Do Music Producers Need College

Do you need a college education to be a music producer?

I really can’t say there’s a “right” answer to this question. I am addressing this question partly because of very heated comments and opinions on music education schools in my blog post here:

First off – No, you do not need a college degree to be successful as a music producer. I am an example of this. I have no bachelor’s degree from any college but I am currently a music director for a Cirque Du Soleil show. I think most people would consider that “successful”.

That being said – I think you will find that most successful music producers and music directors have attended a college and/or have a Bachelor’s Degree. My feeling on this is that the piece of paper for a degree is not important for a music director job, but the education definitely is.

So for those that are really driven to be musical directors my advice is to get all the formal education you can. Formal education (colleges and trade schools) are easier to do when you’re younger – so jump into those as soon after high school as you can. Later you can get street smarts by doing an apprenticeship working in a studio, being an assistant, etc.

The more knowledge you have, the wider your circle of knowledge, then becomes wider the knowledge of what you DON’T know. And that lets you know what to work on next. And the knowledge of music is never ending. As a good friend of mine told me once (and he’s had a VERY successful career as composer, session keyboardist, teacher, solo performer and music director) “everyone has gaps in their education”. That is to say, everyone has things they don’t know that might seem common place to someone else. The minute you think you’ve got everything covered in your music knowledge – that is the day you are dead artistically.

I think of a music career a little as being a doctor. You are always practicing. You are never finished learning new things. The formal education is a perfect way to lay the groundwork for your career ahead. Without it you have nothing to build on.

There are exceptions. Was it Irving Berlin who could not read or write music? He was successful. There are plenty of hip hop producers who have made millions without reading music. But if you want to have a long career and delve into areas of music directing I cannot stress enough that you need that college or formal education base. The more you know; the more different kinds of jobs you will be able to perform.

My best suggestion is a regular four year college. There are other options with trade schools. The link at the beginning of this post is discussion on a particular music trade school. I personally have taken several courses with Berklee School of Music online. I’ve enjoyed those courses and learned from them. But they are just to broaden myself a little and to keep my mind busy.

I’m happy to answer any questions from aspiring music directors. Again, this is just my current opinion. There are many paths to what you want to accomplish – and for different people there are many strategies. I always encourage people to research people already working in the field they want to pursue – then look at their resumes and background to get an idea of what to do. Reverse engineering your career path like this can save you years of wasted time and personal anguish.



A day after writing this post I received an email from a friend. I have just edited their email to exclude any personal details. Here it is:

Just read your blog on needing a music education – I always like your good sense when you respond to things – (mutual friend) always likes your humor too – but I will just share my thoughts about having an education – I do think there are some things that can’t be learned  — they are a gift.  I am always aware of this when I hear (other piano players) trying to play a piece of music that their education just doesn’t give them the ability to play it “right” – there are few who have that special gift – it is rare – and it is not something that can be attained by education.  I think there are things like techinique – different ideas and more that can be taught — but the gift is what sets a trained musician apart from a “musician.”   I don’t think there are a whole lot of them in the world  – there are a lot of good musicians, but few who truly have a gift.  I’m glad I got to know one.  I think that might be true for artists – photographers – cooks – and even those who are able to truly connect with babies – or people with illnesses.   People can learn how to take good photographs – but those who have a unique eye have the gift.  Anyone can follow a recipe  – but the person who sees food in a different way and just amazes our palate – they have the gift – it can’t be learned.

My response:

All these comments are lucid and absolutely true to my knowledge. To me it’s a reminder that maybe I tried to answer a complex answer in a simple fashion when there really is no simple answer.

I was addressing the beginning of an artist’s adult education in the arts. But maybe the larger question is really how does an artist get to be gifted at their craft. The education is just part of that very large puzzle. Most artists will have a mixture of formal education and apprenticeships.

So let me blather on just a bit more about thoughts this brings to me. I doubt many will have the patience to read through this but there may be a couple artists that find this useful. That make them go “aha” – and to me that’s worth the ten minutes I spend now.

In music I think there are a general two areas you learn. There’s the technical side (music theory, production, processing, composition, etc.) that are the tools of your trade. They are your palette and paints. This base of knowledge are only the TOOLS to actually create your art.

The other side to learn is that music does not live on the printed page or in the sample libraries you use. Music dances in the air and is very much alive. This is the side of art that you will learn one on one with your mentors. This is what makes your performance breath life and moves people. It’s the difference between someone coming up to you after a performance and saying “that was really good” or someone having tears in their eyes and unable to find words to speak to you.

I can’t comment on my own musicianship because I’m too close to myself to be objective. But I can give you some examples of teachers I had in the past and what they taught me. From George Fiore I learned that I should not perform unless I am fully engaged. From Andy Friedlander I learned that if people do not know why they are on stage then they should exit. From Steve Stevens I learned indirectly at an early age about marketing music. From Seattle Opera I learned you focus 100% during rehearsal. From Marlene McComb I learned that you have the artistic license to take any song and make it your own. From my concert pianist teacher (name omitted) I learned that you can practice 6 hours a day to make everything perfect and in the process remove any joy whatsoever about music and art. From Richard Farner I learned that I was actually a lazy oaf who needed a thunderbolt under my butt if I was going to succeed (a lesson I cherish, and yes, I received the thunderbolt many years ago). From George Shangrow I learned that it’s perfectly acceptable to be overtly passionate about your art despite what detractors may say. From George Crawford I learned that when you improvise it’s like throwing a cat into the air – you can do all sorts of crazy things as long as you land on your feet. From Steve Bach I learned that musical styles are different languages and you need to spend time communicating in each language before you can have a full conversation in it.

Ok, that’s enough. I could write such a long list of specific people that taught me the lessons I personally needed to know. Now some of the people on my list were university professors, some were fellow musicians on gigs, but most were my music directors when performing a show, but most were mentors that I sought out. I would see a musician do something I thought was fantastic and I would just approach them and say “That was fantastic, what were you thinking when you did that?”. The thought process has always been more important to me than the actual content. Because if you have the thought process then you can make it your own. If you just learn the lick or the theory then you just have that one little piece. Ironically, many people do not like showing you their licks but they love telling you about the thought process. When someone answers me with “I don’t know, I just feel it” then I politely tell them thank you and leave. There’s nothing to learn from them in conversation.

So you will learn from formal education and from “the streets”. The drive to get that education will come from you. Or it won’t. And I’ll also say that most of the things I’ve learned in formal education are available freely on the internet if you know where to look. So if you’re truly after education and don’t have money – there’s no excuses. It’s all out there for music.

Another point I wanted to bring up is you will educate yourself or you won’t. That’s up to you and anything else is an excuse.

I had dinner tonight with a Cirque Du Soleil juggler that I work with. It reminded me that when I was 12 years old I bought a juggling kit with juggling sandbags and an instruction book “How to Juggle”. I spent many hours learning to juggle three and I was so happy with myself. I would show everyone. Then a friend said “I can do that, watch” – and they juggled FOUR. My juggling days were over. I didn’t want to learn to do four. And to this day I can juggle three sandbags, very badly.

But my juggler friend probably had a similar experience. But his reaction was probably a fierce drive to juggle FIVE. And so he spent all his time on that. And there’s the difference between me the musician and my friend the juggler. You either have the passion or you don’t.

And now in my later years I look back when I started music and I can remember SO MANY times when I fell on my face. Times when people laughed at me and said I couldn’t do it. So many times I cannot even begin to tell you. But I kept at it because it was my passion. And over time the failures fade and you have more and more successes until one day you almost feel successful.

So I’m telling you all this to realize that your education is your starting point your career trajectory. If you are driven you will never start learning. Just a few months ago I went slowly for several weeks through the entire Rimsky Korsakov book of Orchestration online. It’s freely available. I wish I had done that when I was 14. But I did it a few months ago.

You are SO lucky to want to be a musician in this day and age. You’re broke and can’t afford college. Go online. Get your education wherever you can. Ask musician’s you respect for guidance. If you take your time, aren’t rude or on drugs, and they are decent people – I would bet they will take some time for you.

And I will recap ALL of this with these parting words:

Feed your head. Feed your heart.

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