“What job can someone get with a music degree?” is perhaps the most common question I’m asked when speaking with prospective students, and in particular their parents. As a child of the 80s and now a parent of a son who will be going off to college in a few years, I can definitely relate to the anxiety behind this question. Like our parents, we all want assurances that, upon cutting the apron strings, not to mention spending a ton of money on an education, our child will be able to survive in the terrifying, forbidding, and unforgiving “real world.” For many of course, this is hyperbole. We really just want our child to be a well-adjusted, responsible, kind, and happy person, and of course, eventually to move out of the house and get a job.
A common myth about those who get a degree in the humanities or fine arts is that they are unemployable. There are no headhunters looking to specifically hire flute players for a 40-year corporate job at Ford, Boeing, or GE. The notion of the struggling artist is conventionally accepted; however as many recent articles and studies point out, those holding a fine arts degree have historically faired pretty well in the job market. In a recent Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) survey in fall 2011, which surveys tens of thousands of art graduates from American institutions, only 4% surveyed indicated they were unemployed. This was less than half the 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate. Furthermore, the survey revealed that 61% of music performance majors were currently working as professional artists, and that the unemployment rate for those musicians surveyed was only 2.3%!
SNAAP produced this video that illustrates the pervasive myths about fine arts and humanities degrees.
Learn more about the SNAAP surveys here: http://snaap.indiana.edu
Although they may not initially make as much money as those in STEM fields, humanities and fine arts degree holders practically close this pay gap over time according to a 2018 study done by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (https://www.humanitiesindicators.org/binaries/pdf/HI_Workforce-2018.pdf). As the SNAAP video above illustrates, those with degrees in the fine arts and humanities report very high job satisfaction throughout their career.
The initial question asked by so many parents and students also carries an undertone that illustrates an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it means to receive an education. The question implies that an education ends when a career begins. This is simply contrary to the time in which we are living. Today, those entering the workforce are expected to be agile, versatile, and able to creatively adapt to new technologies and environments. An education isn’t just a means to an end — to be educated in the end, it is the ultimate goal.
Studying music develops skills a person will use across their life regardless of their career. Recently, the National Association of Music Education (NAfME) introduced new standards in music that are part of the common core. These standards focus on three primary areas: creating, performing, and responding. Also in 2014, the College Music Society (CMS) developed a set of recommendations that directly support the development of these transferable skills through creatively rich and integrative engagement with music, balancing creative exploration with craft development, linking technological application with music, and fostering community engagement. Simply put, music teaches students to think creatively, inquire critically, and work collaboratively.
So, in late 80s parlance, “take a chill pill, mom and dad.” It’s okay to cut those apron strings because our children, now or soon-to-be adults, are going to be just fine. If we let them, they’ll be happy and productive. Ultimately, isn’t that our hope for them?
 The College Music Society, Transforming Music Study from its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors. November 2014