Classical Music Degrees

Is a classical music education really the best choice for learning the core skills you will need for a career in music? Is it the best preparation for success in the music business? Many of today’s classical students are clamoring for more courses in business, promotion and entrepreneurship.

A classical music degree can qualify you for music industry careers which are not directly related to writing, playing, or teaching music, such as marketing, management, and administration. However, aside from academic settings, a music degree may not qualify you over any other musician who has similar skills. As far as modern music, a classical music degree doesn’t qualify you over anyone else to play on a concert tour, or in a recording session. It’s questionable whether it even makes you better qualified to teach the standard music methods than someone who doesn’t have a degree.

Some people get music degrees because they believe an education in classical music is the best preparation for any kind of performing or teaching career. Graduates of classical programs may be knowledgeable and proficient in the areas they’ve been taught, but they sometimes lack the mix of skills they need to hit the ground running in modern creative settings.

As I’ve pointed out, classically-trained musicians often find the working styles of modern musicians to be confusing and chaotic. “Auto-arrange,” where each player is responsible for creating his own part based on an understanding of styles, is an alien concept to most classical players.

In the 1970s, Guitar Player magazine had an article about careers in music. They compared two pyramids representing the number of jobs in classical versus popular music. The top of the pyramid represented the best-paying, most prestigious jobs. The classical pyramid was flat, meaning only a few jobs at the top, many jobs at the bottom level (almost all teachers), and not much in between. The commercial pyramid was taller, meaning more jobs near the top, and more gradations between the top and bottom levels. The popular music pyramid reflected a greater diversity of jobs, and a greater number of jobs overall.

The industry has grown since then, but the distribution of jobs is probably about the same. If anything, now there are fewer symphony orchestras to employ classical performers. Today, “classical” is a specialty genre that owes its commercial existence to a modern music distribution infrastructure built on the sales of rock, country, and pop music.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug