Deciding to Major in Music

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


It’s that time of year again; college applications are almost due and many high school seniors have not yet decided on a school or area of study. It is the responsibility of music educators to provide all of the necessary information to ensure their students make an informed decision when selecting a major and are prepared for college auditions.

What does a music degree entail? 

Specific course requirements vary by university, but the average music major should expect to spend the majority of their time in classes or practicing. All music degrees will include introductory courses on music theory, aural skills, conducting, piano, and music history. Music majors must also complete the “general studies” required by their university; math, science, history, English, etc. Degrees are available in the fields of music education, music performance, music theory, composition, music therapy, religious music, and others.

          Sample Undergraduate Degree Plans from Stephen F. Austin State University (Texas)

          Music Education 

          Music Performance 


          Sound Recording Technology 

What do I need to do as a senior in high school?

When considering a degree in music, it would be wise to first schedule a visit to local universities and experience a typical day as a music major. Most professors are willing to meet with prospective students with advance notice. Before applying to a college of music, high school seniors need to decide on a field of study and complete an application for both the university and the school of music. Most applications are due by the beginning of December. Next, the student should schedule an audition with the school of music. Most universities will make their decisions in March or April, after all auditions have been completed.


The majority of colleges of music will require an audition on the student’s main instrument before admission is granted. Often, the university will request specific repertoire or composers; students should make sure to email a representative from the college before selecting audition music. On audition day, students need to arrive early and well-dressed (business casual). Depending on the university, there may be additional requirements like sight-reading a passage, a brief music theory test, or completing an interview. Scholarships from schools of music are generally based on the students’ performance in auditions and financial need.


Sample Careers in Music



Musicians who write music are called composers. Depending on the level of experience and         popularity of a composer, one might charge anywhere from a few thousand dollars to ten or twelve thousand dollars per commission. A composer who writes ten pieces in a year will make anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000. Composers also receive royalties every time one of their pieces is purchased from the music publishing company. Composers will have the opportunity to travel for small workshops and various international clinics. These sessions can last anywhere from a few hours to a week and generally pay several hundred (or thousand) dollars each.

Performing in a Professional Ensemble

Most major ensembles contract their musicians by season. A professional musician contracted by one of the nation’s premiere ensembles (New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, etc.) will earn between $50,000 and $140,000 annually. This salary is based on experience, skill, and availability. Professional musicians will have the opportunity to travel the world, premiere pieces, produce recordings, and more.

Teaching Private Lessons

Amateur musicians (those without a degree) might earn up to $30 an hour by teaching private lessons at the intermediate or high school level. Professional musicians generally charge between $50-100 an hour for a private lesson. Teaching just ten lessons a week can result in anywhere from $15,000 to 52,000 in supplemental income, depending on experience. Private lessons teachers usually also have the opportunity to teach summer music camps for approximately one hundred dollars a day, depending on the school district or university.

Teaching Full Time

Music educators in public schools will spend the majority of their time teaching students how to read music, play their instruments, and proper rehearsal and performance etiquette. Salaries vary greatly between states depending on the level of importance the area places on the arts, the wealth of the school district, years of experience, and the type of music being taught (choir, orchestra, band, elementary, etc). On average, a head band director at a successful high school in the U.S. can expect to earn between $30,000 and $90,000 annually.

Professors of music can specialize in conducting ensembles, music theory, form and analysis, private lessons, composition, sound recording technology, musicology, and more. Their salary will depend on the university, years of experience, and number and success of courses being taught. The average professor will earn between $50,000 and $170,000 per year.  Several professors will spend their summer months teaching clinics, giving lectures, or traveling.

Professional Conductor

Conductors are responsible for organizing rehearsals and leading the ensemble on stage. These individuals will have the opportunity to travel the world to perform with various professional ensembles, lecture at symposiums, premiere pieces, work with youth groups, and more. Depending on their level of education and experience, a professional conductor can earn between $15,000 and over $200,000 annually.




Image source: Marina McLerran. 15 October, 2017. Nacogdoches, TX.


Stephen F. Austin State University. School of Music. Nacogdoches, Texas.



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