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Need Advice for choosing between B.A/B.M. (Music Composition) + School Recommendation

JuvenilemeJuvenileme 5 replies3 threadsRegistered User New Member
Hi everyone,
I'm interested in doing music composition at the undergrad level, but I'm in a dilemna as to whether I should do a B.A. or a B.M. (Lest anyone asks, yes, I have read the Double Degree Essay written by David Lane. My situation isn't as clear-cut as the 5 separate types of applicant that David mentions in his essay, and I would like secondary opinions on what I should do).

I initially picked up music as a hobby 4 years ago, via piano lessons. Learnt everything from scratch. I joined my school band shortly thereafter and picked up the French horn as a secondary instrument. After some time playing for various concerts and performances, I decided to dive deeper into music. I began learning theory and composition, and I started to compose my own pieces. This, I enjoyed greatly. In fact, I love the feeling of creating my own music so much that I'm seriously entertaining the thought of developing it into a career, à la pursuing an undergrad degree in composition.

Here's the thing, though. I know that a Bachelor of Music degree is no light commitment; applicants come in with years of experience under their belts. For the most part, I'm largely self-taught, and I know my level of musicianship and performing ability is nowhere near those who apply. I'm worried that if I enter a B.M. program, I might burn out simply due to the sheer caliber of musicianship and focus on music required, plus not to mention feeling inferior to most everyone else. In light of this, it would seem more prudent to just do a B.A, which may provide a better environment and pace for me to develop my musicianship skills (plus there's always the option of a second major as a safety net).

But from what I've researched of several of the more well-known composition programs (excluding conservatories) like JHU, USC, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Rice, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, the B.M. programs seem to have more opportunities for personal development. More diverse electives, more core modules (ear training and keyboard skills), opportunities to have your works performed by student (and professional) ensembles, opportunities to write commissioned works for others (e.g. Steinhardt students can collaborate with filmmakers from the NYU Tisch Film and Television Program, and write music for short films), private composition lessons with a teacher, and study abroad opportunities are all *very attractive options* to an aspiring comp student.

In a long story short, it's about risk. Would I be selling myself short by aiming for the relative safety of a B.A. program, or is it wise? For those who have read my really long post, thank you so much and I hope I can hear your thoughts.

Also, I'd like to know what the community's consensus is here on some of the best composition programs, both B.A. and B.M. Which music schools would you recommend? ( I do hope the schools I've listed above make the cut). As a note, I'm interested in Romantic music - Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Strauss, Holst, and Liszt are all favourites of mine. I've also developed a liking for choral music after discovering Eric Whitacre and Ola Gjeilo.
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Replies to: Need Advice for choosing between B.A/B.M. (Music Composition) + School Recommendation

  • CompdadCompdad 469 replies4 threadsRegistered User Member
    Not every working composer received a BM degree from a conservatory or school of music within a university. There are many excellent BA in Music (or AB in the case of certain schools) programs within liberal arts schools. Review the music department faculty for those whose teach composition. If possible, have your current compositions reviewed by someone knowledgeable in the craft. When applying to schools of music such as at Rice, USC, Peabody, Northwestern and the like, admissions in based on the portfolio you submit and to a lesser degree an instrumental audition if one is required for composition applicants. On the other hand, as you well know, admission to BA programs in the top LA schools is based on academics and more intangible things. In addition to the Ivies you mentioned, I would add the University of Chicago and Stanford to the list. There are others but you seem more focused on that type of school more so than a Bard or other smaller school.
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  • SpiritManagerSpiritManager 2815 replies66 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    From your description of your experience, and your interests, I would recommend you enter a BA program, with an emphasis on composition, which will teach you the basics, and expose you to a wider world of classical music than you may be currently familiar with. You can enter a more specialized program for a Masters after you've developed your own voice and have more experience. And have a clearer idea of what you're trying to achieve. There are many schools out there which could serve your needs at this point in your development. You may want to narrow your choices for other reasons than the music department, then look more in depth at the music offerings at the different schools afterwards.

    Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, and Columbia, btw, do not offer BM degrees, only BA's. Since you've mentioned this level of university - academically do you feel that is the best fit for you? It's possible your state flagship would also have a good program for you.

    I also highly recommend getting a private composition teacher.
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  • compmomcompmom 10693 replies76 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    A BA is not a "safer" way to study composition, and I would not consider it "just" a BA. It is just a different path. Composers honestly can do either, based on the kind of undergrad experience you want. Most schools with an excellent liberal arts music major will offer many of the things you list. You need to do deep research and visit to really get the scoop on schools since some opportunities may not be offered formally (for instance, you may do film scoring for a student film maker at many schools).

    If you want a broader education, gofor a BA . A BA is usually 1/4-1/3 music classes. One thing to check is how many gen eds there are.

    If you want full immersion in music, then do a BM, which is 2/3-3/4 music classes.

    Apply to both and do some hard work over the year and choose in April of senior year.

    If you don't have a teacher and haven't done a summer program, or a preconservatory program, I am wondering if you will be able to get the required portfolio together for a BM application. Do you have pieces recorded?


    Most composers go on to grad school. It is difficult to start a career with undergrad only. Many composers teach or have some other way to earn a living, such as running a festival. Of course some work in film. (USC grad school might interest you later.)


    You might want to learn more about the contemporary composition world. I recommend Alex Ross' book "The Rest is Noise." At the undergrad level, the aethetic of the faculty and program matter less but you still need to think about this, since you say you write Romantic music.



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  • JuvenilemeJuvenileme 5 replies3 threadsRegistered User New Member
    @Compdad
    Thank you for your reply!
    You make an interesting suggestion about having my compositions reviewed someone "knowledgeable in the craft", but I don't know many close friends (or music teachers/directors) who'd fit that criteria. Do you recommend sending my compositions to professors at the universities which I'm interested in, or should I just save that for my portfolio?
    I don't necessarily have to study at the Ivies; I just thought the Ivies would be a good starting point as examples of schools with examples of good academics and comp departments. I'm open to other B.A. schools too, including LACs, which other users have given examples of.
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  • JuvenilemeJuvenileme 5 replies3 threadsRegistered User New Member
    @SpiritManager
    Thank you for your advice!
    I think I ought to have mentioned this earlier, but I am an international student, so I don't have a state flagship. Academically, I would consider myself to be quite well-off, and my grades have traditionally been decent to great in my years of pre-university education (I took A-Levels, by the way). So certainly, I could see myself fitting into the academic environment of the aforementioned unis, although I am open to other universities and LACs too. As long as a college has both good academics and a music program, I'll consider it.
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  • compmomcompmom 10693 replies76 threadsRegistered User Senior Member
    Most colleges and universities will have a music department, with courses in theory, music history, composition, ethnomusicology, and music technology. As we have said, for a BA those music courses will comprise approx. 1/3 of your total courses. There are countless BA schools that will meet your requirements, whether they have a formal composition major or not. You can choose schools based on size, location, other academics, and "vibe" just like anyone else.

    For BM schools it seems you do not want a freestanding conservatory but want a conservatory/school of music within a university. Music classes would be 2/3-3/4 of your classes in that case, and may or may not include instrumental performance.

    The best way to get a knowledgeable person to help evaluate your work is to have a teacher. It is not too late to get a teacher. Many will teach from a distance, online. Find a professor or composer whose work you admire and just write them. Maybe start with a university or college or conservatory closest to you, listen to faculty works, and then write an email. You can also arrange one meeting for the purposes of clarifying your application process. If all of this is difficult, there are piano teachers for high schoolers who also teach theory and composition who might help.
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