How to Get a DMA or PhD in Music

If you’re a musician, you know that talent can’t be taught. Skill, on the other hand, can certainly be honed. Getting a doctorate degree in music can be a rewarding and career-boosting experience for performers and educators at every stage of their professional lives. Music is a competitive field, and a graduate degree can give you a leg up while plugging you into a global network of renowned artists and superstar professors.

This guide can help you weigh your options and walks you through every phase of the process, from researching programs to auditioning for a spot to getting into the school of your choice.

Know Your Options: PhDs and DMAs

In the United States, the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) and the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) are the prevailing terminal degrees in music. Before you start looking into schools, make sure you understand the difference between the two doctoral degree options. Not only is there overlap between the DMA and the PhD, but some schools offer both programs.

  • The Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA): This degree, which most students complete in three to five years, prepares gifted musicians for prominent careers in their fields while deepening their knowledge of music theory and history. DMA candidates train with leading artists, submit one or more research projects, and perform several recitals before graduation. Many schools also require them to become proficient in a foreign language. Each student chooses a specialization, which in most cases is either musical performance, composition, or conducting.
  • The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Music: The PhD in Music focuses less on practice and more on academic research. Students emerge after four to six years with a doctorate in a subject like musicology, ethnomusicology, or music theory. After completing a specified amount of coursework and taking a series of qualifying exams, they have to write and defend a scholarly dissertation on a topic of their choice. Most programs require students to become proficient in one or two foreign languages.

Basically, the right choice comes down to how you envision your music career. If you were born to play first bassoon for the New York Philharmonic, aim for a DMA. If you see yourself researching the social significance of Chinese opera during the Tang Dynasty, the PhD is probably the way to go.

One notable exception is music education, where the distinction between the two degrees gets a little blurry: while the PhD is more common, some schools offer a DMA instead. If that’s your focus, be sure to consider both options.

Narrow Your Search: Campus-Based vs. Online Programs

A growing number of distance education programs now offer accredited online doctorate degrees, including the DMA and the PhD in Music. Some programs allow students to take all of their classes online; others include a certain amount of campus coursework as well.

At first glance, the Internet may seem like an odd place to study a discipline in which live performance and hands-on instruction play a central role. Thanks to current technology, students can listen to and share music, watch streaming video, take exams, meet with teachers, and participate in class discussions without setting foot in a classroom. Some music educators actually believe that the online format enhances traditional music education by connecting students to scholars and performers around the world. Online learning has also made it possible for full-time music professionals–elementary school music teachers, for example–to boost their careers with an advanced degree.

If you’re not sure whether a campus or an online DMA or PhD program is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your goals? Maybe you teach music history and want to branch out into ethnomusicology while honing your research skills. An online DMA or PhD in art & design with a specialization in Music could give you that extra knowledge without taking you away from your students. On the other hand, if you’re an electronic music composer but don’t have a cutting-edge studio at your disposal just yet, take advantage of a campus doctorate program’s resources.
  • Would you be willing to relocate for your degree? If the answer is no, you’re limited to schools within commuting distance–and depending on where you live, pickings might be slim. With online education, school comes to you. You may want to expand your options by considering both campus and online DMA and PhD programs.
  • How much time can you devote to your degree? Some campus programs require a year or more of full-time study, and your course schedule may conflict with your work and family responsibilities. With an online doctorate degree, you can attend class on your own time, and you can usually pause the lesson if life intervenes.
  • What kind of learner are you? The freedom to learn on your own time is convenient, but it’s not for everyone. If you enjoy independent study and don’t need the structure of a classroom for motivation, you can thrive in an online learning environment. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum, save yourself countless hours of procrastination and enroll in a campus doctorate program.

Create a Shortlist of Doctorate Degree Programs

By now you’ve probably settled on the specific degree you want and decided whether to consider an online doctorate program. It’s time to start conducting research, contacting admissions offices, and visiting schools. More than 1,700 higher education institutions in the U.S. have degree-granting music programs, according to the College Music Society. Even after you eliminate those that don’t offer a DMA or PhD in Music in your area of specialization, the number of choices may seem overwhelming. The volume of information available on the Internet and beyond, can be equally overwhelming. The following resources are a great place to start:

  • Online directories. Web sites like feature listings of campus and online doctorate degree programs in music, along with useful tips to guide you through your search and the application process. You can find accredited programs by location or subject, and you can also request information from specific schools by filling out a simple form. The College Music Society also offers an online searchable database of music faculties in U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities.
  • School Web sites. Most school Web sites have a treasure trove of information about the degrees they offer. Of course, it’s important to read the section for prospective students, where you learn about the program’s prerequisites, admissions criteria, structure, and curriculum. But do some digging around and you may find a whole lot more. For example, many faculty members have their own Web pages with biographies, contact information, links to published work or blogs, and lists of the classes they teach. Some courses have dedicated pages as well, often featuring a reading list, syllabus, and bulletin board where students and instructors exchange messages. Even the alumni section of the site is worth checking out: you can often read profiles of featured alumni or download an alumni newsletter with information about graduates’ music careers.
  • Your alma mater. Most colleges and universities provide professional development counseling to graduates as well as to current students. Contact the institution where you received your bachelor’s or master’s degree and ask about services for alumni who are considering graduate school. You may be able to set up an appointment with a counselor, and there may also be a resource center with graduate school guides and information about specific programs. Finally, feel free to reach out to former teachers and ask what programs they recommend.
  • Professional organizations. Even if you don’t become a member, music organizations can be a great source of information, advice, and connections. Many publish online newsletters and other materials that contain articles about graduate education. You can find a wealth of useful resources on their Web sites, including guides to higher education and careers in music, and learn about networking events. Students are often eligible for discounted membership fees. Professional organizations for musicians and music educators in the U.S. include the American Federation of Musicians, the College Music Society, and the Music Teachers National Association. A complete list is available here.

Evaluating the Programs on Your Shortlist

While it may be tempting, in most cases you should not apply to every program on your shortlist. Application fees can add up fast, and each round of auditions and interviews takes time. Music students typically apply to between four and seven graduate programs. Your choice depends on your specific needs and area of specialization, but you should also take the following crucial factors into account:

  • A first-class faculty. Look for programs that boast a talented, experienced, and well-rounded team of instructors. Take that a step further and single out schools with teachers you yourself would like to learn from. Email faculty members who share your interests via the school’s Web site, letting them know you’re planning to apply and would welcome the opportunity to work with them. Get a dialogue going by including one or two thoughtful questions about their work and the music program in general. You can also ask either a faculty member or an admissions officer whether you can sit in on a class or a rehearsal.
  • NASM accreditation. Check whether the programs on your shortlist are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), the U.S. governing body for higher education in music. This seal of approval means that NASM has visited a school’s premises and evaluated its standards, procedures, and curricula. If a program you like is missing from the NASM directory, proceed with caution but don’t rule it out completely: some reputable music schools–including several of the country’s finest–have chosen not to apply for accreditation. Visit for more information about accreditation and why it matters.
  • Top-notch equipment and facilities. For campus-based programs, this means an adequate number of well-appointed music libraries, performance venues, practice rooms, rehearsal spaces, and instrument storage lockers. For online doctorate programs, it means a user-friendly Web interface, effective multimedia components, access to technical support, and the ability to interact regularly with professors and other students via email, electronic bulletin boards, class blogs, and chat rooms. For hybrid programs that combine campus and online courses, it means all of the above.
  • Prestige. Does it matter where you get your doctorate degree or is it all about talent? Ask the very people you hope will hire you in a few years, such as university department chairs or music directors. You can find them through personal connections, your college alumni network, or networking sites you belong to. See how they feel about the schools on your shortlist, and be sure to stay in touch: those contacts can come in handy when you’re sending out resumes. Try to get an objective idea of how the various schools stack up as well. Unfortunately, U.S. News & World Report doesn’t issue rankings for graduate programs in music, but you can usually ask admissions personnel for graduation rates and information about the jobs their graduates score.
  • Cost. Doctorate candidates in music often rely on federal loans to help finance their education. Many campus-based programs also offer graduate assistantships, which allow you to teach undergraduate courses in exchange for a stipend and a break on tuition. You can also look for private teaching gigs or moonlight with a local party band–just like every professional musician worth their salt has to do at some point in their lives. has extensive information about scholarships, loans, and other forms of financial aid.

How to Apply to DMA and PhD in Music Programs

Now it’s time to get down to business and send out those applications. The process and requirements vary from school to school and also depend on the degree and specialization you’ve chosen. However, you can expect most programs to ask you for the following:

  • Prior degrees. In almost all cases, applicants to music doctorate programs must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, preferably in music or a related field. For the DMA, they need a Master of Music as well, although admissions committees may make exceptions for especially promising students. A PhD candidate either enters the program with a master’s degree or earns it by passing qualifying exams midway through the program.
  • Standardized tests. Many music DMA and PhD programs require applicants to submit GRE (Graduate Record Examination) scores. International students must demonstrate their proficiency in the English language by passing the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Read more about these exams and how to prepare for them on
  • Audition. For applicants to degree programs in performance, composing, and conducting, the audition is a critical step in the application process. If you’re applying for a DMA in Instrumental or Vocal Performance, it’s best to audition live; in some cases, you can schedule an audition for the day you tour the school or go in for an interview. If you can’t visit or if the school requires a recorded audition, get your hands on some high-end recording equipment or hire a professional, and submit the final product on a CD. Unless you’re a conductor, steer clear of video because the audio quality can be poor.
  • Letters of recommendation. Most programs require three letters of recommendation from music instructors or musicians who are familiar with your abilities, such as an ensemble director you’ve worked with. If you’ve been out of school for a few years and are asking former teachers for recommendations, send them an up-to-date version of your resume and let them know what you’ve been doing since graduation.
  • Writing sample. Because research is a key component of both the PhD in Music and, to a lesser extent, the DMA, doctorate programs tend to ask for academic writing samples. This could be a paper you wrote for an undergraduate class or graduate seminar in a subject like music history or theory. If it’s been sitting in a drawer for awhile, reread it carefully and consider editing or updating the content.

No matter what program you choose, graduate school can be a decisive time in your life, and it’s up to you to make the most of the many resources at your disposal. Above all, take time to enjoy the experience of practicing and learning about your art within a community of people who share your passion for music.



  • The College Music Society, Directory of Music Faculties in Colleges and Universities, U.S. and Canada, 2008-2009 Edition
  • The College Music Society, Facts and Figures Concerning Music and Higher Education in the United States
  • The National Association for Music Education, A Career Guide for Music Education
  • Oberlin College, Guide to Graduate School for Music Students
  • Research and Issues in Music Education, Volume 5, Five Challenges and Solutions in Online Music Teacher Education, by David G. Hebert
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