Not majoring in music

I was a very committed college music major. I had picked music as a career years earlier. Being a music student felt like a central aspect of who I was. While I did struggle at times, and had other (perhaps more widely marketable) skills I could have fallen back on, quitting the music-major track never seemed like a real option.

For me, it turned out well. I was successful in my studies and now have a job that is a good fit and more or less pays the bills. But in my role as an educator and advisor, sometimes I encounter students who are considering changing directions. Here’s what I have to say to those students:

  • You don’t have to be a music major. Even if you’re good at it. Even if you really do love music. Even if friends or teachers think it’s the right choice for you. Even if you have already invested time, money, and effort into it.
  • There are other ways to make music a part of your life. In many cases you can continue to be in college ensembles, take music courses as electives, and maybe continue to receive music scholarships. (Check with your music department.) Beyond college, there are probably opportunities to make music in community ensembles, garage bands, churches, theater productions, lesson studios, volunteer efforts, and more. Even if you never play or sing again, your background in music opens up richer possibilities for you as a listener and patron.
  • There’s time to try something else. Music degrees are intensive and usually thrust you right into lots of major-specific courses right from your first semester. That can feel like a trap, like if you change majors you are wasting semesters you already completed and starting over as a freshman. But in the scheme of things, isn’t it worth extra years and dollars to graduate in a field that feels right to you?
  • This is your decision. People might try to talk you out of switching majors. Being a music major can feel like kind of a club or fraternity/sorority or cult, but it isn’t really. You aren’t betraying or disappointing anyone by doing what’s right for you. Be aware that in some cases professors or fellow students may be thinking about how your decision will affect them or their classes or ensembles. They probably don’t really mean to put their own interests above yours. Good teachers and friends, in the long run, want what’s best for you, even if it isn’t a music degree.
  • But you don’t have to rush into a decision. If music has been your life for years and now you’re having second thoughts, it’s worthwhile to figure out whether you’re dealing with a real change of heart or just some temporary frustration. Sometimes I have seen students transfer out of the music department, only to transfer back in later, now a little behind. If you need to dabble in something else for a while to find out whether music is your thing after all, then go for it. But minimize the flailing if you can. Before making a decision, give yourself time to think things through with a long-term view. Consult with people who know and love you, plus your music professors, plus people in whatever alternative fields you might be considering.

Music is great but it’s not the right career for everyone. Make your life choices carefully and honestly.


3 responses to “Not majoring in music”

  1. Josh Ng Avatar
    Josh Ng

    Hi Bret, your article is spot-on! I switched to sociology this year from music for my uni degree because the music course in my uni hasn’t been a good fit for me. However, as music is still a big passion for my life which I still have hopes in making a career out of it, I practice clarinet/bass clarinet, take lessons and occasionally perform outside uni hours. That way will only make me more prepared when I decide to take a music degree again, as well as having an alternative career(in sociology) if music really doesn’t work out! Thanks for your article again! Josh

  2. Christian Avatar

    The part “this is your decision” seems familiar… but in high school it’s the other way around. People think they’re doing me some sort of favor by trying to talk me out of majoring in music. The problem is that their argument revolves around really vague concepts like “you should be benefitting the world.” These people also all happen to be intended STEM majors. At this point I pretty much just keep it a secret that I’m pursuing music.

  3. Syd Polk Avatar
    Syd Polk

    This is spot-on. I majored in music for one year. I realized that this profession did not match my expectations for what I wanted as a lifestyle, and that I could do something else that I loved almost as much, so I quit music. And once I realized that I was quitting music, the university I was going to did not have the program I needed, so I transferred to another.

    I never stopped playing. I played in ensembles at my new university. I joined community bands when I graduated, and played gigs. I have steady music work in a wedding band now, and am participating in community ensembles. I have taught some kids privately.

    And I love my day job, and the lifestyle which it enables. It was certainly easier to buy my full set of woodwinds with my day job, and I did not have to do right out of school to have a career.

    Excellent article. Thank you.

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