Music as a non-major

July 14, 2017, 2:24 PM · I'm about to be a senior in high school and I've been looking at what colleges I want to attend next year. For various reasons I've decided I don't want to major in music, but I do want to continue to study music somehow in college. So, I'm curious what advice any of you might have: What were your experiences with music as a non-major in college? What schools have a reputation for good music opportunities for non-majors? Is it "worth it" to minor in music?

Any and all advice is welcome and greatly appreciated :)

(For reference: I'm a violist currently working on the Bartok concerto, I'm looking mostly at liberal arts colleges, and I have a 35 ACT.)

Replies (15)

July 14, 2017, 2:45 PM · Minors in music may be heavier on music theory and music history and lighter on the applied music (lessons) than you might like. If what you're really interested in is continuing to take lessons and play in orchestra, I'm not sure a minor is what you want.

Bruce Berg can describe this better than I can and I hope he chimes in, but his school (Baylor University) just instituted a sort of secondary major for students who play at the major level but who want to major in a different academic field while continuing to study and perform.

July 14, 2017, 2:49 PM · Octavia,

A non-music major can still play with the college orchestra and possibly even get some scholarship money for doing so. Considering that you play Viola that makes you a bit more interesting as the Viola doesn't have a lot of players so there are usually desks open and the orchestra needs them.

Of course adding Viola lessons as well as orchestra rehearsals and performances to a college schedule will take more time. What are you planning on as a major? That will determine how much time you will have for music.

There are a lot of people in various professions who play instruments but were never music majors. Many played in College and many play with community orchestras for their entire lives. There is even the "Doctor's Orchestra" in Manhattan where all the musicians are MD's. I worked in Bell Laboratories where there were a lot of PhD's in highly technical fields that also play music in their spare time. None of them majored in music but kept their interest alive.

July 14, 2017, 10:04 PM · When I was attending University I was taking a major in Chemistry but luckily I passed my music entrance examination and audition so I was allowed to take a minor in music. However the instrumental part was on my own but I was allowed to pick any theoretical subjects the University had to offer. During that time I played for the University orchestra as well as the local youth orchestra. It was quite challenging trying to navigate between Science subjects and music for few years but I did it and on my University transcript it was indicated my minor was Music. I never felt regret at all. Do I want to do it if I get a chance to turn back the clock? The answer is probably not.
July 14, 2017, 11:34 PM · As a computer science major in college, I still took the opportunity to play with my school's wind ensemble and orchestra when I was able to. I also took the Music Department's music history courses to fulfill my general education requirements.

Many schools depend on the contributions made by non-majors with significant musical training to fill the ranks. And it is inspiring to play next to high-level folks who are studying it for their careers. It's a win-win for everyone.

Edited: July 15, 2017, 3:37 AM · At Mary Ellen's request I will "chime in." At the Baylor University School of Music we have just instituted a Secondary Major in Music. This degree makes it possible for advanced players to continue their interest in music performance while pursuing another career path. This degree is differentiated from a double major in that the academic requirements (music theory, music history, etc.) are substantially reduced. It is also different from a music minor in which the primary emphasis is on academic music classes as Mary Ellen mentioned.

We have found in the past that most who go after a double major end up spending an extra year in their undergraduate education to fulfill the requirements of both degrees. This is not the case for the Secondary Major degree.

The admittance requirements for the secondary major program are identical to those of a music performance major. Once admitted the student is required to take lessons (from a faculty member, not a graduate student), progress normally, and to participate in orchestra and chamber and chamber music for all 4 undergraduate years.

Very importantly, music merit scholarship for this degree is based on performance level, the same as it is for those seeking a BM or BME degree. Through a combination of academic, need, and music scholarship an exceptional player can receive substantial financial aid. For further information visit the School of Music website:

July 15, 2017, 7:55 AM · It may not even be necessary to be a music minor, thus avoiding the music department's academic requirements. It is not uncommon to find a private teacher who is within a commuting distance of your school or even find a University that has a relationship with a conservatory. I had friends who commuted to NYC for lessons with Galamian, while maintaining their academic roots in a liberal arts college. Here's someone who majored in political science, and continues to do well as a violist. There are so many creative ways to keep your musical goals alive, while expanding your worldliness with a liberal arts education.
July 15, 2017, 12:18 PM · Baylor's program is a magnificent idea.

I would look for a school where weekly private lessons are free or near-free for non-majors -- and where the lessons are taught by skilled faculty, not by graduate students. If there's a particular teacher's studio that you're interested in, make sure that the studio is open to non-majors. Also, because you're a violist, I would try to find a school where viola is taught by someone who is primarily a violist, not a violinist who is pinch-hitting.

I would also try to ensure that the school has a good orchestra that is open to non-majors -- but that this orchestra doesn't rehearse so often that it's an overly large commitment of your time. Once a week for two hours or three hours is reasonable.

Finally, I would try to make sure that there are organized opportunities for chamber music. This may take the form of an extracurricular club rather than something formally sponsored by the university's department of music.

I would not recommend the formal minor unless you are interested in the non-performance aspect -- i.e. you want to take music history and theory. As a liberal arts major, music classes will generally count towards your electives, though, so you may find a music minor relatively easy to pick up.

Edited: July 17, 2017, 11:38 AM · Something to keep in mind is that some of the best teachers in the vicinity of a university might not actually be professors there. Often places that have smaller or less recognized music programs will be more welcoming toward non-majors playing in ensembles. On the other hand, you may need to have the minor or major to take the music theory / music history courses, or to use practice rooms.

Every university department that offers degree programs will have a "staff coordinator" or some such title -- this is a person who is a member of the staff (not a faculty member) and part of their job is to help orient you to their programs and opportunities, which often they will do over the phone. One problem with music departments specifically is that they likely get a LOT of such curiosity-based questions because every double-major or music-minor wannabe will have completely different interests, needs, and desires. So finding that phone number is not always that easy. You can try the main departmental number and ask to be connected to their "staff member in charge of undergraduate programs."

August 2, 2017, 6:19 PM · A few schools will have the Minor in Music Performance, with an emphasis on lessons and ensembles, and less theory and history requirements. The Calif. systems do not have it. I am sure there are a lot of students like the O.P., pianists, singers, and orchestral instruments, with intermediate to advanced skills, that want to do music in college and for the rest of their lives, but, (wisely) do not major in music. If I would do it all over again, I think I should have majored in chemistry and minored in music, instead of the other way around. I worked as a lab. tech. most of my life , with only the lower-division science courses. jq
August 7, 2017, 7:41 AM · I know that the University of Georgia allows non-music majors to enroll in lessons just as they would another elective. You don't have to minor or double in music. You can also be a member of the Philharmonic orchestra.
August 7, 2017, 9:20 AM · As is my wont, I'll put in a good word for Princeton/Harvard/Stanford. Princeton has a decent orchestra and used to have a solid chamber music program. Their performance certificate entitles you to free lessons within the department and the music culture on campus is strong. Harvard has half a dozen orchestras, as well as operas, G&S, and musical theater programs. Proximity to Longy and other schools of music means good teachers available. Finally, Stanford has a great orchestra with a new conductor who is supposed to be amazing...but what really makes them stand out is their chamber music program, overseen by the phenomenal St Lawrence quartet. The St Lawrence also teach there. I think as long as you can talk lessons and participate in either a good orchestra or chamber music program, you'll continue to improve. A story for inspiration: my brother-in-law started Harvard with a shaky Mendelssohn. He practiced diligently and took lessons throughout undergrad and grad school (while majoring in physics) and finished grad school playing Tchaikovsky, really well, and being embedded in the inner circle of the music community at Stanford. He has achieved a level of proficiency that I'd only dreamed of, and made most of that progress while studying other things intensely. It's possible!
Edited: August 7, 2017, 1:03 PM · Harvard dual degree with New England Conservatory:
August 7, 2017, 6:17 PM · Stan, she said she does not want to be a music major. Why would she want a degree from NEC? It is a good program, but not for Octavia.
August 9, 2017, 2:34 PM · Sorry Helen, response was to Katie describing her brother in law's experience at Harvard. (Difficult to indicate as such without quoting or indenting replies.) A family friend with a musically gifted high schooler was thinking about applying there last year and we found out about this program.
August 9, 2017, 5:43 PM · Okay Stan. Thanks!

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