Contemporary Music Programs - please help a beginner parent to figure this out!

My son is a high school junior and he is determined to study music in college. Although he plays some other instruments, his main focus is guitar and bass. He’s told me he wants to look for a contemporary music program. I am clueless about this. When I look at college websites I see all different programs…conservatories, orchestra programs, auditions, BAs vs other degrees…I am completely overwhelmed and intimidated I don’t know what I’m looking for. I think he wants to continue to be heavily involved in music, possibly performance, but other aspects as well. He’s a very good musician, but I wouldn’t say elite. Could anyone please just give me the basics of what to even think about??? Is there a more general type of music degree for contemporary musicians that he could pursue? As you can read, I am totally clueless, so any basic information on what to think about or guidance will be very, very much appreciated. Thank you!!

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Welcome to the group! I would highly recommend that you start your journey going through the pinned threads - especially the “read me thread for music majors” and pay close attention to the Double Degree Dilemma Essay.
We are all in various stages of this experience and folks are so kind and helpful.

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Yes, definitely read the Double Degree Dilemma in the Read me thread- it is really about the different ways to study music.

Basically the choices are BM (2/3-3/4 classes in music), BA (1/4-1/3 classes in music), major/minor, double major, and double degree. Another option is to major in something else and do music as extracurriculars.

For contemporary music, the usual suggestions are USC, Miami Frost, Berklee, Belmont, then some others (New School, UC Denver, Loyola New Orleans, Cambridge College Chicago…maybe someone else can add schools here).

If he is interested in music production or technology, there would be other suggestions in addition to the above.

Freestanding conservatories and schools of music/conservatories affiliated with colleges/universities both offer BM’s. Those usually have auditions. BA programs usually don’t, and you can submit a music supplement with recording, resume and letters of recommendation from teacher(s).


I would definitely avoid debt for a degree in music. Where we live the in-state public universities have very good music programs, and are a lot more affordable than the conservatories that I have looked at.

I work in high tech. There are a lot of people who work in high tech who are quite good at music. I can immediately think of four (including me) who have played in public. Two of these (not me) made enough money to show up on a W2 form. Math and music are skills that often go together.

Anyone who majors in music has to do some serious thinking about how they are going to make money after they graduate.

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Thank you very much! Very helpful.

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I definitely agree. I’m trying to have those same kinds of conversation with my son now.


There is always a lot of discussion about the practicality of studying music and also the idea of a “backup plan.” The thing is, a degree in music is like any other bachelor’s degree in that it gives access to careers that require a bachelor’s, as well as professional and grad schools. In fact, music majors have a high admit rate to med schools. The discipline and work ethic involved are recognized and respected in many fields. My personal view is that undergrad years may be one of the only times you get to do what you love.

I know kids who studied music and then went on to grad school in, say, Medieval Studies, or CS, or medicine. I know kids who studied physics or CS as an undergrad and did grad work in music. There are many paths. Majoring in music gives you a shot at a career in music (or teaching) but it doesn’t lock you in to that career.

One other thing on schools. Yes, avoid debt. When looking at schools, don’t assume there will be no aid in the form of merit, if financial need is not enough. Also, programmatically, look at each and every school individually because there are so many nuances. One example might be the Musical Studies program at Oberlin, which is a BA with access to the resources of the conservatory.

Take care and good luck!


Thanks so much. One of the things I’m struggling with is that as a contemporary musician…a guitar/bass player…his path would definitely be different than many other music students. When starting my research at schools I’m getting lost in all the information that relates much more to a classical musician…orchestra chairs and chamber music and lots of stuff that doesn’t apply.

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I PM’ed you.

Concentrate on the schools that have contemporary music.

I wrote about this above: “For contemporary music, the usual suggestions are USC Thornton, Miami Frost, Berklee, Belmont, then some others (New School, UC Denver, Loyola New Orleans, Cambridge College Chicago…maybe someone else can add schools here).”

Many people on CC have kids with the same needs as your son, and they landed in places that were a good fit.

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Got it, that makes sense. Thank you so much!!

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Here is one example of a school he might want to look at, Miami Frost:
( scroll down for contemporary performance) MADE with CAM minor

M.A.D.E. Degree | Frost School of Music | University of Miami MADE

Each school will be a little different.

ps You can respond to my PM but cannot yet start a PM conversation.

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Thank you!

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I agree that the in-state universities have great music programs, but what I’m finding is that there are very few for contemporary guitarists. At least if I’m starting to understand it correctly, that’s what it seems like unfortunately. The thing I’m really banging my head against a wall about is that my husband works at Boston College, and he is eligible for free tuition if he gets in. But I’m not sure the music program is the right fit, and of course he has no interest because it is close to home and his dad is there. So we will see how this plays out…

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If your husband works at Boston College, then I am going to take a wild guess that you might live in Massachusetts.

Both U.Mass Amherst and U.Mass Lowell have very good music programs. I had one guitar teacher who was a U.Mass Lowell graduate, and he was definitely a musician who preferred contemporary music. Both of these schools are also good at quite a few other majors, specifically including computer science.

My other guitar teacher was a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. It of course is very good for contemporary music. One downside is that music is pretty much the only thing that it is good at. The other downside is cost. One daughter took a summer course there and liked it a lot, but ended up abandoning her music dreams to focus on academics.

Someone I know happens to know a great deal about universities with good music programs in Canada. Let me know if you want me to inquire about which are better for contemporary music.

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I PM’ed you and included UMass Lowell. They have a great program (but yes, competitive).

I just looked through Boston College’s music department website and it doesn’t look like a fit. But he or you could talk to them and see if a suitable guitar teacher might be available.

I would look into UMass Lowell :slight_smile: He could also check out Northeastern Undergraduate Overview - Northeastern CAMD

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Here’s another MA school with an interesting music program:
Major in Music | Clark University

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Yes, good guess! I would gladly take you up on your offer to inquire about the contemporary music programs. Much appreciated. I have heard good things about UMass Lowell’s music program as a friend from his school went a couple of years ago, so we will definitely check that and UMass Amherst out. Thanks for the suggestions. My son also does the summer program at Berkley and wants to look at it, but I have the same two concerns…no flexibility to change his mind and study something else, and the cost.

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You are still in the early stages of the process where there are many “unknowns” so it can feel overwhelming. Be aware as time goes by it will get easier. Right now, gathering a ton of information and feeling confused is perfectly normal.

A few things to consider:

Do you need a financial safety or two? Could that be Boston College? Who are the instructors? Working with your kid to understand that you need a variety of schools for a variety of contingencies can take a way the need to find the perfect school…and allows him to consider “less than” (in his mind) schools. It sometimes expands their understanding of different music programs. Students can be inflexible at the start of the process (maybe out of anxiety or feeling overwhelmed or the pressure to find a dream school). So researching/studying/considering alternatives from bottom to top schools…just in case…is good. Learning more about what schools offer can answer questions (for example, if paying a premium at one school compared to another really is worth it to you). My D was hesitant early on to look at a variety of schools but that changed over time. Her resistance to the in-state did not change but her respect and understanding grew for the program. She was able to make a more informed decision in the end.

How important are academics to your kid and to you? What are you willing to pay for a Bachelor’s degree? What do you and your kid expect out of it? I took the whole idea of a “music degree” and the fear mongering on the job front off the table. I focused on a “bachelor’s degree” and the fact that if music didn’t work…she could find another job that only required a bachelor’s degree. My D is 28. Over half of income comes from performing and teaching. The other half comes from a job that she enjoys and can do from home. It does require a bachelors degree. If you’re hard working and ambitious, you can find a way in your 20s…like everyone else with a BA degree. My D’s favorite class was non-music and she’s glad that she got a well-rounded education. That was important to her and us.

Look closely at the scholarship opportunities for contemporary music. I have gotten the sense over the years that they may be less than what is available for classical study at some programs. I would be careful about “buying success”. If a schools costs $50 or $60,000/yr with a big name and your kid would have to have a good amt of debt, and then you compare it with the not so well known name at a reasonable price…I would pick door 2 in a heartbeat. My D performs with people from all levels of schools now. The name can matter some initially…but not enough to make the misery of debt go away.

In the end, his success will reside as much in him as it does in a school. No school gives a golden ticket. Everyone must make their way…so some “non-talent” skills are necessary…mainly be hard working, organized, reliable, entrepreneurial and scrappy. Many undergrad programs will teach solid music skills and help your kid advance. After school, it’s up to him…and his ability to work without a lot of debt limiting his choices. School is important but the first few years right after school can be even more important in establishing a career. It’s a looong game. Keep that in mind.

Good Luck!!


Thank you! I appreciate the words of experience here. It is overwhelming, and like you said, my son is pretty inflexible at this point. Glad to know that changed for your D over time, and hopeful it will go that way for us as well. I am totally with you on going the path of less debt…racking up a ton of debt is just not something we’re prepared to do at this point. It is going to be an interesting process, that’s for sure!

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@cathjack, one tip: your son (and you?) can look at college music department websites to see courses and ensembles. Many universities and liberal arts colleges may have courses in contemporary music and/or ensembles.

The schools of music and conservatories listed above (USC, Frost, Berklee etc.)will definitely meet his needs. But he can also apply to BA programs that may have hidden (or informal) ways of providing what he needs in music. Also ask if they have a teacher for his instrument and genre. We were surprised that one school even offered to find one.

I bought a book called “Creative Colleges” that listed all the schools that had good music programs, which was a helpful start.

Unfortunately the Boston College site does not seem to offer a good fit for his interests but he should look into what goes on informally too.

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