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Music Theory Education Program and Course Information

Students of music theory explore the principles of music, both written and performed. Bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs focus on helping students learn to understand and compose original works.

Essential Information

Music theory is the study of how music works. Admission to most programs requires an audition and/or samples of original music. Graduates of a music theory program may pursue a wide range of career choices in the music field, including instrumentalist, composer, conductor or instructor. Bachelor's degree programs in music theory use the study of music history and music theory to train students in composition. Master's and doctoral level programs focus on advanced topics and research. Graduate students usually must be fluent in a language other than English. Courses and programs are available online.


Bachelor's Degree in Music in Theory and Composition

Undergraduate four-year degree programs in music theory and composition teach the basics of music. Students are taught to read and write music, along with performing their own original works. Most universities require applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent. A school may also ask students to submit an original composition as well as a video of an audition showcasing music instrumentation and skill. Coursework teaches students the fundamental skills to write and compose music as well as the history of music theory and terminology. Other coursework may include:

  • Music theory
  • Ear training
  • Composition
  • Music history
  • Arrangement

Master's Degree in Theory and Composition

A two-year Master's in Theory and Composition program offers in-depth study of the history of music theory and composition. Applicants must have a 4-year degree in music or theory and composition. Some schools require students to present a portfolio of original compositions and may also request a written statement of purpose.

Proficiency in another language, preferably German, is often a prerequisite for advanced music theory. Classes are taught in seminars and workshops that discuss the study of music and its place in society. Depending on the focus of their coursework, students may select between pursuing a Master's in Music in composition and music theory or a Master's of Arts in musicology concentrating in music theory. Possible coursework includes:

  • Music cognition
  • Music philosophy
  • Music analysis
  • Composition

Doctoral Degree in Music Theory

A Ph.D. in Music Theory further educates professionals who already work in the area of music composition, such as composers and collegiate level music educators, and prepares students to continue to advance their knowledge and abilities. Doctoral applicants are required to have a master's degree in music, submit a portfolio of original compositions, and/or take foreign language or program qualification exams.

Students may be required to participate in dissertation research. A final performance may also be required. Available degrees include a Ph.D. in music concentrating in music theory or a Ph.D. in music theory. Program length varies. Coursework may include advanced topics such as:

  • Tonal composition
  • Music theory and analysis
  • Composition

Popular Career Options

In addition to music education and administrative positions, those with a bachelor's in music theory may also pursue careers such as:

  • Music critic
  • Music consultant
  • Musicologist
  • Recording engineer
  • Music composer

Those who combine advanced degree work with other course studies can incorporate their studies to career fields outside of music. Other career opportunities include:

  • College professor
  • Music conductor
  • Music composer
  • Orchestrator
  • Music transcriber

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for music directors and composers in May 2015 was $49,820 (www.bls.gov). Jobs in this field are expected to grow about 3% in the decade spanning 2014-2024.

The BLS reported that that median annual wage of postsecondary educators in the fields of art, drama and music was $65,340 in 2015. For the years 2014 through 2024, the BLS estimated that all postsecondary teachers will see a 13% job growth.

Degrees in music theory can be found at the bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree levels and may lead to work as a music composer, conductor, critic or engineer. Coursework includes learning music composition skills and music theory and analysis.

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