Choosing the path that's right for you
By Ann van der Merwe
Published September 20, 2011
Graduate degrees in music are designed to prepare students for specific career paths within the field, but they can be used, and combined, in a variety of ways to serve more professional directions. So, if you are contemplating graduate degree in music, you might consider how the curriculum requirements for each type of degree, as well as the different specializations within these degrees, fit with your plans.
A closer look at the degree types
There are three common master’s degrees in music.
- The M.M. offers performers advanced study of technique and repertoire in their area of specialization.
- The M.M.E. (or M.S.) provides music educators with additional expertise and credentials for teaching in the public schools.
- The M.A. is an academically-focused degree designed to prepare students for a Ph.D. program, typically in music history, ethnomusicology or music theory.
Research projects are generally required for each of these degree types, though the scope and nature of the work varies considerably between degree types and even between institutions. For instance, a lecture-recital is a common final project for the M.M. degree while the M.A. usually involves a written thesis.
Career paths for music graduates
Given the specific career directions associated with these degrees, the choice may seem obvious. In reality, though, a number of options exist. For example, someone with an undergraduate degree in music education might elect to pursue an M.M. or an M.A. rather than an M.M.E. While elementary music teachers will likely find the music education degree more useful, earning an M.M. in conducting is a common and logical path for those who spend the bulk of their time leading ensembles such as bands, choirs and orchestras.
Similarly, an M.A. might be an appropriate choice for someone who teaches music appreciation or theory courses at the high school level. Or, this same individual might simply wish to hone his or her skills as an instrumentalist or vocalist in hopes of pursuing a performing career, whether as a supplement to full-time teaching or as an alternative option should the opportunity present itself.
At the doctoral level, degree options correspond even more directly to musical career paths. Performers, conductors and composers typically earn the Doctor of Musical Arts, or D.M.A., while educators, historians, ethnomusicologists and theorists earn the Ph.D. The D.M.A. requires multiple public recitals as well as a substantial research paper while the Ph.D. involves candidacy exams along with a dissertation. Both degrees are designed, and in most cases required, for those seeking to teach at the college level, though they can certainly prove advantageous in other arenas.
Cody Grabbe, a clarinetist currently pursuing a D.M.A. at Michigan State University, sees this degree, along with his bachelor’s in music education and master’s in performance, as a balanced combination. They “give me some flexibility in finding a job,” he says, “be it teaching at a university, performing in a symphony, setting up a private studio, or working in the arts in another capacity.”
For some career paths, a graduate degree in music is most useful when combined with another degree in a different discipline. Those planning to become music librarians or archivists, for instance, typically earn an M.L.S. degree in library science along with an M.A. or Ph.D. in music. Similarly, a number of music researchers hold advanced degrees not only in music but also in fields such as psychology, biology, and anthropology. Business degrees are also an increasingly common compliment to musical training, leading to careers in arts administration or the commercial music industry.
So if you are contemplating a graduate degree in music, consider all of the options available to you and see what seems to fit best with your needs and goals. The choice might be straightforward for some, but certainly not for all, so don’t be afraid to follow what seems like an unusual path. There are successful music professionals with nearly every degree combination imaginable.
Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.