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How to Become a Music Teacher

As a music teacher you give your students an invaluable gift: an appreciation and understanding of music that will last their entire lives. Some students might take up an instrument, play in a band, or sing in a chorus. But all will be exposed to an art form that not only inspires but offers insights into the ever-changing cultures in our society.

Music is a language that has no boundaries. It can be shared and enjoyed by young and old. Music expresses what cannot be said in words. As a teacher, opening and expanding that world for my students is pure magic.

—Jennifer Wright, music teacher 35+ years,
Wakefield, Massachusetts

The Importance of Music Education

According to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), music is one of 18 distinct subject areas that are considered to be part of a well-rounded education. Music education also offers specific benefits that go beyond contributing to learners’ musical abilities.

The National Association for Music Education identifies 20 important benefits of music education. Some of the more striking benefits include:

  • Developing language and reasoning skills
  • Improving memorization
  • Fostering creative thinking
  • Building imagination and intellectual curiosity
  • Promoting self-confidence and emotional development

In addition, studies have linked music education to a host of desirable outcomes. These include higher SAT scores, lower dropout rates, better emotional health, higher GPAs, and greater financial achievement in adulthood.

Music education’s value is immeasurable. Music is an outlet for emotion and creativity. It is collaborative: students learn to work together to present performances. Becoming accomplished takes time and dedication. Success leads to increased self-esteem, pride, and strong study habits that in turn improve other academic areas. I taught a baseball player who told me his piano playing improved his pitching control! Music certainly has far-reaching benefits!

—Jennifer Wright, music teacher 35+ years,
Wakefield, Massachusetts

Music Teacher Job Description

Music educators are employed in a variety of roles, from elementary classroom teachers to high school band directors. They work in public and private schools at all levels, teaching general music, vocal music, instrumental music, or some combination of these specialties.

The specifics of what a music teacher does varies depending on the type of music they teach and the grade level they teach in. Note that these aren’t always distinct categories—for example, in some districts a music teacher might teach at all grade levels. Music teachers often instruct in more than one area of study—for example, a band teacher might also teach music theory.

Types of Music Teachers

  • General music teachers: These teachers help students develop an appreciation and understanding of music. They are the most common type of music teacher in elementary schools, but they also work in middle schools and high schools. They teach fundamentals of music, such as rhythm, notation, and theory. They might also teach more advanced topics, such as music history, music technology, and composition.
  • Choral music teachers: These music educators work with individuals or groups of students in developing vocal performance skills. They organize and direct vocal groups, such as choruses, a Capella groups, jazz ensembles, and others.
  • Instrumental music teachers: These teachers work with students who are learning to play instruments. Usually, a teacher has a primary focus on either strings or band. Thus, a band director is an instrumental teacher who is expected to be able to teach any band instrument, while an orchestra director is expected to be able to teach any string instrument. Typically, these teachers work with groups of students to get them started on their instruments. Once students are more advanced, they often switch to, or supplement with, private lessons.

Grade Level Curriculum

The curriculum you teach will vary somewhat depending on the grade level you work in. Here are some common music subjects offered at different levels.

Elementary School

The most common courses offered in elementary school are general music, band, and chorus. Most elementary schools have general music teachers, who develop curricula for each grade level. They introduce students to fundamentals of music, singing, and different instruments.

Instrumental and chorus teachers are not as common in elementary schools. Many music programs don’t start teaching specific instruments until middle school. However, some elementary schools will start teaching fourth or fifth grade students to play band instruments, usually in groups. Choral teachers will teach singing and organize choral groups.

Middle School

The four most common courses taught in middle school are band, chorus, general music, and orchestra. Band is by far the most frequently offered, with students choosing their instruments and being taught in groups. Band teachers must be able to play all the instruments.

Choral and general music teachers typically focus on the same areas as in elementary schools, but at more advanced levels.

If a middle school is lucky enough to have an instrumental orchestra teacher, students can choose string instruments to learn. An orchestra teacher will usually form a full orchestra as well as smaller ensembles.

Other courses sometimes taught at the middle school level include guitar, piano, percussion, and music technology.

High School

The four courses most often taught in high school are band, chorus, orchestra, and jazz band. Many schools also offer other music groups, such as percussion ensemble, show choir, string ensemble, or popular ensemble. These groups would be under the auspices of the band, orchestra, and chorus teachers.

Other courses taught at the high school level include guitar, piano, percussion, music theory, music history, and music technology. It is common for band, orchestra, or choral teachers to teach these courses, since general music teachers are not prevalent in high schools.

Music Teacher Survey

In 2017, the Give A Note Foundation, with support from the Country Music Association Foundation, distributed a survey to a sample of American public schools with music education programs to understand the dynamics of music education in the U.S. Here are some of their findings.

Give A Note Foundation Survey Findings

The majority of music educators teach in specialty areas (for example, as band or choir educators).

The average number of full-time music teachers per institution was 1.29 in elementary schools, 2.11 in middle schools, and 2.22 in high schools.

The most common music course offered in elementary schools was general music (98%).

The most common music courses in middle school and high school were, by far, band and chorus/choir (roughly 90%).

Seventy-nine percent of high schools, 62% of middle schools, and 18% of elementary schools supplemented their music budget with student fundraising.

Beyond traditional music ensembles, high schools offered:

  • Jazz ensemble (42%)
  • Marching band (36%)
  • Percussion ensemble (15%)
  • Contemporary/popular/rock ensemble (5%)
  • Show choir (13%)
  • Jazz choir (11%)
  • Mariachi (<1%)
  • Steel pan (<1%)

Music Teacher Salary and Career Outlook

According to ZipRecruiter, the median salary for all music teachers in October 2019 was $52,827. The top 10% of music teachers earned $95,500.

ZipRecruiter also reported that in October 2019 average salaries were highest in these states:

New York: $57,809

Massachusetts: $57,399

New Hampshire: $56,406

Maryland: $54,272

Nebraska: $53,287

Many music teachers supplement their regular salary by sponsoring extracurricular activities or offering private music lessons.

CareerExplorer predicts that there will be moderate employment opportunities for music teachers over the next 10 years, with 18,500 job openings. Of those job openings, 14,700 will be for additional music teachers, and 3,800 will replace music teachers who retire.

Steps to Becoming a Music Teacher

To teach music in a public school, you typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in music education (or a music degree with an accompanying teacher preparation program). You will also have to get licensed according to the requirements of the state you plan to work in. If you are interested in teaching at the college level or being a school music director, you will generally need a master’s degree.

Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education

Bachelor’s programs can vary somewhat depending on the school. In some cases, they will entail having dual majors—music and music education. Some schools offer concentrations in areas such as instrumental, choral, and general education. When you are exploring institutions, make sure that you understand what the music program requires and ensure that it fits with your career goals.

Entrance Requirements

The basic requirements for music education bachelor’s programs are similar to those of other bachelor’s degree programs. These typically include:

  • High school diploma or equivalent (you may be required to provide transcripts)
  • A minimum grade point average (GPA)—usually 2.5 but sometimes 3.0
  • Specified score ranges on ACTs/SATs
  • Personal statement or essay about why you want to be a teacher
  • Letters of recommendation

However, many music education programs also require you to undergo a live audition to demonstrate your musical abilities. An audition might entail any or all of the following:

  • Performance on your principal instrument
  • Sight‐singing
  • Sight‐reading
  • Performance on piano
  • An interview about your interest in teaching music

Curriculum for a Bachelor’s in Music Education

Music teachers must be competent in a variety of instruments and vocal techniques, so teacher preparation programs expose their students to many musical instruments and skills—not just their individual specialties.

Some schools have concentration areas, or tracks, usually in instrumental, choral, or general education. In all programs, you need piano proficiency. Some combine a music major (with a focus on your specific instruments) with a music education major (in which you learn all aspects of teaching music).

General classes for all types of music ed majors might include:

  • Introduction to Music Appreciation: This course introduces you to the philosophy, history, and current trends of teaching music appreciation to students of all ages.
  • Teaching Music to Diverse Cultural Populations: As a music educator, you need to understand and respect the diverse multicultural backgrounds of your students. Diverse musical experiences should be a formal aspect of your classroom’s curriculum, with artists from different places and time periods introduced into the classroom for study, appreciation, and discussion.
  • The Human Experience in Music: The artistic experience of music is essential to the understanding of the humanities through creating, listening, and movement. Aspiring teachers will analyze music as related to the elements of harmony, timbre, dynamics, form, and melody. Conducting, score reading, rehearsal techniques, and music theory may also be taught in this class.
  • Curriculum and Design in Music Instruction: As a teacher, you will most likely be responsible for developing a creative and stimulating curriculum.
  • Music Teaching Practicum: As your curriculum progresses to completion, which should take about four years, you typically will be required to complete a teaching practicum that provides you with the experience of teaching music in an actual classroom. You can usually choose the grade level you want to teach and, to some extent, the focus of the curriculum.

Master’s in Music Education

The decision to further one’s career in music education makes a lot of sense. Practically speaking, salaries for music educators generally increase with master’s degrees. Additionally, the coursework offered at the graduate level is more complex and often more intellectually engaging than that offered to undergrads. Finally, the classmates you will meet in graduate school—whether in person or online—will push you to develop both your craft and your methodology and may turn into life-long friends and colleagues.

Most programs take about two years to complete.

Entrance Requirements

While the requirements for a master’s in music education vary by institution, most programs require the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree in music or music education
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Teaching experience (not necessarily required, but often encouraged)
  • Statement of purpose
  • Teaching or performance video

Curriculum for a Master’s in Music Education

Below is a sampling of courses you might take as a graduate student in a master’s-level music program:

  • Power, Marginalization, and Privilege in Music Education: This social justice–oriented course aims to create reflective students who can recognize the ways in which music is impacted by bias and privilege on a personal and societal scale. Upon completion of the course, students will be informed practitioners who are able to advocate for change that benefits the industry and their students alike.
  • Community Music Perspectives: Students in this course will explore the growth and development of community music through project-based work that culminates in the ability to develop a personal vision for community music.
  • American Music: This course will immerse students in the various influences that impacted music in the colonies. A wide range of music styles will be studied, including African-American, Spanish-Mexican, Indian, and European.

Online Music Education Degree Programs

If you currently hold a bachelor’s degree and are a certified music educator, you can opt to maintain your current job and earn a graduate degree from an online university. Bachelor’s degrees in music education are generally not available online, but several schools offer online degrees at the master’s level, and a few schools offer doctoral degrees.

The way online programs are structured varies somewhat between schools, but the majority of online programs in music education include a capstone project and/or internship once all other units are successfully completed. The time it takes to finish an online degree largely depends on a student’s work ethic and schedule. Master’s and doctorates may take as little as 18 months or as long as two-and-a-half years to complete. Classes cover topics such as the psychology and sociology of music, music history, the philosophy of music education, music technology, advanced conducting, music theory, and pedagogy.

Online degree programs are ideal for music educators who already have experience in the field and are self-driven and disciplined. Those who learn better with the structure and discipline of the classroom environment may wish to enroll in on-campus courses.

Licensure and Certification

All 50 states require music teachers who work in public schools to be licensed. Exact requirements vary, but most states require a bachelor’s degree in education, completion of a student teaching internship, and a passing score on a comprehensive exam such as the Praxis. You should check with the education department of the state in which you plan to teach for more specific information.

Experienced music educators also may choose to pursue certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Certification is a voluntary credential that recognizes a higher level of professional experience and achievement and sometimes results in a pay increase.

Useful Resources

Scholarships for Music Education

  • Sigma Alpha Iota Scholarship: For graduate students in music education; $1,500 award given to applicants with teaching experience and are members in good standing of the SAI
  • Strings Magazine Edith Eisler Scholarship Award: For undergraduates majoring in music education or music performance of string instruments; $3,000 scholarships are awarded to students who demonstrate financial need, academic achievement, and community service
  • The BMI Foundation: For either undergraduate or graduate students; scholarships range from awards for young jazz performers to country songwriters