Play It By the Book or By Ear? Pros and Cons of Music Study

Can you make a name for yourself in music by hitting the books? Consider the pros and cons of music study in an academic program.

For many, getting that coveted dream job comes from hitting the books, either through a class or program of music study – musicians and singers included.

Music majors are increasingly becoming a staple in most liberal arts schools, giving aficionados the chance to immerse themselves in pedagogy while getting their jam on through vocal or instrumental practicum. With schools like Berklee College of Music, which offers academic programs in composition, music therapy, and performance, there isn’t exactly a shortage of concentrations to choose from.

According to The College Music Society, “1,795 higher education institutions out of a total of 4,634 institutions had degree-granting music programs in 2015 and approximately 1.7 % of the total student population in the US (roughly 332,297 people) were enrolled in a music program from 2009-2010.”

However, those who are musically inclined sometimes opt to follow their own creative instincts and learn as they go through good ole’ trial and error instead. This is something that has been seen in many musicians. shows that Kelly Clarkson passed up several college music scholarships to pursue her singing career, Bob Dylan dropped out of the University of Minnesota to follow Woody Guthrie, and Lady Gaga dropped out of NYU to pursue a music career full-time.

So is hitting the [music theory] books the smart thing to do? On one hand, a diploma won’t guarantee radio airplay or the big venues, yet it might help you hit all the right notes after studying them closely and regularly.

Paula Cole obtained her Bachelor’s in Music from Berklee in 1990 and Brad Paisley received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the Mike Curb School of Music Business in 1995.

Still not sure what will work for you? Consider the pros and cons below if you’re thinking of heading to class to jump start a career in music.

Pros of music study:

  • Exposure to technical aspects that you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to (i.e. how to read notes, how to control vocal pitch, and identify which vocal notes you can or can’t hit).
  • Practicum component which gives opportunity to play the instrument or sing the songs alongside the technical/background study of music. This offers a nice balance of knowing the real stuff about music and knowing how to play, sing, or execute it.
  • Immersion aspect which those who are really into music (live, breathe, and dream music, whether vocal or instrumental) would appreciate, since they are constantly into music all the time anyway (those truly interested want to know EVERYTHING about music and would enjoy expanding their knowledge on the technical/educational aspects of music in order to carry on conversations about it).
  • Networking opportunities within the program (i.e. classmate you went to grad school with at Berklee may be the music exec that signs you in the future).

Cons of music study:

  • Talent and natural ability can never be taught. You either have it or you don’t and studying music isn’t guaranteed to get it for you.
  • Getting bogged down by the technical aspect can be a turnoff for those with talent and natural ability, who often thrive from creative freedom (allowing themselves to experiment and develop own sound or technique through trial and error).
  • Classmate you went to grad school with at Berklee may NOT get you signed to a label in the future.
  • Studying music may take up time, which therefore robs you of the opportunity to play gigs and get yourself out there (by actually playing or singing). To be signed, label has to like what they hear, not necessarily what you know about pitch, notes, and the history of music (which you got through immersing yourself in a music study program). You either have it or you don’t.


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