Schools for Musicians: How to Study Music in the US

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By Emma Boehm
Published on February 28, 2023

If you want to study music, be a musician, and/or work in the music industry, you will likely be a music major. Here’s what to expect.

An all-female string section of an orchestra

As an international language, music is a desirable field of study for students who are interested in pursuing a degree in the US. There are many schools for musicians at US universities, where music departments enable you to hone your artistic skills, explore your musical interests, and develop the leadership, collaboration, and creativity it takes to pursue careers in the music industry.

Our guide to studying music in the US will help you figure out how to select the right focus for your major, the types of music classes available, additional academic requirements music majors should prepare for, career opportunities, and more.

How to Select the Right Focus for Your Music Studies

If you think you want to pursue a music major in college/university, the first step is to decide which degree program is the best fit for you.

Prospective art majors — actors, musicians, visual artists, etc. — often think they need either a bachelor of fine arts degree (BFA) or a bachelor of music (BM) in order to succeed in their respective artistic field. That simply isn’t true. There are many, many, different paths to becoming a professional artist.” ArtsBridge, a nonprofit arts consultancy

At Shorelight, we agree. There is no one right way to become a musician. Find your path to success as we explore the benefits of each distinct degree program across the music discipline. We encourage you to find the program that’s right for you.

Bachelor of Arts (BA) 

If you are the type of student who is interested in studying music in a liberal arts context, or perhaps even double majoring in music and a second degree of your choice (e.g., business, physics, kinesiology, etc.), the BA degree program may benefit you. As a BA-degree seeking student, your program will allow you to explore areas outside your major, including general education courses, electives, the humanities, and more. This professional degree is offered at large state schools, small liberal arts colleges/universities, and conservatories.

Bachelor of Music (BM)

If you are looking for a rigorous training program with a singular focus on music (e.g., vocal, instrumental, jazz, etc.), then a BM degree program is likely for you. Known for its intensity and quality of education, this professional degree is designed to form ambitious performers who are passionate and dedicated to perfecting their craft, and also have the stamina for long careers. The BM degree is offered at both small liberal arts colleges/universities and conservatory-style institutions.

Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)

If you are the type of student who wants to be fully immersed in their artistic endeavors, then look no further than the BFA. Designed for performing and visual arts students, this degree follows a trade school format where performers are trained to perform. Typically, a BFA is more oriented toward musical theater, acting, and production design.

Music Education

If you are the type of student who is inspired to nurture the next generation of music students and create the music professionals of tomorrow, then consider a Music Education degree. This path is perfect for students who are ambitious and have a well-rounded music background. Create lifelong learners of music as you develop the discipline, skills, and attention to detail it takes to command a classroom or conduct an ensemble.

Music Composition

If you are fascinated by both math and music, and the artistic pursuit that is writing an original piece, structuring and layering musical elements, and bringing that musical score to life, then a Music Composition degree may suit your needs. For aspiring musicians with a zest for changing the contemporary music scene, or students with an interest in emulating the classical greats, a Music Composition degree provides you with the best of both worlds. This professional degree is offered at both small liberal arts colleges/universities and conservatory-style institutions.

Once you decide on a focus for your music major, you may be wondering, what will a day in the life of a music student look like in the US? 

US University Music Classes

In the US, most students majoring in music can expect their music classes to include:

  • Private instruction and coaching on your primary instrument (example: vocal, instrumental, jazz)

  • Master classes and workshops

  • Music jury (also known as your final assessment as a music major)

  • Technique

  • Music theory and piano lessons

  • Ear training

  • Sight singing

  • Pedagogy *Music Education students only

  • Acting and MT Classes *Musical Theater students only

  • Production and Design *Stage Management students snly

  • Electives (example: Musicology, Song Literature, World Music, History, etc.)

Coming here [The Conservatory of Music at Pacific] I knew that there was a great music education program. I was able to take composition lessons, to hone that skill, because I was passionate about it. As you progress through, especially if you are in a program that has a lot of variety, you are able to focus [on] what you want to do.” – Andrew Lu ’19, BM Music, Instrumental Concentration, University of the Pacific

For students like Andrew, pursuing a music degree allowed him to take a variety of classes at the conservatory while prioritizing his musical interests. 

Learn more about Andrew’s journey as a music major

No matter what path you choose, a huge part of the experience as a music major is developing the whole musician. Take the leap and lean into those areas that ignite your curiosity — you never know where they might lead.  

What Is Required to Apply for Music Studies at a US University?

In addition to the typical academic requirements for international students, such as a Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam and other English proficiencies, international transcript evaluations, essays, and letters of recommendation, there are a few music-specific requirements that you should be aware of. 

Pre-screen Audition

Since many colleges and universities are aware that not all prospective students can physically come to a live audition on campus, a pre-screen audition is a common practice. This audition is simply a pre-recorded video link or MP4 file that showcases your best abilities as a musician. You may be asked to perform two to three pieces of (memorized) repertoire in contrasting styles, languages, or periods of music. This audition determines whether or not the university will invite you to an on-campus audition. To best prepare, please wear formal attire, use a tripod attachment for your camera to ensure steady video production, do more than one “take,” and have fun!

(Live) Audition

If you have been invited to move beyond the pre-screen college auditions, congratulations! This audition will take place in person, on campus, in one of the performing arts recital halls or jury rooms. You will perform two to three pieces of (memorized) repertoire in front of a panel of faculty members. At this audition, you might be asked to sight sing/read at the end of your performance, or you may be asked a few interview questions. These “extra” elements of your audition are a great way to share with the panelists what kind of musician you are, what you are passionate about, and why you think you would be a good fit for their particular school or program.


As an aspiring music major, it is important to document and share your music education, mission statement, previous music experiences and accomplishments, repertoire, a headshot, and references/recommendations. You may also add performances you have been a part of and any significant roles you played. A portfolio can be as long or as short as appropriately describes your journey in music. 

Music Resume (Optional)

This is a one-page document that summarizes your music portfolio. It is extremely helpful in an audition context because it gives the panel of faculty members a great overview of who you are as a musician, what you have accomplished, and the performances/roles you are proud of.

How Can Shorelight Connect Me with Top-Ranked Music Schools in the US?

Shorelight universities offer many paths for music majors at prestigious music conservatories and respected arts schools across the US. These “cultural and artistic hubs” in Seattle, Nashville, and the Northeast provide international students with access to expert faculty, professional degree programs, and many career and internship opportunities.

Here are just a few music studies possibilities for international students:

Belmont University

The College of Music and Performing Arts at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, is a vibrant creative performance community serving undergraduate students by providing nationally recognized and accredited programs in music, theater, and dance. Rolling Stone and Time magazines both rank Belmont’s music programs among the best in the country. Artist/mentor faculty along with world-class performances, dynamic teaching, and study abroad opportunities combine to provide a 21st-century path for student excellence, artistry, and creativity in an inclusive, student-centered, Christian environment.

Additionally, Nashville is a fast-growing city that provides students with access to amazing internship and career opportunities at companies including Big Machine Label Group Records (BMLG), the Country Music Association, Universal Music Group, and more.

Being in Nashville, Tennessee, is a great advantage for the College of Music & Performing Arts because Nashville is rated as one of the top five artistically vibrant cities in our country.” Stephen Eaves, Dean College of Music & Performing Arts

To learn more about the community of performers and musicians at Belmont, watch this short video.

Cornish College of the Arts

Founded in 1914 as the Cornish School of Music, Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle has reimagined itself as a pioneer in undergraduate arts education. 

Vocalists, instrumentalists, and composers work side-by-side in the same curriculum, allowing ample opportunity for focused study and experimentation. As a music major, you’ll center your work in private instruction in your primary area of study, develop advanced skills in theory, composition, and music technology, and collaborate on your own creative projects. Music classes examine music through the lens of history, culture, and politics, and you’ll learn to communicate effectively as a performer, writer, and speaker.

Seattle is an amazing city for young emerging artists and musicians. It’s a city where the work that you are making is interesting to the community. It’s a place where you have an audience, its also a city where you can go out, and go to jazz clubs, concerts, gallery shows, and hear a musician at a gallery… no other city has the breadth and depth of what we have.” – Sharron Starling, director of admissions, Cornish College of the Arts

To learn more about CCA music programs, watch this short video.

University of the Pacific

For more than 135 years, the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music in Stockton, California, has provided a rigorous and supportive learning environment for future musicians. Music students have access to a state-of-the-art recording studio, composition labs, artist seminars, and more.

To learn more about the Conservatory of Music at Pacific, watch this short video.

Shenandoah University

Experience the world-renowned Conservatory of Music at Shenandoah University in Virginia. Study with master teachers — more than 100 professionals in music, theater, dance, and performing arts leadership and management. Embrace extensive performance opportunities with top-tier facilities like theaters, concert halls, and dance studios. Unite with fellow artists and join an alumni family that takes center stage from Broadway to the concert halls of Europe.

To learn more about the SU Conservatory, watch this short video.

**Music scholarships are available at all of Shorelight’s conservatories and schools with music programs. If you would like to apply for financial assistance, please speak to your Shorelight advisor. 

What Opportunities Can I Pursue with a Major in Music?

There are many professional career opportunities in music for those who are passionate, driven, and focused on continuing their artistry post-graduation. Whether you would like to perform, educate, conduct, manage behind-the-scenes work in production and stage management, or even write music for films and other media, there is a unique career path in music for you.

Many musicians find themselves gravitating toward career opportunities in cultural and artistic hubs in the US, places that welcome creativity and communities of like-minded thinkers. These unique communities and dedicated local resources help emerging artists “make it” in the arts. These cities offer artists and musicians the foundation that they need to thrive.

As you consider where to live after earning your music degree, look for regions with symphonies, theaters and nightlife venues, recording studios, and festivals. Find out where entertainment studios, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions are looking to employ musicians like you. Many possibilities await!

Pursuing a degree in music can lead to a life full of artistry, collaboration, and diverse cultural experiences around the globe. At Shorelight, we love that music is an international language with a global footprint. No matter which path you choose, we hope that music continues to inspire you toward an education that is meaningful to you and a career that will support you for your future.

With the help of your Shorelight advisor, you can work toward becoming a professional musician, and/or work in the music industry!

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