Is a Music Degree a Good Value?

is a music degree worth it

If you want to be a professional musician, you’ve probably considered getting a music degree at some point. Music is one of those professions that requires artistic skill more than formal education, but a degree can help you find work that offers a regular salary instead of payments for gig work.

Aspiring musicians often ask, “Is a music degree a good value?” To answer this question, it’s important to know which industries are hiring and which jobs require a degree. While most jobs in music can be obtained without a degree, the jobs with the best security and hourly wages often do require formal education. From the orchestra pit to the recording studio, today’s working musicians can find employment in a wide range of settings.

Making Money as a Musician

Is a Music Degree a Good Value?

Like acting, painting and film-making, music is a profession you can enter without a bachelor’s degree, but even if you don’t have a four-year degree, you still must have professional-level skills. In the music world, these skills are often called your chops. As a gigging or session musician, your ability to work will depend entirely on your ability to demonstrate your chops in an audition. If you aren’t good enough at your instrument, a degree won’t help you get work in music venues playing in recording studios or local bands.

A degree in music costs the same as any other bachelor’s degree, and the total cost depends on the school you attend. On average, bachelor’s degrees from public universities cost about $20,000. If you graduate after four years with $20,000 or less in debt, you should have no problem paying off your loans within a few years. Most experts say not to take out more loans than you expect to make your first year out of college. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at $23.50 per hour, musicians earn pretty close to the national average, but this amount includes the majority of musicians who don’t have college degrees. With a degree and professional-level chops, you can work as a teacher or as a player in a more formal setting, such as an orchestra. You can also continue on to graduate school and perhaps teach at the postsecondary level.

Job Prospects for Musicians

The job market for musicians is projected to grow steadily for the next ten years, but its growth is expected to be slower than most other occupations. A degree can give you the formal training that puts you ahead of the thousands of musicians who are mostly self-taught. Even though playing music is more fun than being an accountant or lawyer, college courses require discipline and focus. At the end of your training, you’ll certainly be a much better musician because you’ll have been forced to study music much more carefully than you would have otherwise. Without a degree, you can’t even be considered for jobs playing in orchestras or theaters, and you will have a much harder time finding steady employment.

Asking whether a music degree is worth the cost is like asking if there is enough work available to pay off the cost of education. Most music graduates work as teachers or session musicians, and a degree combined with excellent skills can ensure steady session work with relatively high pay. If you want to work in a more competitive environment, you will have to move to a city known for its music scene, such as Los Angeles or New York. These competitive markets require you to have the sharpest skills possible, and a degree can help you reach that level.

The Industries Hiring Musicians

Is a Music Degree a Good Value?

Although people tend to shy away from music careers because they think it will be too hard to find work, the truth is that employment is available for musicians with the right attitude and skill set. It isn’t necessary to have a long, distinguished education in the best music schools to find steady work in the music industry, but it may be necessary to move to a city where music is recorded or played in a live setting, such as Nashville, Los Angeles or New York.

With or without a music degree, musicians can find work in just about any big city. Jobs can sometimes turn up in unexpected places, such as churches and department stores. Musicians are often needed for special occasions, such as weddings, bar mitzvah ceremonies and Christmas parties, so the work could be temporary. Talented musicians can earn a steady paycheck no matter where they work.

Some of the less obvious places for musicians to look for work are restaurants, bars, shopping malls and sports stadiums. Some of the more typical places for musicians to find work are night clubs, local theaters and recording studios that produce commercial music for major software applications and for other musicians to sample in their work.

Working Full-Time as a Musician

Working full-time as a musician may seem like an unattainable goal to many people, but it’s really quite attainable. While most musicians are by no means rich, they earn incomes comparable to employees in other industries, such as education and healthcare. Although jobs in the music industry aren’t expected to grow as quickly as jobs in these other industries, they will continue to grow rather than shrink, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On the path to becoming a full-time professional musician, it may be necessary to work odd jobs or hold down a career in another profession, such as hospitality or childcare. With focus and perseverance, anyone can reach the point of earning their entire income from playing music. The difference between a full-time music career and a more conventional career is that, like freelancers, musicians may always have to spend some of their time looking for their next gig.

Working Part-Time as a Musician

At first, it may be easier to find part-time work as a performing or recording musician. Most professional musicians start out playing in part-time gigs for money. As they find more and more of these part-time gigs, they eventually find themselves earning a full-time income from music. Some places to begin looking for part-time gig work include recording studios hiring session musicians and musical ensembles performing for banquets and other special occasions.

During this initial phase in a musician’s career, going forward can sometimes feel like a hopeless, unrealistic dream. Many professions start out that way, including entrepreneurship, freelance work and online marketing. Musicians who want to work full-time in the recording industry could benefit from using this early part of their career to take college courses and earn a music degree. Part-time work as a musician is the perfect way to supplement a music student’s income.

How to Become a Music Teacher

Is a Music Degree a Good Value?

One way to make money as a music student is to teach music lessons to younger students. Many college students earn additional income by tutoring, and this can also be a good side job for a music student. Working part-time as a music teacher while in school will have two important benefits. First, it will help pay for college and keep student debt to a minimum, and second, it will pave the way for a professional career as a full-time music instructor.

Teaching music is one of the main ways for trained musicians to earn a steady income. For people who prefer to be employees of businesses that issue paychecks and provide health insurance, music instruction is an obvious career choice. Music teachers are employed by K-12 schools, community colleges and universities. They can work for online music schools or provide private lessons to students in person or over the Internet. Many musicians combine a music teaching job with another music job, such as playing for recording sessions or performing in a live orchestra.

How to Become an Orchestra Musician

The road to becoming a full-time orchestra musician in a symphony or recording studio requires at least a four-year degree and top-level performance skills. Orchestra jobs are among the most sought-after positions in the music profession, so they tend to be competitive and high-paying. Before a musician can play in an orchestra, he or she usually must attend a music conservatory, which is a challenge in its own right.

Many young musicians with aspirations to be full-time orchestra players believe that music theory and musicology are important factors in being accepted to a conservatory. While music theory may be taught in a conservatory, acceptance to the school usually has nothing to do with academic knowledge or theory. It’s based on the student’s audition, so high school students planning to try out for a conservatory should focus on practicing their instruments instead of studying music theory.

How to Earn a Living in Pop Music

Just about every genre of pop music needs trained musicians to provide backing music and session performances. From Hollywood to Nashville, the major recording industries are some of the main employers of full-time musicians. Jobs are available for players of all types of instruments, depending on the location and the project. From drums and guitar to oboe and clarinet, the pop music industry needs musicians who can play a wide range of instruments.

Another option, of course, is writing music. While it might a bad idea to plan on writing pop hits for a living, it’s certainly possible to make money composing music for movies, television, video games and other forms of media. From musical theater to ballet, live performances often need original music in order to put on a show in front of an audience. Music composers can earn money as staff members of theater productions or by selling the rights to their compositions.

Other Gigs for Musicians

Besides teaching music, playing in an orchestra or composing original music, there are many other ways for musicians to earn money. They can work for marketing firms writing commercial jingles or for content aggregators producing stock music. Freelance musicians can find gig work on marketplaces such as Fiverr, Freelancer and Upwork. With enough experience and a broad base of clientele, freelance gigs can provide a lucrative full-time income.

A music degree isn’t required for most of these jobs, so anyone can get started in the freelance music industry. One way that a music degree could be helpful to a freelancer is to help him or her stand out from the competition. With a degree in music from a university or conservatory, a freelance music artist or composer could charge more money per gig than his or her competitors. The difference could be dramatic. Professionally trained freelance musicians are more likely to be successful in major artistic hubs than their self-taught competitors.

Best States for Professional Musicians

The best states for musicians to work might not be what most people expect. Most musicians earn money from gigs and part-time work, so the numbers are expressed in hourly earnings rather than annual salaries. According to the BLS, the state where musicians earn the largest average hourly wage is Georgia, at $62.85, followed by Nevada, at $46.90. The states with the highest rates of employment for musicians are Hawaii, at 0.116 percent, and New York, at 0.080 percent. The states with the most musicians employed overall are New York, with 7,580 employed, and California, with 5,890 employed.

Getting a Master of Fine Arts in Music

Is a Music Degree a Good Value?

Musicians struggling to find full-time employment can always go back to school and enroll in a master’s program. The MFA degree is universally recognized as the gold standard in fine arts education. With a master’s degree in music, many new career doors could open up, such as teaching at the college level, working as a music director or conducting an orchestra. The MFA in Music is typically a two-year program with many benefits for the music students who complete it. An audition is often necessary for enrollment, and the top programs in the country can be very competitive.

Getting a Good Value from a Music Degree

The key to getting the best value out of a music degree is to plan ahead and choose a program that matches your career goals. A big student debt can be a burden after graduation, especially for young musicians struggling to find work. That’s why it’s a good idea to start planning ahead during high school and practicing your instrument for several hours every day. With careful planning, dedication and attention to detail, the cost of a music degree can easily be offset with steady work and a high income. The top jobs in music tend to go to those who know what they want to do for a living at a young age.

Best Careers for Musicians without a Degree

Without a bachelor’s degree, getting started in a music career can take time. Instead of spending four years studying music in a university or conservatory, you can get started looking for gig work and getting your music into the right hands. Musicians looking for work playing genres of pop music such as rock, blues, jazz or soul won’t be asked for their college degrees, and there are always plenty of jobs in these categories.

The demand for musicians isn’t expected to increase rapidly, but music is a profession that has been around throughout history. Musicians will always have work, and a music degree will make you a better, more marketable musician. Finding steady employment in the music industry is a long-term goal that doesn’t happen overnight. The answer to the question “Is a music degree a good value?” depends on your career goals, musical ability and level of experience.

Related Resources: