Best or Versed: How useful is Education in Music?


Junior Member
Here's an article from my blog

As I sit down to write this article I realise that I may not be qualified to do so. On paper my musical credentials stopped improving at 17. Grade 8 Drum Kit, Grade 5 Theory and an A-level in Music but no BMus (Hon) Degree or Music Education MA. In the hypothetical league table of musicians' honours and distinctions I sit somewhere near the bottom.

School's Out

The pivitol moment in the story of my education was at 18 when I sat down with my friends Joe and Adam in a lawyers office off Oxford Circus and signed a 5 album record deal. Mainstream education was, in the stroke of a pen, relegated to a distant curiosity. The decision wasn't a difficult one, it was in essence made for me by an unusually charismatic, enthusiastic (and wealthy) record company executive. 5 years later, when the party was over, the small issue of the 'real world' was hurtling towards me and university presented itself as a tempting adjournment. This time though I did consciously reject the academic route. The decision was motivated by regular conversations with friends who had recently graduated from music colleges. The prevalent feeling among them was simply 'Was it worth it?'. Having given so much to their qualification they, understandably, wanted to know what it would give back. I drew their attention, in an only partially astringent way, to all of the great 'social' and 'life' experiences that only the modern collegiate route could provide, as well as the qualification itself. But what does a degree in 'popular music performance' actually mean? And did they want to be the kind of musician that these courses produced? We've all come across the archetypal 'music school' player: oozing a proficiency and versatility but lacking some key ingredients.

Class Act

This article isn't meant as an outright denunciation of mainstream musical education, after all, its the route chosen by some of the worlds greatest players and composers. What is it though that so many students resent about the process? One element that seems to dominate the music school curriculums around the world is, for me, both its great strength and weakness, namely: versatility. How can versatility ever be a bad thing? Widening your horizons and understanding can surely only lead to a greater mastery of your craft? Well, yes and no. In my view the kind of versatility that these institutions champion is detrimental. The all encompassing span of knowledge that the modern student is expected to achieve can actually suffocate the embryo of individuality that we all possess. For an example of this we can look back a few decades before the institutionalisation of music education. Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, James Gadson Ginger Baker, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder. The list of what these drummers couldn't play is vast. It's my assertion that it's exactly these deficiencies that defined who they were as musicians. Ringo Starr hadn't studied John Bonham, Bill Ward or Dave Grohl. That meant he had to find his own way of expressing himself rather than looking elsewhere. If someone decides to become a drummer today it's probable they'll end up sounding like a diluted version of the names above. We can't unlearn our influences or un-invent genres but we can govern the way we learn.

Discovery Mission

My advice here is not to learn less. I believe it's the way we learn something, the process itself, that defines who we are musically. When I have a drum lesson I often want the teacher to show me something note for note. It's a testament to their excellence that they resist. They remember that the most beneficial moments in their own education were when they discovered something for themselves. Here we arrive at the nub of the matter: The key to individuality is in the moment of discovery, how you react when you come across these discoveries, which parts you discard and which you keep. I find this revelation an exciting and quite liberating prospect. Having been for a longtime anxious about finding my own individuality I realised this isn't something that needs 'development'. As long as you're committed to asking your own questions, in your own way, individuality will develop completely naturally, even unconsciously. Conversely, If you're being spoon-fed this same information, whether in music school or private tutoring, you don't feel ownership of the discovery and your musicality will become an impersonation. This is why we end up seeing a throng of homogenous music school graduates with little or no idea of their own character. My point here is not that education in music is futile (although certain kinds of creativity certainly can't be taught) but that the wrong kind of education is. Also just as common is the trap of becoming the wrong kind of student. I believe that music school can be a breeding ground for fantastic musicianship but the question is whether or not you're willing to be brave enough to take the harder path; to resist the instantly gratifying route and instead ask your own questions in your own way.


Silver Member
Here we go again. Another post bashing music schools by someone who's never actually attended one. All I can say is that the people I know who make an actual paycheck with benefits in music all graduated from music schools. My own son wants to have a career in music and guess what? He's auditioning at music schools. If you want to go out and just play bars and try to get "signed" then the self taught route is fine. If you want to make a true career in music with a paycheck and benefits then I'd suggest you give music school a shot.


Junior Member
Fair opinion but as I tried to say in the article I have no problem with music schools or the people that attend them. Its the way that people learn that I think is the problem. Music school can seem like a fast-track to greatness when infact the journey is still the same whether you study or not. You still have to try and find your own nugget of individuality. I believe no institution or private tuition can help with you that part. Although I may be wrong!


Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
First, I just couldn't completely digest the blog, way too much rhetoric and far too wordy.

One of the points I think I gathered was that a music education has little or nothing to do with a musician's career path. If so, an astute observation. the same one I made decades ago and have brought up in forums whenever someone says they're going to school to advance their career. It's hardly new info that a "degree" from a school has little effect in the real world of musicains, and in fact may be a black mark when it comes time to seek auditions. Sorry to say, but M.I. graduates are generally regarded as "over-educated", and not in a good way.

That said, I do believe there's a lot that can be learned as it applies to one's personal growth as a player. I never went to a music "school", but I did take private lessons, and honed my reading skills and musicianship in music programs at regular school. I also learned how to learn, which has served me well in the 40 years or so since my last lesson. So the process has never stopped for me, I just don't get my evolution as a musician and drummer through a formal institution.

Or, is that what you're talking about? Sorry, the blog is really hard to get through.



Junior Member
Sorry if you found the article impenetrable. It was just my way of exploring a subject that is quite complex and deserves a fairly deep analysis.

In a sentence my point was that music schools are promoting a kind of education that encourages 'lazy learning'.

Your point about a musician's career path is not one i was making but I would agree with your comments.


Drummerworld Pro Drummer - Administrator
Staff member
Ah... I will try again and see if I can absorb everything.



Silver Member
Music school is like anything else: you get what you put into it. The highlights are making social connections to other, serious, musicians, having time to perfect your rolls, having 4 hours a day dedicated to intense practice, etc.


Platinum Member
Those musicians that come out of music schools sounding 'generic' are the ones with little imagination or work ethic. In those cases, they don't necessarily deserve a professional career.

On the other hand, there are plenty of musicians that I know that studied music at University and now play at a very high level with ensembles. I'm very good friends with one particular course mate who started her musical education as a performer and now lectures in musical theory and is studying for a PhD in Musicology and Semiotics. Quite simply, she would not have the chance to have studied what she loves had she not gone to University and experienced inspirational lecturing and hard, challenging work.

Studying music is not always about emerging as a player. Sometimes, other aspects of music pique the interest. In this case, semiotic analysis. How often would you encounter semiotic analysis outside of a University environment? Quite simply, you wouldn't - but it is incredibly interesting and relevant to the way different works can be interpreted and performed; as well as informing elements of musical history which is also deeply important.

I went to University and studied Music Technology as an Undergraduate. My specialism was in composition. I saw plenty of uninspiring and 'schooled' compositions being produced but I also saw a few people really taking some of the ideas and either (in my case) rebelling and producing original works, or technical masterpieces that were beyond the remit of the course. In my case, I went totally against what the department usually schooled in and was rewarded for it with respect from the lecturers and decent marks. In other cases, I saw mediocrity being treated as mediocrity.

It's not the system, it's the way you play the game. It's as simple as that. What's sad is that the suspicion of University courses tends to come solely from those that have never sat in a lecture and have never experienced the culture of a good University system. It's a defensive attitude that I see far too much of.

Put in hard work in an academic or non-academic environment and you'll hopefully be rewarded as a player. Don't put in that hard work and you're wasting your time if you think you'll end up with a career.


Junior Member
Point well made! Its true there are plenty of elements of mainstream education that are worth defending

Duck Tape

Platinum Member
If it wasn't so ridiculously expensive, the great thing about college is the networking opportunities and having the freedom to jam with different people very often. Although I don't understand the exact structure of music schools, living in Australia I have always found it hard to find quality muso's and people to jam with as often as I'd like.


Silver Member
I think people tend to romanticize not having formal training. Like they somehow defied the odds or are just so inherently talented they aren't subjected to the same standards as everyone else. Whenever I hear someone say "Never took a lesson and look at me now!", I wonder "Think of where you could be." People love to name drop famous musicians who've never studied, don't know how to read music or never took a single lesson as to Insinuate they're somehow a peer or an equal.


Senior Member
I went to carpentry school to become a better carpenter.I encourage any one who wants to better themselves in music to get as much education as they can.Do your research.I agree with vxla,What you put in is what you get out, in any field.If you want to jam with your neighbors on Saturdays, don't waste your time in school.
I always tell my students that the only reason to go to a music school is to be able to practice tons. Plus be able to play and network with other musicians in many different styles of music. Those 2 things separate a school from private lessons..

If you are able to focus on music 24/7 for a couple years you will be farther ahead than if you take some private lessons and have a day job.. But only if you approach it from that way..

That said there will always be some that do all of those things and still aren't very good or usefull in the music industry after graduating.. But that's the same thing in any profession 10 to 15% will graduate.. out of them 5% will be great, 55% will be ok, 40% will probably not make a living as a musician..

How many people do you know that went to school for something, and do something completely different? Most likely the same amount as people who attended music schools...
It's just a refelction of life in general.. But, when you go to a music school you expect to come out with the skills to be a huge music star...


Silver Member
I have an honest question.

What do people consider music school?
I think of Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory, Curtis Institute, Eastman, Juilliard, Cleveland Institute, Peabody Institute, Indiana, Northwestern,Ithaca. You get the idea.

I'm just wondering what others consider a music school.



Senior Member
Lol, Bigd by your logic only Ivy League schools are colleges. Any college that has a music program would be music school, and obviously they aren't all equal. I'm mostly self taught but took private lessons for years and a few music courses at college. The classes were pointless and taught me little to nothing. However if I had known I wanted music and went to Julliard I could probably get a much better experience. Then again Julliard gave us Lady Gaga : )

My guess is that if you have a musical identity that is strong all that knowledge can expand you, if you don't or are unsure it can lead you to sounding mechanical or unnatural.

P.S. I've met a few music school students who had no ear, IMO without an ear you aren't a musician, is this common and do you agree or disagree?
Any College will have the same type courses as all the big schools.. The difference being many colleges stop at 2 years.. Where as a university can give you a degree..

The one you mention will have better class of teachers better pool of students,, Thus you'll have a better chance of networking with like minded serious musicians..

You'll also have insane tuition fees

Odd-Arne Oseberg

Platinum Member
Wether educated or not, who you are as a musician is ultimately your own responsibility.You can't put all schools in one category either. Teachers are individuals as well.

The main problem I see with music education is the jobmarket that actually demands formal education and in at least half the cases hire people with papers who really can't touch certain candidates whi don't have those papers in the criteria was true knowledge and skill.

In my case, when I went to university, my teachers were clearly way behind myself in my field. I still had to go there to get my papers. Our schools don't evolve and keep current. I do because it's my mission and what I live for. I've worked in public music schools so far, but I will most lightly start my own school instead even if I end up making less money, because even though these institutions might have had some value, it seems it's getting lost.

Note that I'm only speaking about the average institution in my own small country.