Career Outcomes based on Undergraduate Music School Variables

Here is the data from the survey I conducted earlier this summer. The information isn't perfect. I would like to have had a larger pool of responses. I would like to have a better picture of what happens with composition majors or people who make 50% of their income one way and 50% the other way. But the information I gathered is interesting to me, nonetheless. 


This survey was designed to assess variables in curriculum and types of music degrees and the career outcomes correlated with those variables. The survey asked about the following variables:

  • Conservatory or non-conservatory institution

  • Type of degree: BM, BME, BA, BS, or BFA (not enough info to make assumptions about BS or BFA music degrees)

  • Number of large ensembles required per semester

  • Total semesters of chamber music, jazz combos or other small ensembles during degree

  • Marching band requirements or volunteering to march

  • Self-assessed difficulty of music core classes: music theory, music history, applied lessons, and ensembles

  • Self-assessed difficulty of general education courses

  • Graduate school attended in music, non-music subject, or not at all

There were 265 usable responses to the survey. All usable responses had completed an undergraduate degree in music and had full-time work as either a professional musician (performance, composition, private teaching, engineering, etc.,) a classroom music teacher, a non-music related field, or were unemployed. For the purposes of this survey, I considered a full-time career to be 80% of income to be in the area of the career.

Out of 265, 41.37% worked as full-time musicians, 22.89% worked as full-time classroom music teachers, 29.32% work in non-music-related fields, and 6.43% were unemployed (about two percent higher than the US unemployment rate.)

I consider a strong indicator for a factor to be 125% of the baseline or above. A low indicator is less than 75% of baseline. I threw out data from variables with less than 20 responses.

Becoming a classroom music teacher

Several factors were strongly correlated with attaining full-time employment as a classroom music teacher.

Type of degree

The type of degree pursued is very important to a career in music education. The BME degree is obviously correlated. The BA degree has a surprisingly strong outcome for music education (29.63%) while the BM and other music degrees seem to put students at a disadvantage for education careers.

Non-conservatory is best

Only 12.96% of conservatory graduates work in classroom music education. This makes sense, since many conservatory programs do not have classroom pedagogy courses.

Ensembles: more large and fewer small

Having three or more large ensembles required per semester is correlated with careers in classroom music. However, four or fewer semesters of chamber music total during undergrad has about the same correlation.

Marching band is good… unless you get a BM

Marching band participation is very strongly correlated with becoming a professional classroom music educator, unless you pursue a Bachelor’s of Music. Not having marched can be bad news for a career in classroom music, no matter what degree you pursue.

Music courses should be harder

If your theory, music history, and applied courses are perceived as easy or very easy, you are less likely to become a classroom music teacher.

Difficult general education courses can be a barrier

If general education courses are perceived as hard or very hard, you are less likely to become a classroom music teacher.

A graduate degree in education is helpful

There is a strong correlation between a non-performance graduate degree and working in classroom music.

Becoming a full-time professional musician

Curriculum, talent, and socioeconomics; factors that affect an outcome of a career in music performance.

Degree type

Although it’s possible to become a professional musician with any kind of music degree, some degrees are less correlated with that outcome. A Bachelor’s of Arts in Music is only correlated at 29.63% and the Bachelor’s of Music Education comes in last at 26.32%.

Conservatories get results

Going to a conservatory is the number one most correlated factor in having full-time employment in music performance. The competitive atmosphere, high-level faculty, and the training and mentorship that gets a student to the conservatory as an 18-year-old in the first place make a big difference.


Being required to march in the college marching band is not well correlated with finding success as a full-time musician. The good news is that if you pursue a BM, marching band only lessens your chance at a career in music performance by about 3%. Having volunteered to march is much more strongly correlated with a career in music than being required to march. 

Surprise - private lessons shouldn’t be THAT hard

Easy or very easy applied lessons in undergrad are actually strongly correlated with having a career in music. Interpreting this correlation is a tricky; are cocky students the ones who end up successful? Are the best teachers the ones who gently lead students through their development? Is there a developmental advantage to feeling successful at this stage?

General education should be tough

People who work full-time as musicians found that their general education courses were difficult or very difficult. This, again, could point to a couple of factors. Music students could have less time to devote to general education or less aptitude. Students who take harder gen-ed courses could also be more prepared for the reality of a music career in which they need to be thoughtful and creative.

Plan to attend graduate school

Attending graduate school in music is an indicator that you may well succeed as a professional musician. Not attending graduate school - or getting a non-music grad degree - has one of the biggest correlations with not becoming a professional musician.

Avoiding unemployment

Several correlations with low or high employment rates for music majors.

Get thee to a conservatory

One of the biggest surprises of this study was the relationship of conservatory study and employment. The large group that received degrees at conservatories had a zero percent rate of unemployment versus the 8.11% unemployment rate at non-conservatory schools. If you graduated with a BM at a non-conservatory, you are at an even worse disadvantage for employment - 9.9% in a large sample size. There are MANY factors that could affect this phenomenon. Here are a few:

  • Conservatory students may have more supportive families and networks that will help them gain employment. They may have come from more privileged backgrounds that would assist them in finding work in and out of music.

  • Conservatory students may have more school debt - causing them to make sure they have employment to pay their loan bills.

  • Conservatories tend to be in cities; urban areas have higher employment rates than rural areas.

More ensembles large and small

Even though having more chamber music experience as an undergrad is not an indicator for a career in music education or in sticking with music as a career, it is correlated with a higher overall employment rate. Learning how to deal with people closely isn’t always pleasant but can help to build important life skills. Three or more large ensembles per semester is also correlated with more employment later on.

Marching band ≠ employment unless you get a BME

The biggest indicator for unemployment for music majors is being required to play in marching band for more than one year. If a student is required to march for more than three years, the unemployment rate hits its peak at 14.29%. There are two important distinctions when it comes to marching band and future employment:

  • Getting a BME and being required to march is actually good for future employment.

  • Volunteering to march even though it isn’t required is VERY good for your future prospects. In this group, the unemployment rate is near zero. Here, I see a picture of people who aren’t afraid to work hard to go after what they want.

Easy music courses are trouble

Students who feel that their theory and music history courses are easy or very easy are at risk for higher rates of unemployment. Although it isn’t as clearly correlated, easy ensembles and applied lessons are more likely to lead to unemployment than moderate or difficult ones.

Moderate general education courses are trouble

Here is an interesting statistic. When general education courses are neither the breezy and peripheral “conservatory-style” OR the rigorous liberal arts studies at a university, the students’ future employment suffers.

Changing to a non-music path

Factors in pursuing (or ending up in) a non-music career after completing a music degree.

A little less chamber music, please

Having fewer chamber music requirements in college is correlated with staying in a music-related field. Perhaps it’s better to save the intense chamber music study for when a music student has figured out more of their own musical challenges.

Marching band is fun and time consuming

Marching for most years of your college degree is associated with sticking with music afterwards. In fact, the strongest indicator for having a non-music career (outside not completing a masters degree in music) is to get a bachelors of arts degree in music without participating in marching band.

Challenging ensembles lead to music careers

If large ensembles are perceived to be hard or very hard, the likelihood of moving to a career other than music drops from around 32% to around 18% - nearly half!

Graduate school is a must

Unsurprisingly, music undergraduates who go to graduate school for a non-music subject are unlikely to work full-time in a music career. But it is even more likely that a music student will work in another field if they skip graduate school altogether. 47.46% of those who don’t get graduate degrees move on to non-music jobs - the highest percent correlation of any factor.


Possible uses for this information

This survey can also be useful for high school students who are making choices about where they would like to study music. Being informed with the risks and outcomes of music school variables is an important piece of making a decision about higher ed.

This survey could be useful in shaping curriculum and priorities within an undergraduate music department. Particularly in non-conservatories, there seems to be a lot of room for improvement towards goals of future employment and being clear about what kinds of employment are the goals of education within the institution. Knowing your geographic community and the passions of your student body are key.

I offer my own recommendations to music departments based on the data collected below.


Conservatory recommendations

Goal of a career in performance or smooth transition away from music

  • Lessons for undergraduates should feel different than lessons for graduate students. There is most likely no need for tyrant tactics or trial by fire at this stage. Focus on gentle honesty, exploration and learning, and supporting gnarly ensemble repertoire.

  • Ensembles at conservatories should have extremely high musical standards. This is one area where schools can help students feel exceptionally ready for the rigors of the professional music world.

  • General education courses in conservatories should be challenging. However, they can’t be difficult for the sake of being difficult; music students can detect a waste of their time with almost superhuman ease. Instead, make classes applicable and rigorous, with plenty of writing assignments. (For example, as a western civ course that helps to lay the foundation for music history.) Remember that being able to reason, to write, and trust in the ability to research and learn is important in both a music career and the ability to transition out of music.

  • This may seem counter-intuitive, but one of the primary goals of an undergraduate degree at a music conservatory should be preparing for a master’s program in music. Very few individuals will be ready to support themselves in a music career directly out of an undergraduate degree in music. Help students to understand that it is important to take what they have learned to an even more rigorous environment to help them prepare for the professional world.

  • Less chamber music requirements (four or fewer semesters) for undergraduates in conservatories may be appropriate.


Non-conservatory recommendations

Non-conservatories are at a disadvantage to conservatories on several fronts: they must teach more types of curriculums, they support the larger institution (ie sports), they are less desirable schools for some of the best student musicians, and can have a lower caliber of faculty. On the other hand, non-conservatories can have a few advantages: more local recruitment, more full-time faculty, and more opportunities for student to get a well-rounded education.

Goal of a streamlined path to performance or education careers and a low unemployment rate

  • An obvious starting place is that there should be very different requirements between BME, BM, and BA courses of study. One of the places it seems that schools run into trouble is making blanket policies for all music majors.

  • Marching band should be required for BME candidates and optional for all other majors, due to the deleterious effect of marching on the employment outcomes of non-BME students. If marching must be required, it should be capped at one year. Volunteering to march should be encouraged and supported in the curriculum.

  • BME students should have fewer chamber music requirements and BM and BA students should have more. BME students should have more large ensemble requirements.

  • Music courses (theory, history, applied lessons, and ensembles) should all be moderate to very demanding - never easy. Compare this to the conservatory recommendations above; the difference is that the conservatory itself provides a challenging atmosphere. In order to feel competent outside of school, non-conservatory students must be pushed very hard during their studies.

  • General education courses should err on the side of toughness, especially for performance majors, (see the conservatory recommendation above.) Education majors should have options for less-challenging classes that don’t overwhelm the already taxing BME curriculum schedule.

  • Graduate school in performance or education should be a goal for most students.

The complete data is here.