention of the music industry may conjure images of packed stadium tours or late nights in the studio, the field offers a wide assortment of career opportunities for creative individuals passionate about music in all genres and styles. Earning a degree often serves as the first step to a rewarding career in music, as it qualifies you to pursue career paths as varied as performance, composition, production, education, or music business.
Careers in music are not always the easiest to break into, so starting your career search early is a good idea. You can often make valuable professional connections in school that serve you in your job search after graduation. This guide offers an overview of education and career options in the music industry, including common degree pathways, experience requirements, and professional resources for musicians. You can also find a generalized music careers list, giving you an idea of some of the various positions you can pursue.
Skills Gained in an Music Program
Music programs build a variety of skills that prepare graduates for careers in the music industry. While different programs emphasize different skills for different career paths — music performance and music business, for example, require very different abilities — most musicians have at least a passing knowledge of most of the field's common practices. Students gain their knowledge from an assortment of sources, including the classroom, live performances, internships, and other professional experiences.
- Technical Proficiency
Programs in instrumental or vocal performance stress technical proficiency, giving students the skills to perform demanding pieces of music. Some programs may introduce a variety of styles, while others emphasize one style of playing, such as jazz or classical.
Live performance often forms a significant part of a professional musician's career, and students in an instrumental or vocal program prepare to perform in front of an audience. Students gain experience through extensive practice as well as live performances — both in school and at traditional music venues.
Some programs focus specifically on composition, but all music students benefit from a knowledge of music theory and practice in composition. Studying composition helps musicians become better players and writers, and even performance-focused programs typically include general courses in composing music.
- Music Education
Many musicians teach music either full time or part time, whether through private lessons or teaching in school music programs. Even programs that do not focus specifically on music education often include general pedagogical training that gives students the tools to teach others how to play music.
- Music History
As with any artform, musicians learn by studying the styles of the past. Almost all music programs emphasize the history of music, exploring major styles and training students to recognize and analyze various forms of music, both in Western and non-Western styles.
Why Pursue a Career in Music?
Students pursue careers in music for any number of reasons, with passion serving as primary among them. As an unpredictable industry, many career paths in music lack the high salaries and stability that characterize fields like business or information technology. However, for most musicians, the prospect of doing what they love for work far outweighs the potential drawbacks. The field also offers plenty of unique opportunities to travel and interact with other musicians.
The sheer variety of available careers also draws many students to music. Far beyond performing, today's college music programs offer specialized degrees that prepare graduates to enter nearly any aspect of the industry, including songwriting, composing, production, music business, and music education. Whether you want to tour the world as a performing musician or encourage young players as a music teacher, a music degree offers several ways to engage with music while earning a living.
How Much Do Music Majors Make?
Several factors affect potential salary levels for music graduates, including location, experience level, education, industry, and job position. Musicians commonly work in larger cities, as urban locales offer greater opportunities for working artists. However, some positions — such as a music teacher — are found in both rural and urban areas across the country.
The chart below outlines four of the most common careers in music, along with the average annual salary for different career stages. Keep in mind that this chart highlights just a few of the many possible careers for music majors.
Interview with a Professional
Dr. Steve Meredith has a joint appointment at Southern Utah University as both an assistant professor of music, where he is the director of the music technology program, and as an assistant to the president for institutional effectiveness. Dr. Meredith received his bachelor of music and master of music degrees from the University of Utah in choral music education, and he earned his doctor of musical arts degree in choral music from Arizona State University.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in music? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?
I actually get asked this question quite regularly. To be honest, it really never occurred to me to do anything else. My situation is somewhat unique in that I started my professional career as a singer while still in my middle teens, and so I was used to taking lessons at the university (University of Utah) from the time I was 14-years-old. It just seemed like a natural progression for me to continue studying music at the university, and it was just such a big part of my life from an early age that I never seriously entertained any other career path.
I can honestly say that my career in music has been exceptionally rewarding, specifically because I have been able to combine professional activities as a performer and producer with my love of teaching others about music. The result has been a very nice balance between a sense of professional accomplishment and the gratification that comes with helping the next generation of musicians.
One interesting side note to my career path is my focus on music technology. This has been driven largely by seat-of-the-pants training, since schools and programs — and YouTube tutorials! — did not exist when I was starting out. As a senior in college, I took a general education course in the physics program at the university, and it completely changed the way I looked at music.
For the first time I saw it as both art and science, and I immediately began tinkering with the new, "home studio" technology that was emerging at the time. I received excellent training as a musician in my undergraduate and graduate programs, but it has always been a little bit ironic to me that one of the most impactful single courses of my career was taught by a non-musician, in a different academic department.
- Can you tell us a little about your work as a professor and the music-focused programs you have developed?
I have had a very wide-ranging career, as you can see from my bio. As a performer and producer this has meant many hours spent on stages and in studios around the world. In the academic world, this has meant directing college choirs, teaching music theory and sight singing courses, and courses in music technology. I have enjoyed these assignments immensely! But my career really expanded as I became an administrator (department chair, dean, etc.), as this gave me the chance to not just teach, but also to develop academic programs.
As a result, I have developed many AA/AS programs in music and music technology, a bachelor of music program in commercial music (at Snow College), and two master's degrees at SUU - one in music technology and the other in interdisciplinary studies. My goal as a teacher of music students has always been to provide them with both the necessary artistic training and pre-professional opportunities that will prepare them to apply the skills that they have learned in the classroom and in the studio.
My focus on professional internships led me to build an arts and entertainment technology institute, a television station that is in over 300,000 homes in the greater Phoenix area, and film production and post-production programs.
If I might be allowed to editorialize for as moment - - there is one thing that has vexed me throughout my academic career, and it is the very real separation that exists in music as it is taught at colleges and universities, versus what a professional musician actually needs to know to be successful.
In terms of skill development, the academic and professional requirements overlap each other somewhat (although not nearly as much as they should), but there is a real dearth of training for students in technology, business, and a number of other very important things that are critical to career success as a musician. This disconnection between the art and commerce of a career in music is still prevalent at universities, and it is a disservice to our music students as they prepare to enter the music business.
- Is teaching at the university-level a common career path for music majors?
Teaching at the college and university level is a very common career path for musicians. This is especially true at the adjunct teaching level. Many musicians who perform or compose professionally as their "day job" maintain robust private teaching studios as adjunct instructors at colleges and universities.
There are some wonderful advantages to being an adjunct instructor, including flexibility of schedule, the ability to network with current and emerging professionals, and access to the facilities that colleges and universities provide. The downside to adjunct teaching is that the pay is comparatively low — and that the university does not typically provide a benefits package (retirement, health insurance) for adjunct employees.
These disadvantages largely disappear with full-time employment, as almost all universities provide full benefits packages to their full-time employees. However, as a full-time teacher, some of the flexibility to engage in professional activities goes away - - especially during the school year. Short-term engagements are possible, but longer tours or large-scale projects can be difficult to take part in when one is a full-time faculty member at a university.
- How have your master's and doctoral degrees helped your career path?
My career path as an educator has been significantly helped by my graduate degree studies. In terms of teaching at the college and university level, a master's degree (for colleges) and a doctoral degree (for universities) is almost a required "union card" at this point. So, if you plan a career as a teacher in higher education, plan on getting at least a master's degree, and probably a doctorate, which typically is either a DMA for those in performance, composition, and conducting — or a Ph.D or Ed.D for those in music education.
In terms of the effect that graduate degrees have had on my career as a performer, there has been a lesser - - but still very important - - impact. If your intention is to perform or write professionally, talent, persistence, and entrepreneurship are far more important than academic credentials. But beware - - almost all musicians end up doing some sort of teaching in their careers, and the lack of an academic credential is a significant hindrance.
I cannot tell you the number of phone calls I get from professional colleagues that have been performing for years, and now wish to "get off the road," but they lack the academic background to get a job at a college or university — despite the fact that their professional experience and savvy would be a wonderful resource for emerging professional musicians.
If I could change one thing about music in higher education, it might be this separation between music at the "academy" vs. music as it is practiced in the "real world." Nevertheless, with the way things are currently structured, I usually recommend that anyone serious about a career in music pursue a graduate degree, so as not to limit their career options.
- What advice would you give to students considering a degree and career in music?
There are a number of ways in which pursuing a degree in music is substantially different that pursuing a career in music. When students (or their parents) ask me for advice regarding a degree in music, I usually ask the following questions:
First, how do you plan to use the degree? Is it going to be something you pursue professionally, or do you plan on using the music degree to serve as a pre-professional degree in anticipation of applying for graduate school in some other discipline? Most people are unaware that a degree in music is typically very well-received by graduate programs in medicine and law. If a student suggests this pathway, then I recommend a BA/BS degree in music rather than a B.Mus.
Second, are you hoping to monetize this degree as a musician? What do you see yourself doing as a musician after your college experience? Do you see yourself as a hobbyist or making all or part of your living as a musician? If a career as a musician is in your plans, I would most likely recommend a B. Mus, as it will better prepare you for the challenges you will face as a professional musician.
When students (or their parents) ask me for advice regarding a career in music, I usually ask the following questions:
- How do you assess your talent level? Have you had anyone with a professional opinion that you trust give you a similar assessment?
- What about your personality type? Are you good working collaboratively? Are you willing to take constructive criticism and corrections over and over again in order to master a skill?
- How comfortable are you working several jobs at once? Musicians invented the "gig" economy, so it is good to be prepared to cobble together 3-4 jobs (or more) in order to make a living. Prepare to teach private lessons or at a school, work in a variety of ensembles, write or arrange for your instrument, and master the technology of music production and social media. These skills and a willingness to work in a wide variety of situations will help to ensure your success as a musician.
- Are you comfortable networking with other music professionals? This is very important.
Finally, do not be discouraged if your music career does not immediately take off. A career in music takes time to build because it is largely based on professional contacts, and those will take time to develop.
- Does the application process for a music program differ from the application process for other university programs?
The application process for a music major does differ slightly from a traditional academic program. The primary difference is that you will be asked to audition on your instrument or voice as part of the application process to enter the music degree program. Typically, these auditions also serve as scholarship auditions, and for students with high levels of talent and/or skills on an instrument or voice type that is generally in short supply (such as an oboe player or a tenor, for example), this could be a great way to fund your college experience.
Because I have occupied positions of leadership in academic music programs throughout my career, I have often been asked by students and their parents if a degree in music is a wise academic choice. I believe that it is! But, it is important for students and parents to recognize that a degree in music is a very challenging undergraduate experience. Being a music major is far more all-encompassing than most other college majors, and it is important for anyone considering becoming a music major to realize that they will have to very carefully budget their time and remain focused.
How to Succeed in Music
Music is unique among most career fields in that many positions list no minimum education requirement. However, earning a degree often provides necessary experience to succeed in the field and helps build professional connections that can help you develop your career.
While an associate in music offers introductory skills, a bachelor program is typically the standard for most professional musicians. Earning a master's degree offers greater job prospects and allows you to pursue advanced careers in music education, business, performance, or production. Doctoral degrees in the field are less common, but they do exist for students interested in subjects such as advanced composition, conducting, and ethnomusicology.
While education matters for musicians, experience often counts just as much when it comes to professional opportunities. A music degree emphasizes the skills necessary for employment, but these skills remain abstract until you get out into the industry and apply them. Many employers assess professional experience just as closely as education experience when considering applicants for jobs.
Musicians have a variety of pathways to gain experience. Performance students learn by playing live, and many pursue opportunities for gigs while still in school. Other students complete more traditional internships; for example, a music industry major might intern at a record label, while an audio production major might intern at a recording studio.
Licensure and Certification
Most positions in the music industry do not require professional licensure or certification. However, music teachers may need to obtain a standard teaching certification, and the National Association for Music Education also offers amusic educator certification. Therapeutic musicians can also obtain certification through academic programs accredited by theNational Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians.
Concentrations Available to Music Majors
Given the variety of specialized careers available in music, choosing a concentration is among the most important academic decisions for music students. Concentration options vary widely between schools and programs, but most offer options in performance. More specialized concentrations — such as music therapy or popular songwriting — may be less widely available. Colleges dedicated specifically to music, such as Berklee or Julliard, typically offer the widest assortment of concentration options.
The list below highlights five of the most common music concentration options, giving you an idea of what to expect from each path.
- Performance: The most common concentration for music majors, performance typically trains students in either vocal performance or the instrument of their choice. Performance majors receive a broad overview of music theory, composition, music history, and technical skills. Performers often specialize in one area of performance, such as pop, jazz, choir, or classical.
- Composition: Composition explores approaches to the writing of music, typically encompassing topics such as music theory, orchestration, analysis, counterpoint, and performance. Students also gain a comprehensive understanding of the history of music, most commonly focusing on the western canon as well as non-western music.
- Music Education: Training students to serve as music instructors for both private lessons and music classes, the music education concentration explores the intersection of music performance and pedagogy. Students gain an understanding of the unique challenges of music education, along with tools to engage aspiring musicians of all ages.
- Music Production: Focusing on the technical side of the music industry, music production trains students for jobs as producers and audio engineers. Most programs stress the use of digital technology in the process of music production, exploring modern techniques for recording, mixing, and mastering all genres of music.
What Can You Do With a Music Degree?
As with most industries, the higher your level of education, the wider your career options in the world of music. In general, most careers in the industry require at least a bachelor's degree, though particularly talented performers or producers can sometimes succeed on talent alone. However, an education confers not only advanced skills but also the chance to gain more varied experience and build professional connections.
Plenty of career options exist at all levels of education in the music industry. However, as with other fields, earning an advanced degree typically offers increased job prospects and increased salary potential. For example, while a bachelor's degree enables you to teach music at the K-12 level, a master's in music education makes you a more competitive candidate and commands a higher salary.
The following section outlines the four levels of music education attainable, along with corresponding careers for each degree.
Associate Degree in Music
A two-year associate degree requires the least time and commitment of any music degree, but it also confers the fewest skills and career prospects. An associate program typically focuses on one area of the field and introduces major concepts and skills, such as audio production or vocal performance. However, an associate degree traditionally lacks the in-depth focus of a bachelor's, offering only an overview of your concentration area.
While not the most competitive degree, an associate program can still open a variety of career paths. However, if you want the best chance to advance in your chosen field, you need to consider earning a bachelor's degree.
- Tour Coordinator
Tour coordinators help musicians plan and organize tours at the regional, national, or international level. They may be responsible for many of the major logistical concerns, such as booking hotel rooms, communicating with venues, and making travel arrangements. A degree in music business typically serves as the best preparation for this job.
- Teacher Assistant
Associate degree holders cannot serve as music teachers, but they may work as teaching assistants while pursuing a bachelor's degree. Assistants help with music instruction, often working with small groups or individual students. They may also assist with creating lesson plans and planning class activities.
- Administrative Assistant
Graduates of associate programs may find entry-level administrative positions in the music industry working with record labels or artist management agencies. Administrative assistants typically schedule meetings, coordinate office logistics, take phone calls, and compile office data. Assistants may also interact with musicians and other industry personnel.
Bachelor's Degree in Music
A bachelor's degree is the most common educational requirement for careers in music, enabling you to pursue employment in most sections of the industry. A bachelor's in music typically builds comprehensive knowledge of one specialized area, such as performance or production. The degree prepares you to pursue a variety of entry-level careers with the prospect of advancement, whether you hope to become a performer, a teacher, or a songwriter. While most music programs take place on campus, some schools use distance education technology to offer online music degrees.
Musicians and singers perform music in a variety of settings, such as bars, clubs, concert halls, and theaters. They may play locally or tour nationally and internationally. Some musicians may forgo touring to work primarily in the studio. Many musicians work as freelancers.
- Music Teacher
Music teachers instruct students either privately or in classes, training less experienced musicians in both music performance and appreciation. Music teachers may offer generalized instruction for entire classes or work with students individually. After earning a bachelor's degree, graduates often teach at the K-12 level.
- Music Therapist
Unique among most music careers, music therapists serve clients with mental, physical, or developmental issues, and use music in a restorative capacity. They may lead clients in exercises such as singing, playing instruments, or moving to music. Music therapists must assess client needs to determine the best use of music in each situation.
- Music Director
Music directors supervise music programs within a variety of organizations, such as churches, radio stations, or schools. They typically perform many different duties, including organizing and conducting performances, making music selections for events, arranging music compositions for performance, and scheduling rehearsals.
- Music Producer
Music producers work with artists in the studio to create recorded music. Producers assume responsibility for the technical side of music and work alongside other studio engineers to ensure that a recording faithfully captures an artist's sound. More experienced producers may also offer input on the artistic side, such as advising composition and songwriting.
Master's Degree in Music
For most professionals in the music industry, a master's degree is the highest education requirement necessary. A master's opens the door to many management and leadership positions and offers the potential for advancement to the highest levels of most career paths. Master's degree holders can also pursue all the careers available to bachelor's degree holders, and it comes with a competitive edge in hiring and higher salary prospects.
A master's program offers advanced skills in areas such as production, performance, and business. Most programs only admit applicants with significant music experience, enabling many schools to offer their graduate degrees online.
Composers create original music for a variety of outlets, such as popular music, advertising, movies, or video games. Typically working in a freelance capacity, they may pursue several projects at once or dedicate their energy to one composition at a time. Composers need high-level knowledge of music and the ability to write in different styles.
- Sound Designer
Sound designers craft the sounds for media productions that fall outside of traditional music, such as sound effects. They typically take responsibility for the overall sound of a production, ensuring that music and sound effects work together harmoniously. Sound designers work on all types of media, such as films, television shows, and video games.
- Executive Director
Students who earn their master's in the music business can advance to the highest levels of the music industry, working in top executive positions. Like most advanced corporate roles, executive directors oversee business operations and develop strategies to help their businesses remain competitive. Music executives today commonly focus on new methods to reach consumers through digital platforms.
Doctoral Degree in Music
As the highest level of education attainable in most professional fields, a doctorate develops comprehensive music knowledge in a highly specialized field. However, for most aspiring professionals, the degree is not necessary for career success. A doctorate typically serves music majors interested in academic careers or the highest levels of composition or conducting. Doctoral programs in the discipline often focus on advanced subfields such as music theory or ethnomusicology.
A doctorate requires several years of advanced study along with a comprehensive research project, such as a thesis. The degree requires substantial coursework and dedication, but graduates can pursue rewarding, high paying careers.
- College Professor
College professors instruct undergraduate and graduate students at the postsecondary level. Professors who hold a doctorate in music may instruct in many subjects, such as composition, music theory, performance, and music history. Professors also typically conduct their own research into music.
- Music Historian
Historians analyze and interpret the past, exploring both historical topics and the means through which current societies understand them. Some doctoral graduates may specialize in music history, exploring music in various historical contexts, such as cultural, economic, or political. Music historians may work at colleges, museums, or other cultural institutions.
What Industries Can You Work in With a Music Degree?
Music plays a role in most sectors of media, entertainment, and public events, and a music degree offers you the chance to work in several exciting industries. Whether full time or part time, freelance or corporate, careers in music offer a level of creative engagement uncommon in most professions. The chart below outlines some of the most common industries in which music majors find employment, along with a brief description of what to expect from each field.
- Performing Arts Companies
Music majors often find work providing musical accompaniment in the performing arts, creating sound for theater or ballet productions. At a more advanced level, they may serve as music directors for performing arts companies.
- Religious Organizations
Music also plays a role in many religious services. Musicians interested in the faith-based application of music may work with churches or other religious organizations to provide music for worship services.
- Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers
Freelance employment is a popular option for musicians, as it offers the freedom to pursue a variety of projects. Songwriters, performers, composers, and sound designers often work in a freelance capacity.
- Promoters of Performing Arts, Sports, and Similar Events
For those interested in staying behind the scenes, event promotion offers the chance to engage with the industry without getting onstage. Promoters organize and publicize various events and concerts, typically working alongside managers and other professionals.
- Sound Recording Industries
Music production is another option for professionals who choose to remain offstage. Music majors can find a variety of employment prospects at studios and similar spaces, helping to shape music recording practices.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
How Do You Find a Job as a Music Graduate?
Careers in the music industry often function differently than other industries, and finding a job is not always as clear cut as sending out resumes and attending interviews. Plenty of positions do work this way, but many careers in the music business may depend more on your experience and personal connections. However, as with most fields, many resources exist online to help you find a job. Sites like Digital Music News, Musical America Worldwide, and Musicians Contact all host extensive job listings for music professionals.
After several years of decline, the music industry has found its footing in the digital era, and many positions in the field keep pace with national job growth rates. For example, the BLS projects jobs for both music directors/composers and musicians/singers to grow 6% through 2026 — about the same at the national average.
Professional Resources for Music Majors
One of the premier job listings websites for musicians, Music Jobs catalogs all types of career opportunities in the music industry, including teaching, business, and performance. Users can filter results by job type, location, or keyword, and the site also includes listings for internships.
The largest labor union for professional musicians in the country, the AFM works to protect the labor rights of musicians. The organization focuses on negotiating fair contracts, protecting ownership of music, lobbying for musician-friendly legislation, and securing professional benefits such as healthcare and pensions.
A networking platform for musicians and music promoters, Sonicbids connects musicians with opportunities to play and build their industry exposure. The site includes open call listings for festivals and other music events, giving musicians a chance to win high profile opening slots. Sonicbids also hosts a blog that covers current music industry topics.
A major platform for hosting and sharing music online, Bandcamp also serves as a venue for artists to sell physical copies of their music, along with other merchandise. The site's detailed statistics tools enable musicians to see which of their songs are the most popular and where their music is shared online.
Another major platform for sharing music online, Soundcloud focuses on individual songs rather than full albums. Known as a hotbed of up-and-coming artists, the site enables musicians to connect directly with fans and promote new songs. Along with extensive listening statistics, Soundcloud also enables musicians to earn money from plays of their songs.
A cloud-based platform for managers and musicians, Artist Growth focuses primarily on resources for touring musicians. Some of the application's many tools include roster management, financial tracking, and even funding services that enable artists to borrow cash for immediate expenses against future advances.
Focusing on the business side of the music industry, Music Business Worldwide offers news and analysis of current trends in the industry, helping music executives and other professionals keep track of new developments. The site also hosts a podcast and extensive job listings for music industry positions.
A website creation tool designed specifically for musicians, BandZoogle offers a powerful platform to post songs, tour dates, news updates, and maintain an online store. Users can easily operate and update their site from BandZoogle's mobile app, making the service ideal for touring musicians and managers.
An online platform dedicated to music publishing, Songtrust enables musicians to easily organize the publishing rights to their music, collecting publishing royalties worldwide. The service automates music publishing administration, making it easy to ensure proper royalty collection from streaming sites such as Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music.
A unique service focused specifically on visual content for the music industry, Radar connects musicians with filmmakers, designers, and photographers, helping creative professionals collaborate on music videos, publicity photos, and other media. The site also maintains a blog focusing on the intersection of music and visual media.