If you’re on your path to becoming a professional musician, chances as you’re eager to figure out your next steps.
When people are looking for jobs, often the first place they look is qualifications – what schooling, skills, and/or experience they need to get into their chosen field.
For reasons you’re about to discover, the music industry is quite unusual and a little nuanced, and there are many areas of specialization depending on what you aspire to.
Here we’ll attempt to answer all questions concerning what it takes to become a professional musician.
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What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Musician?
Of course, it depends on what you hope to achieve in the music business, as well as how you plan to be a part of it.
The “macro” skills are what matter most in music, from the obvious need for basic music skills, to the less obvious but still critical skills, like communication.
Take any professional artist or band you know, be it Justin Timberlake or Green Day, and you will likely see that while they may have had some education in music (not always), and they may have even been a part of a feeder program (e.g. The Mickey Mouse Club), many are not educated or formally trained in any regard (Jimi Hendrix certainly wasn’t).
Naturally, pop stars had to learn how to sing and dance. Punk bands had to learn how to sing and play their instruments (but not necessarily well). Even some of this can be done without a whole lot of guidance from teachers, though professional help can be incredibly beneficial.
Most orchestras have some standards for eligibility, but they aren’t always that stringent either (e.g. practice your instrument for a minimum of five hours per week). There may be some hard rules regarding age requirement or intangibles like attitude and behavior, but even then, you can probably seek out orchestras whose requirements are aren’t as rigid or are more aligned with your personal values.
Even music theory and sight-reading, which seem like prerequisites to becoming a pro, aren’t always required. Guaranteed some of your favorite musicians don’t have a complete understanding of music theory.
If you want to be able to play along with lead sheets or sheet music (in a jazz band, orchestra, choir, theatrical band, etc.), however, of course, you’ll either need to be able to read, or be able to memorize your parts by ear and muscle memory. Arguably, some of the best musicians have a great ear and can improvise with no direction at all though.
One of the best things about music is that anyone can pick up and start playing today. Some might say that’s also the worst thing about it though, as it creates a lot of noise and competition.
Do You Need A Degree To Be A Musician?
Some of my colleagues and friends chose that path because they wanted to get paid the maximum they could be paid as a music teacher, or because they wanted to become a professional composer.
Fame nevertheless trumps education when it comes to music education though. For example, if I were choosing between Joe Satriani or some unknown Musicians Institute alumni, I would happily pay Satriani more for my education.
The M.I. graduate might be great, awesome even. But Joe Satriani has been incredibly successful as an artist and guitarist. So, I would be inclined to pay him more.
Experience can also trump education. Would you pay more for someone who backed Steve Vai, or, again, an unknown M.I. alumni? The guy who baked Vai, right?
And, again, even when it comes to composers, you will find that those with more IMDb credits, many times, are hired over those with a fancy education.
In many circles, Juilliard musicians are revered, but that still doesn’t mean everyone needs to go to Juilliard to become a pro, let alone develop their craft.
What Skills Are Required To Be A Professional Musician?
It depends on what type of musician you’re planning to become.
A rock artist doesn’t necessarily need to know how to dance. A pop artist doesn’t necessarily need to learn how to play an instrument. And a rapper doesn’t need to know a lick of music theory.
The following skills should be considered the most important, but that doesn’t mean you need to learn them all:
- Singing. Singing is a valuable skill in the music industry, and it can prove incredibly valuable, except for in orchestral situations. For rappers, it’s more a matter of vocalization and creating a unique identity with their voice.
- Playing an instrument. Not all musicians learn to play an instrument. Some never will. If you’re the lead singer in a band, for example, you wouldn’t necessarily need to learn to play anything. But if you wanted to play in an orchestra, learning an instrument would be essential.
- Songwriting. Songwriting is a valuable skill in a variety of situations, and a practical necessity when you’re a solo artist or in an originals focused band. Some people also become full-time professional songwriters who write songs for a variety of artists.
- Composing. Composition is like songwriting, but it’s usually more focused on layers of instruments (and maybe voices), as opposed to lyric writing, and singing. Sometimes, a composer’s responsibilities can even extend into sound design. Composers are often hired to write music for films, TV shows, video games, and so on.
- Music theory. A solid understanding of music theory never hurt a musician. This doesn’t mean every musician knows music theory, and it’s practically guaranteed that some of your favorite musicians are untrained.
- Sight-reading. Sight-reading can also fall under the category of music theory, and it usually requires that you understand one to understand the other (but not always). In my experience, sight-reading is helpful in jazz, classical, choral, theatrical, and sometimes in session playing situations as well as composition.
- Ear training. Interval, scale, chord, and other forms of recognition can all prove incredibly valuable to a musician. But it could be argued that every skilled musician has a great ear, just that they are hearing different things.
- Production. If you want to be an EDM artist/DJ, it’s practically a given that you will need to learn the basics of music production. It’s also not uncommon in the hip-hop world for rappers to make their own beats and will need to learn how. Not every musician should – or even needs to – learn music production, but it can be helpful in a variety of situations. If you’re planning to become a composer, or write music for films and TV, you’ll probably want to learn music production as well.
- Dancing. Dancing is typically the domain of pop artists. Some soul and rock artists also know how to shake a leg (e.g. Prince), but they didn’t necessarily need to get extensive help from a choreographer for their simple moves, while many pop artists do.
Again, this is to say nothing of skills like communication, marketing, business, and others many musicians find helpful and even necessary to building a sustainable career in music today.
OK, But I Want To Study Music. What Are Some Good Music Colleges?
I’ve mentioned a couple already, but here’s a list of reputable music colleges and schools worth a look:
- The Juilliard School: The Juilliard School is in New York City, NY and is known as one of the most prestigious performing arts schools in the world. Notable alumni include John Williams, Barry Manilow, and Yo-Yo Ma.
- Musicians Institute: Musicians Institute can be found in Los Angeles, California, and offers a wide range of music degrees for students. Notable alumni include many names you’re sure to recognize – Paul Gilbert, Jennifer Batten, Jeff Buckley, and others.
- Berklee College of Music: Located in Boston, MA, the Berklee College of Music makes it their goal to churn out artists who top the charts. Their claim to fame includes Quincy Jones, John Mayer, and Melissa Etheridge.
- Curtis Institute of Music: Curtis Institute of Music is Philadelphia, PA’s hidden gem, and is well-known in the operatic world.
- Guildhall School of Music and Drama: Guildhall is a leader in performing arts education and attracts students from 60 countries across the world. It’s in London, England.
- Royal Academy of Music: Elton John and Annie Lennox are both alumni of Royal Academy of Music, which can be found in London, England.
- Royal College of Music: You can also find Royal College of Music in London, England, whose notable alumni include Andrew Lloyd Webber.
- University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna: Located in Vienna, Austria, the University of Music and Performing Arts is one of the largest performing arts schools in the world.
- New England Conservatory of Music: This private school is in Boston, MA and is the oldest independent music conservatory in the U.S. It’s easily one of the most prestigious in the world.
- Mannes School of Music: New York City sure is well-endowed when it comes to music education, as they are also home to Mannes School of Music. Songwriter Burt Bacharach is an alumnus of this university.
What About Music Courses Can I Get A Degree In?
There are plenty of them, and it just depends on what you’re interested in.
(Note – you can also visit any of the college websites already mentioned to discover what programs are available.)
And there’s a good chance you’ll want to choose an area to specialize in – composition, guitar, piano, vocals, classical music, music production, or otherwise.
I can’t steer you in the right direction without knowing exactly what you want to do. But I can give you few places to look. That’s what I’m going to get into here.
Musicians Institute offers the following degrees:
- Master of Music in Performance
- Bachelor of Music in Performance
- Bachelor of Music in Composition
- Associates of Arts in Performance
- Associates of Science in Music Business
- Associates of Science in Live Music Event Production
- Associates of Science in Studio Recording
- Certificate in Music Performance
- Certificate (other)
The Juilliard School
The Juilliard School offers a diverse group of programs in:
- Vocal Arts
- Jazz Studies
- Historical Performance
- Orchestral Conducting
Berklee College of Music
Berklee College of Music has many undergraduate degrees and diplomas, graduate degrees, and online degrees. Here are but a few:
- Contemporary Performance (Global Jazz Concentration)
- Film Scoring
- Music Production
- Percussion Performance
- Piano Performance
How Long Do You Have To Study To Become A Musician?
Every musician puts time and effort into developing their craft. But not every musician will study, at least not in the formal sense. After all, the best experience is practical, real-life experience!
A musician’s world is dominated by personal practice, rehearsals, jamming, performance, and the like, which is where much of the “study” happens.
Still, it takes time to get good at anything. The average student shouldn’t expect to master their area of specialization in less than 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of dedicated effort.
This doesn’t mean you can’t blaze a trail in the music industry without putting 10 years of effort in. But it does mean you won’t become a master of your instrument or skill set without that type of work ethic.
I’ve talked with some musicians who got into licensing and placements in a matter of about five years, though they struck me as incredibly hardworking, dedicated people.
And it’s also possible to be “discovered’ much sooner, as Justin Bieber was. You might be a natural. You might have “the goods”, as they say. Arguably, you’re not going to be noticed by anyone without some effort, but if becoming a pop start is your goal, then there’s a chance (an infinitesimally small chance) you’ll get there in less than 10, or even five years.
Study the lives of popular artists and musicians. You’ll see that The Beatles, Metallica, and Billy Talent all took about 10 years to break it in the industry. That’s not from the day they started learning their instrument. That’s from the day they started recording, performing, touring, promoting, and getting themselves out there.
Even in the jazz and classical world, musicians tend to be incredibly dedicated in their craft, and frankly, they might be the hardest workers of all.
I think you certainly have the right to call yourself a musician before you reach mastery, and you should even feel okay about performing and recording in a professional capacity before you’re a master (although it’s important to identity when your product is ready).
But it’s important to recognize there might be a long road ahead depending on what you’re after.
Do You Need A Resume When Doing Music Professionally?
No. That said, there are some situations, both practical and unconventional, where a resume might prove useful.
Practically, you may require a resume, a portfolio, press kit, or certain qualifications to get into specialized work. Especially in the domains of jazz, classical, or composition.
Obviously, it depends on what band or group you’re planning to join, your eligibility, and their exact requirements.
In a more unconventional sense, I have had some success with resumes in booking solo shows.
There was one summer gig I was determined to land, because summer gigs in Calgary generally pay well (mainly because of the Calgary Stampede).
So, once I learned about the gig, I put in the legwork. I prepared a demo, resume, and set list, and placed it all neatly in an envelope. I personally went down to the venue with package in hand.
Once I showed it to the venue owner, the gig was mine. He practically booked me on the spot.
So, there may be situations where no one is requesting a resume but if you can better demonstrate your experience in writing than relaying it orally, this method might work for you too.
Qualifications Needed To Do Music Professionally – Final Thoughts
So, in closing, I’d like to answer one question – “what does it take to become a professional musician?”
It takes hard work. Dedication. Persistence. And to create a sustainable living from it (never mind becoming rich and famous), you may need to learn the ins and outs of business, marketing, income diversification, and more.
That said, music is incredibly fulfilling and fun. It teaches you discipline and persistence. It can teach you many of the life skills necessary to succeed in any area.
Although there’s no concrete way to answer this question (like any other question in this guide), it basically comes down to this – if you love music, you should pursue it with everything you’ve got!