Careers in Music Theory: Education Requirements and Job Options

Oct 17, 2019

Music theory is generally a broad category of careers that include, among others, post-secondary professors, secondary and elementary music teachers, musicians, singers and composers. Continue reading for an overview of the programs and training required, as well as career and salary info for some career options for graduates.

Those who are interested in a career in music theory have several options they can consider. Music teachers work with students from kindergarten through college, while musicians and singers perform music. Composers and arrangers work with musicians and singers to prepare a performance.

Essential Information

Music theory is the study of how music is built. People who are successful at understanding music theory are able to analyze, discuss and even create musical selections. Music theory can be studied at any level, from elementary school to the postgraduate level. Understanding music theory means knowing how and why music works. Almost any job within the music industry is in reach for someone who understands music theory, but composing, teaching and performing are all logical career paths.

Career Composition Professor Music Teacher Musician or Singer Composer/Arranger
Education Requirements Ph.D or Master's degree* Bachelor's degree, and teaching license* None* None required; many obtain a bachelor's degree*
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 8% 4% (secondary school)
3% (elementary & middle school)
0% 1%
Median Salary/Wage (2018)* $69,960 $60,320 (secondary school)
$58,600 (middle school)
$58,230 (elementary school)
$28.15 per hour $49,630

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Options

A career in music theory is ideal for an individual who has prior musical experience as a student or amateur practitioner, and is interested in translating this experience into a valuable career. Work in this field is generally divided between teaching professions and applied musician careers, and the education required for each position varies greatly.

Music Theory or Composition Professor

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most 4-year colleges and universities require instructors to hold a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in their chosen field. Some 2-year programs and community colleges will hire candidates with master's degrees or who are doctoral candidates ( While pursuing post-graduate education in music theory, music theory students will likely take classes in:

  • Pedagogy
  • History of music theory
  • Philosophy of music theory
  • Music composition
  • Music analysis

The BLS expected employment for postsecondary teachers of art, drama and music to increase between 2018 and 2028, at a faster than average rate of 8%. As of May 2018, the BLS reported a median salary of $69,960 for music, art and drama professors.

Music Teacher

Music theorists can use their talents to teach elementary or secondary music classes. The BLS stated that music teachers at this level typically need only a bachelor's degree, although more formal education can lead to higher pay and improved job competitiveness. The BLS also reported that elementary, middle and high school teachers in public schools need valid state licensure appropriate to the grade level being taught. Private schools may also require such licensure.

Employment of high school teachers is 4% while middle school and elementary school teachers is expected to see 3% growth, the BLS noted. The median for high school teachers was $60,320, while middle school teachers earned $58,600 and elementary school teachers earned $58,230, according to the BLS in May 2018.


Talent is the main quality required of professional musician, but a background in music theory can enhance even the best performer's ability to understand and present a musical selection. Studying music theory adds to your ability to sight read and transpose music, both skills that can mean the difference between getting hired or not.

The median hourly wage of musicians and singers as of May 2018 was $28.15, the BLS indicated. Musicians and singers were not expected to see any employment increase between 2018 and 2028, the BLS predicted.

Music Composer/Arranger

Understanding music theory is vital to composing and arranging music. Therefore, many schools offer a combined music theory/composition major. This type of program can be found at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels. In addition to classes in music theory, aspiring composers and arrangers might take classes in:

  • Music history
  • Music performance
  • Psychology of music
  • Improvisation
  • Electronic music arranging

While some composers stop their formal education at the bachelor's level, the doctorate can be beneficial for those who wish to teach college-level courses.

The median annual salary was $49,630 for music directors and composers as of May 2018, the BLS said. It predicted that employment would increase 1% for these professionals from 2018 until 2028.

The requirements for a career related to music theory vary widely, depending on the occupation. Musicians and composers can pursue a career without any formal postsecondary training, while music teachers must have a bachelor's degree and teaching license. Composition professors are required to have a doctoral degree.

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