Bach music

Careers for Composers

Successful composers undergo training in all aspects of the music process, studying not only music theory and composition, but also music history and training in an instrument or voice.  As a result, composers can follow a wide variety of possible career paths, often combining composition with some other aspect of music making.  The combination will be unique to each individual, but all build on that innate desire to create music.

Here are some typical composition career options:  

  • University/college faculty member: There will always be a composer on the faculty roster of every college and university music department, usually because composers are able to teach other music subjects as well.  A faculty position offers a stable career with predictable salaries and such benefits as health and life insurance.  Being part of a college or university music department also makes available student and faculty performers, and often a contemporary ensemble to read your music.  However, such positions usually require a Doctorate degree, and full-time positions are not as available as they once were.
  • Composer-performer: Because composers usually have been playing an instrument or singing already, such skills can afford the individual opportunities that bridge both activities.  Employers often welcome individuals that can perform as well as provide new and interesting music.   Besides the obvious examples from the pop and jazz worlds, such classically trained composers as Serge Rachmaninoff, Frederic Rzewski, Philip Glass, William Bolcom and Steve Reich have successfully combined performance and composition into successful careers.
  • Composer-accompanist: There will always be need for pianists that can accompany performers.  The pianists usually specialize in a specific genre of music, such as literature for singers or for specific instruments.  Individuals can also work as rehearsal pianists for dancers or musical theater productions.  The ability of a composer to quickly arrange or rearrange music becomes an asset.
  • Composer-conductor: Composers will often create their own ensembles from friends and colleagues to play their music.  And as a result, these composers may develop a reputation as fine conductors as well.  Famous contemporary composer-conductors include Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Pierre Boulez and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
  • Composer assistant/manager: Being an assistant to an established composer can be an exciting career since it not only affords the possibility of meeting important artists in the music world, but also provides the opportunity to learn advanced composing skills from the composer you're assisting.   More importantly, such a position trains those skills that would be important for a position as manager for performing ensembles or solo artists.  However, major composers and artists usually pick their own students for assistant positions.
  • Composer for the movies or the theatre: All video productions, including full-length movies, movie shorts or commercials use music to emotionally complement, reinforce or enhance the visual or verbal content.  This is a profitable career component for composers who can quickly adjust to the needs of the director and producer who are in charge.  Composing incidental music for live theatrical or commercial productions can be part of this career as well.
  • Composer for video games: Because of the rapid advancements in digital technology, video games are a very lucrative industry, and these products always need music.  Entry into this career is highly competitive, but once you've established yourself with a company and can meet their expectations in terms of style and schedule, the career can be very profitable.
  • Critic/music journalist: If you like to write prose, working as a journalist or critic can be a rewarding career.  Training in composition will often bring an interesting perspective to your writing.
  • Copyist: Setting up scores and parts is an integral part of the composer routine, and skill in doing so can provide a career as a music copyist.  Composers are sensitive to the needs of performers and conductors in reading their music, and successful copyists are able to meet the scheduling demands of their clients.

With the variety of skills learned in music school, a composer can also consider such opportunities as:

  • working for a publishing house
  • working for a recording company
  • working for a radio or TV company
  • working for an advertiser
  • working for educational technology providers
  • working for an arts presenting organization

Bachelor of Music (B.Mus)

The Bachelor of Music (B.Mus) program in Theory/Composition offers theory and composition training and experience to support the development of personal style. It offers preparation for continued study and entry into the professional music world. Our faculty include award-winning composers, representing a diversity of styles. Students may study a variety of topics in class and privately: traditional and electronic composition, orchestration and arranging, analyses of counterpoint, style and history.

Guest composers and theorists are frequently invited to lecture and interact with our students. Recent guests have included Jennifer Higdon, Thomas Oboe Lee, Lei Liang, and Krzysztof Penderecki.

The Bachelor of Music in Theory/Composition includes six semesters of music theory; six semesters of private theory or composition lessons; eight semesters of the composition seminar; three semesters of music history and one of world music; four semesters of private study on an instrument; and courses in keyboard study, conducting, electronic music, and instrument methods. Students have many opportunities throughout their studies to present their compositions in masterclasses and recitals that lead to a senior recital of their original works. Our faculty, including Ting Ho (Chair), Marcos Balter, Patrick Burns, Marla Meissner, Ruth Rendleman and Scott Richards, work closely with students to develop their original ideas.

Prospective students must show evidence of composition skills in order to be admitted to the program.‌

Link to Undergraduate Catalog: course listing

Master of Arts (M.A.)

The M.A. degree program in Theory/Composition offers advanced studies to support the development of students' personal styles. We offer classes and private lessons in a wide variety of topics, including traditional and electronic composition, orchestration, arranging, counterpoint analysis, style and history. New student works are performed frequently before faculty, mentors, peers and guest artists during masterclasses and recitals. Recent guest composers have included Thomas Oboe Lee, Lei Liang, and Jennifer Higdon. Each year the MSU Symphony and the Shanghai Quartet read works by student composers. Cali School faculty theorists and composers, including Ting Ho (Chair), Marcos Balter, Patrick Burns, Marla Meissner, Ruth Rendleman and Scott Richards, work closely with students to help develop their individual ideas.

The goal of the Theory/Composition program is to prepare students for the professional music world and doctoral programs. The school prides itself to being open to all styles and aesthetics of music as demonstrated by the varying styles of the faculty. Students are encouraged to find their own compositional voices, as well as discovering and studying old and new sounds and aesthetics.

Students must show evidence of strong composition skills in order to be admitted to the program.

See MSU Graduate Catalog course listings


For B.Mus. and M.A. programs:

Prof. Ting Ho

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