The Changing Face of Music as Career

June 14, 2013

Recently, I met an enthusiastic young lady who signed up for my summer piano course. She was quick to share her desire to study music, her love of singing, and some of the music notes written in ink on her body. She left for a meeting with her advisor regarding her finances and the fall schedule and returned to me, in tears. It had been suggested to her that she choose a different career. She was told that there is little need for music teachers and few other possibilities for those who pursue a degree in music. This student had no desire to become a teacher and yet, she was advised to change her life’s course. We can all agree that students deserve to understand the marketability of their chosen professions. To steer students away from the study of music because of the lack of teaching jobs, though, is doing a disservice to both students and to all who make music their life’s work.

There is some good news though. More professions than ever before are hiring graduates of music programs in a variety of fields. While we must face the fact that many K-12 schools have eliminated their music programs altogether, we are witnessing an expansion in other music careers and in fields where many appreciate the complex skills of a musically trained student. If we fuse the value of music in our culture with a college pathway that highlights student abilities, then we can confidently encourage students to study music for its own value as well as for a career choice.

This article reveals current trends for which university-level music study is important, if not imperative. Currently, there are three major categories in the workforce among music graduates: performers of music, non-performers who work with music directly, and those I will call integrative musicians who are musically trained and working in another field. Twenty or thirty years ago, musical studies in college often led to a teaching certificate for public or private K-12 schools. With the decline of funding for music in our schools, we must consider what else one can do with a degree in music. Fortunately, each of these three categories offers numerous opportunities for a career-minded music student.



We can assert that there are talented professionals such as singers on an operatic stage, clarinetists in the theater pit, rock band drummers, lead singers, jazz saxophonists, and the like. Perhaps the positions that these musicians hold are not discussed with students, because these gigs seem out of reach for the college freshman. We might minimize a discussion on professional performance because most performers begin with part-time, low, or no salary gigs (think of the budding rock band playing at the high school prom or the Whitney Houstons of this world who began singing in a church choir). Still, many performers choose a career in music-making, and there are those who make a substantial amount of money doing so.

To fully engage in the discussion of a career in performance, though, we must realize that many of those low-paying jobs played an important role in the pursuit of that career. To take just one example, opera singers climb an oft-perceived infinite ladder as choristers, cover artists, debuting principal singers, and company or regional favorites before really “making it” as stars in the operatic world. As someone who wrote pay contracts for an opera company a few years back, I can attest to the disparity in salary, benefits, and perks between those entering the field as chorus members and those with principal roles on the stage. The truth is that, despite the difference in compensation, these singers are skilled in much the same way, using the same techniques and methods, and holding the same graduate degrees. The difference between those who stay on the bottom rung and those who reach the ladder’s top is often a matter of time, humility, and perseverance. The effort pays off, though, because singing the smaller roles serves as a prerequisite and demonstrates worthiness for the larger ones. The scenario is the same, essentially, for the clarinetist or the rock band musician. Smaller jobs lead to bigger ones. For most, it takes a multitude of music jobs along the way to make one finely prepared and experienced musician. For many of these roles, a graduate degree in music is required.

While many performers have made careers in one musical style or with a particular instrument (as an opera singer or a heavy metal drummer, for example), many others hold several positions at once. As performers acquire and hewn their skills, they often uncover additional career possibilities. A budding pianist may find employment as a nightclub keyboardist, a private studio teacher, a high school musical director, a church organist, and a jazz historian. This type of career versatility is a wonderful byproduct of a standard music curriculum that includes theory, aural training, piano, ensemble work, and private lessons.

Not every performing musician went to college, but many do. Not all college-educated musicians perform classical music either. In just one example, the Berklee College of Music in Boston has graduated some fine musicians, including:

Melissa Etheridge –1980
Quincy Jones –1951
Diana Krall –1983
Joey Kramer (Aerosmith) - 1971
Branford Marsalis– 1980
John Mayer–1998
Howard Shore (composer for the movie “Hugo”) - 1969
Brad Whitford (Aerosmith) - 19711

Other musical notables began on a different path. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, spent his leisure hours playing the guitar with his roommate. He began as a philosophy major at the University of California but graduated as a music major.2

In an academic world where music, some say, is not the ideal career choice, still there are many who perform for a living. In fact, a basic town orchestra requires a multitude of people with a variety of talents: conductors, concertmasters, section leaders, section members, and instrumentalists from all musical families.

Performers, such as opera singers, band members, soloists, choral members, cover artists and the like, account for a large portion of the working population in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there were 176, 200 jobs under this category in 2010.3 Employment managers who often seek performing musicians work for symphonies, religious institutions, nightclubs, concert halls, and opera companies, to name just a few. With the variety of musical genres that are popular today, it is no wonder that live performances are so prevalent. It takes a great many performers to make these concerts available.



Non-performing posts in music include such roles as composers, publishers, editors, arrangers, and teachers. These positions usually require, at minimum, a baccalaureate degree. These workers often are linked directly with the music.

Composers and directors accounted for 93,200 members of the work force in 2010.4 Gone are the days when composers focused their life’s work on the “Great American Symphony.” Now, composers work in an array of styles, writing music to be played by large symphony orchestras, yes, but also for high school choirs, church groups, commercial television, video games, and even phone apps.

Editors, arrangers, historians, and researchers must have the musical knowledge to accurately document or revise existing musical works. Employers for these workers are publishing houses, universities, professional orchestras, the Library of Congress, and other large institutions.

In the working world of musicians, teachers belong in this category. While some do perform, the classroom portion of their profession does not require stage performance. The singular category of music teacher is a rather large one; this group includes teaching violin to toddlers, public and private school classroom teachers at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels, summer camp teachers, private studio teachers, coaches, applied instructors of every instrument, and college professors.

One last group to mention in this category is that of the hybrid musician who combines a specialty in music with a chosen primary profession. Some coaches, physical trainers, physicians, and lawyers focus on music (such as an entertainment or copyright lawyer). Musical study is nearly always necessary in these cases.

The roles of both the performer and the non-performer are necessary to bring about live music and also for music that plays a supplementary role. College-educated musicians permeate both categories. We attend concerts to hear the music, but we attend a yoga class for the exercise while music creates the relaxing environment. An abbreviated list of events that include paid musicians as performers and as non-performers is included here as a reminder to all of us to appreciate the music around us. Unfortunately, this is the music that is sometimes taken for granted. Remember that each musician studied and practiced for many hours and often years to be able to enhance events such as these:

  • Weddings
  • Funerals
  • Sporting events
  • Graduation ceremonies
  • Movies
  • Exercise classes
  • Parties

In order to make these events happen, though, non-performing professionals behind the scenes organize, promote, and choreograph the entire show. Agents initiate and coordinate events. Technologists handle computer technology to electronically perfect the sound. Studio and mixing engineers use complex equipment to record music.


Integrative Musicians

There are those, then, who do not work directly with music but use their skills in a different field altogether. I call these workers “integrative musicians,” because they have blended their talents with other fields. Some may work inside the field of music but use their talents on the nonmusical aspects of the company. Consider any professional group such as a community orchestra, concert band or chorus, musical theater, or jazz ensemble. Executive directors, ticket managers, advertising executives, company managers, librarians, and educational outreach liaisons comprise only a part of the staff required to run a season. These are just some of the non-performers who may have a music degree and gained employment in a music company because of their degree in the field. The passion that may have led to their pursuit of the degree in music is now fueled by the performances that they help to generate.

There are others, though, who seem to have abandoned the field. They work now as physicians, lawyers, military personnel, and the like. Some evidence shows that these people did not leave the field; they merely branched out.

On the surface, it might seem that our university system has failed those who have a music degree but are working in a different area. Contrary to immediate perceptions, though, some in other fields have discovered great value in hiring those with the higher level thinking and problem-solving skills that are required of music students. Such fields as business, medicine, and the military require skills that many music students hewn during their university days.

One study by Dr. Daniel Levitin demonstrates that an experienced musician transfers information from the right and left brain hemispheres.5 The blending, then, of left brain analytical skills with right brain creative activity, is commonplace for an experienced musician. These skills transfer well to fields outside of music. For example, certain analytic fields, such as military intelligence operations, require people such as those who majored specifically in music theory to decode or analyze data. The medical field has incorporated music as well. Music therapists use the healing power of music to reduce or calm afflictions. Debra Auerbach, writing for, called music therapy the sixth most “in-demand” career in our nation.6

What skills do musicians need to learn to be successful in careers in or outside of music? According to a study conducted by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia MacKay of the University of Kansas Medical Center, those who study music and use that knowledge for ten or more years perform better than non-musicians in the areas of nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processes.7 In a 2007 study for the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Western Ontario entitled “Critical Review: Do individuals with musical training have enhanced brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch compared to those not musically trained?”, J.K. Kryszak extols the value of music education.

Overall, research suggests more robust and faithful encoding of linguistic pitch information by musicians. Musicians also display an enhanced representation of the fundamental frequency, which has been extensively understood to underlie pitch perception. Thus, the two studies reviewed indicate that musicians have better brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch, which suggests a context-general corticofugal tuning of the afferent system. These findings have implications for general social and educational policies with regards to the value of musical training in schools and auditory training strategies for individuals with speech-encoding deficits.8

The study of music isn’t just for teachers anymore. The training of musicians is beneficial for work in and outside the field, particularly with regard to tasks involving linguistic pitch. Music students develop skills in the areas of contextual analysis, pitch acuity, observing minute rhythmic distinctions, and pattern recognition among many other skills.

How, then, can we help students to develop their appreciation and skills in music and send them on a positive career path? In an academic world where isolation is the norm (separate buildings, meetings, faculty, and equipment for each department), we can choose to be more open to possibilities for performers, non-performers, and integrative musicians. With that in mind, consider using the following basic list of career options as a conversation-starter for students who have not yet chosen a career path.


Health Care

Music Therapy is one of the newest music-related fields. In 2010, there were 22,000 employed music therapists.9 Associated with the healthcare field, music therapists assist clients with rehabilitation, pain management, stress reduction, and many other health-related needs.



The armed forces have many excellent bands including those for special services or for concerts. While the options for performers are many, there are some hidden gems for music majors. Skills such as form analysis and language decoding learned in any good music theory program serves the military well for positions such as cryptographer or geo-spatial intelligence analyst.



Music is big business. Behind any artist are those who manage schedules, publicize events, produce albums, and sell them. Employment in this category often requires coursework, if not degrees in music, business, law, or marketing.

Personnel who specialize in marketing and business control much of a musical performer’s success. From initializing contact with labels, event directors, and radio personnel to acting as the liaison to their fans, publicity agents establish where, when, and how often a performer takes the stage. Public opinion dictates much of that success. Agents and their assistants create press kits, work with the local newspapers and event staff members to promote the image of their client. Much of the dialogue takes place on the performer’s website due to the efforts of website creators, managers, and editors.

Other types of agents, such as licensing agents, perform duties that keep the performer within their legal means. Often, new artists perform cover songs composed and made famous by others. Agents must understand copyright laws and obtain permission for the performance of specific songs or works before the performer walks on stage. Contracts must be clearly written for both parties; these documents specify the benefits (in terms of salary or performance time or the like) that both parties receive for the event or collaboration.

Business managers handle the schedule of clients, usually performers. To that end, they must have business sense and know the legalities of copyright issues and must be able to professionally market the client. Artist’s administrators create and manage the budget of their clients. Without this important person, even talented artists might have no financial means to perform.

Sound production is big business in the music industry, and the careers substantiate that. Producers record and edit primarily for a recording company. Sound mixers, backup vocalists, studio musicians, arrangers, and recording engineers are some of the workers necessary to produce an album. Others in the company promote the music to radio production staff, market the music at events and to college campuses, poll the public for trends, solicit the press to advertise the label, and so on.


Store owners and managers

A passion for music can translate to the desire to share with others. Owners, managers, and many other workers run music and other retail stores. The informed music employee can demonstrate better customer service than can the novice.



From piano tuning to score repair, laborers keep our instruments and scores in good working order. Repairers may be freelance workers or may work for a larger company. A working knowledge of at least basic music theory along with some specialty information (on tuning a piano, for example) provides the necessary skills for these workers.



Sound composers are vital to the success of any video game, phone app, or movie score. Those hired likely have college degrees, including the study of music theory and composition.10 Careers in this area include film scoring, arranging, and editing, music critic, soundscape artists, game designers, commercial jingle writers, and background music composers (for restaurants, retail stores, and yes, even elevators!).

Tour producers and publicists, sound technicians, and advance agents arrange the details for performances. Duties include contacting directors of establishments (such as the Executive Director of a performing arts hall), scheduling rehearsal and performance times, marketing print and radio advertising, negotiating local rentals of hotels, setting up equipment for the show, and conducting sound checks.

In the television and radio studios, producers control what the public sees and hears. DJs and VJs hold the same control in clubs and other public events.



Nearly every church in America employs at least one performing musician. Though not all of these positions are full-time, many can be combined as two part-time positions (children’s ministry and adult choir director, for example). Often, the church gig is a part-time role that a musician can perform while holding a second job in or out of the music field. A multitude of churches represents many denominations and religions in our country; the visual image of those churches should be a fair indication of the number of church musicians in our country. This is no small number. Religious and similar organizations employed thirty-seven percent of the working musicians in 2010.11



Finally, we reach the category that prompted the ill-advised comment to my crying student. We are fortunate to have both public and private sectors that sponsor the teaching of music in our society to people of all ages. From elementary school to college and beyond, teachers educate others in the art of song, the playing of a solo instrument, the appreciation of our musical past, and the many other aspects of music. Included in this category are pre-school, Kindergarten, elementary teachers, private studio teachers, band, orchestra, and choir directors, and professors.

Aside from the traditional teaching role, though, there are others who educate outside the classroom or studio. Summer camp counselors, editors of magazines and journals, textbook authors and their sales staff, accompanists, researchers and ethnomusicologists, librarians, writers and producers of children’s programs, and nursing home activity directors hold but a few of these educational roles.



The argument against the pursuit of a degree in music given to the student who entered my office in tears is that there are few jobs available as a school music teacher. In light of current trends, though, this seems rather naïve. Consider the larger category of those employed within the specific realm of music education: self-enrichment teachers (think of private teachers in studios or in their homes), school teachers, graduate teaching assistants, and university professors. Even with this larger category, musicians as educators accounted for only two percent of the working musicians in 2010.12

Not everyone agrees that the pursuit of a career in music is worthwhile. According to Jacquelyn Smith of Forbes Magazine, a music degree does not make their top ten list, at least at the graduate level,13 but the criteria used to make this judgment are earning potential and potential job market growth. In fact, biology and chemistry seem to be even lower. Other factors play into career decisions, but those do not factor in with the Forbes study. While we need physician’s assistants and computer scientists, what would come of us if everyone pursued the path of the most lucrative job? Analogously speaking, we would become human Muzak, void of the interesting complexities of life. Let us instead seek our path – one that integrates the passions that we hold with the skill sets that we acquire, and let us encourage others to do likewise.

Our students should be encouraged to take music courses for the skills they can acquire, for the career paths that are opened to them, and for the appreciation for the arts. Musicians continue to play important roles in our society as singers, conductors, composers, and, yes, teachers. The study of music stimulates the mind with creativity while providing structure as it integrates language, mathematics, and science. Much of the music major’s work involves the kind of abstract problem solving and high-level thinking that is needed daily by cryptographers, business managers, lawyers, college Deans, and the like. Be not deceived. Not everyone can “cut the mustard” in a music program. Those who can, though, should be encouraged to study music and to pursue whatever field calls them.



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1Berklee College of Music,

2Michael Campbell and James Brody, Rock and Roll: An Introduction, 253-254.

3Bureau of Labor Statistics,;q=music


5Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, 270-271.

6Debra Auerbach,, submitted June 2012.

7Brenda Hanna-Pladdy and Alicia Mackay, “The Relation Between Instrumental Musical Activity and Cognitive Aging,”.

8J.K.Kryszak, “Critical Review: Do individuals with musical training have enhanced brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch compared to those not musically trained?”.

9Occupational Outlook Handbook, Recreational Therapists, published March 29, 2012, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

10Olivia Crosby, “Working so Others Can Play: Jobs in Video Game Development”.

11Occupational Outlook Handbook, Musicians and Singers, published March 29, 2012.


13Jacqueline Smith, “The Best and the Worst Master’s Degrees for Jobs,” Forbes Magazine.


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