Music Degrees and Rock Guitarists
Many guitar players learn music theory and consider a degree in music,
but wonder what they will gain from a traditional four-year degree and
whether it’s worth it. The answer isn’t the same for everyone, but
here’s what I can tell you about prerequisites, what you’ll learn, what the
experience is good for as a rock player, classical player, and
composer, and what you can do with the degree and knowledge after.
Since I did not attend schools like the Guitar Institute of Technology
(GIT) or Berkelee, no comparison is being made here, but this does not
reflect a bias.
My pre-college experience with rock guitar was typical in that I
generally ignored theory. Even when taught to me, I had little use for it
and quickly forgot it. Then I took some courses at the local junior
college and found it interesting, but as a budding classical musician, not
a rocker. It still seemed largely useless except modes and
After two years of classes, I finally succeeded in merging classical
theory into my rock playing. This means embedding progressions,
structural elements and key changes, theme and variation, and two and
three-part writing (on a single guitar). It also made it much easier to write
melodies and solos, and to achieve what I wanted. I was suddenly a much
better guitarist and composer. Two years later I graduated with a
Bachelors of Music in classical guitar, Magna Cum Laude.
Colleges: Junior Vs. Full
Junior (or two-year) colleges are a good alternative to full four-year
universities, for several reasons. They cost less, for one, but such
schools are full of people who aren’t sure if the path they are pursuing
is right for them. This makes it easier to change your mind and major.
You can change specialties within the music curriculum or drop music
altogether with less red tape. You don’t even have to follow the
curriculum in order and can pick and choose courses, such as pursuing music
theory but not ear training. Of course, if you become serious later, you
will have some making up to do, but at least you can explore without
committing. At some schools, you can even take music courses without
being a music major. An audition may not be required, either.
At a four-year university, music teachers generally assume you are
preparing for a future as a professional musician. There is more pressure
and strict adherence to requirements. The caliber of musicians around
you will be higher, but don’t assume the other students know so much
more than you. Many know little about chord theory, modes, key changes,
musical form, counterpoint, music history, and orchestration. Sure,
there’s always that “violinist since age three guy”, but many started as
teenagers and are as casual about it as you. This won’t be true at
Juilliard, but the average school has average musicians, too. Don’t be
intimidated. Remember, the whole point is to get educated. If they
already know so much, why would they be there?
Prerequisites for Admission to Music College
This changes depending on the college, but four-year schools generally
require an audition on your instrument regardless of what your major is
(guitar, composition, music education, etc.) because they still want to
know how good a musician you are. This is a stumbling block for rock
guitarists, since a frequent requirement is to play three classical
guitar pieces, one from each of the romantic, classical, and modern eras.
You can’t go in there and play “Eruption”. One way around this is to
start at a junior college, where an audition is often not required.
There is no prerequisite for reading music, so you can still be
admitted if you can’t read at all. You’ll learn to read fluently during the
constant music theory exercises and classes such as chorus, ear
training, and your private guitar lessons, which provide no escape from the
treble and bass clefs. With time, your ability to manipulate pitches will
soar astronomically as a result.
During guitar lessons, you may have to memorize the music phrase by
phrase. I did this for a long time and only used sheet music as a
reminder of where I was in the piece. Your teacher will not expect you to
simply start playing music put in front of you, even after 4 years. It’s
just not realistic for most, though you will get faster. Guitar music
is more challenging because the same notes can be played in different
places, so you generally have to figure out what chord you’re going to
be holding at every moment (the music does not have chord charts on it),
which is one reason your instructor exists. Remember, you are there to
learn, not to pretend you already know.
No knowledge of music theory or even the genre is assumed, and schools
generally teach you from the ground up, from what a major chord is to
who Beethoven was and where he fits in history.
It can be safely said that the music curriculum neatly divides itself
into the first two years and the last two years. One reason for this is
that there are typically two years (four semesters) of music theory and
ear training, which are basic courses along with class piano. You also
have your private lesson (guitar) and large ensemble (chorus). The
last two years are the more interesting and complicated courses:
counterpoint, musical form, conducting, music history, and orchestration (guitar
and chorus continuing). These are not the same everywhere, so check
with the school.
Music Theory is a general term that lumps together many subjects but is
all the nuts and bolts of notes. It explains and demonstrates key
signatures, time signatures, scales (and alternate versions called modes),
intervals, chords, keys, modulation (key changes), music notation, and
how to write simple two, three, and four-part harmony. It starts
simple and continuously builds on its own knowledge. It is typically four
semesters long and the first one can feel the most difficult not just
because you’re starting, but because there’s more memorization and less
practical “hands-on” application. In my experience, the second, third,
and fourth semesters were more similar to each other, with increasingly
complicated chords and key changes.
Ear Training and Sight Singing is the most feared course ever invented
and goes on for four semesters. Welcome to your own personal “American
Idol” experience. This course goes in parallel to music theory partly
because as you learn about something in theory, you are now trained to
recognize what it sounds like. The teacher will perform things on the
piano, such as a scale, mode, interval, chord, melody, rhythm, or
phrase of chords, and you’re expected to write down what it was accurately
(after hearing it maybe three times). That’s the easy part. What
frightens everyone is that you have to demonstrate that you know what a
melody on paper sounds like by singing it from your desk while everyone
listens. Don’t worry, you normally get to practice as much as two-dozen
melodies outside of class. The saving grace here is that everyone is as
petrified as you, and this is how freshmen music students bond. Misery
loves company. To practice, it is advisable to work with a piano,
which is one reason you’re taking class piano.
Class Piano is usually required because it’s expected that all music
professionals will have at least a passing familiarity with how to play a
piano. It can be one or two years. You are generally in a room full
of other players, each with your own electric piano that you can’t hear
unless you put on the headphones. You won’t be expected to play great
piano music, but if you think that’s a relief, consider this: you’ll
probably end up playing stuff like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” harmonized
with a couple chords. If you find this as horrible as I did, you may opt
for private piano lessons, which while harder on the hands, is kinder
on your soul. You’ll need permission, however, and possibly an
audition. You may also have to face a performance “jury” as described below.
Guitar is the heart of your degree, so you’ll have an hour-long private
lesson with your classical guitar teacher for four years. You’ll learn
technique, exercises, etudes, and representative pieces of the
classical guitar repertoire from the 16th-century to today. It gets harder and
more demanding as you progress. At the end of each semester, you’ll
face a “jury”: three faculty members who have a list of what pieces and
exercises you are prepared to play. For ten minutes, they can make you
play anything off the list. There are other performance requirements,
such as a solo junior recital (30 minutes), a solo senior recital (60
minutes), and a small ensemble performance (such as a four movements
sonata with at least one other performer). One of the greatest advantages
here is that you will learn the notes on the guitar neck, at least
below the ninth fret, fluently.
Chorus (Large Ensemble): As a guitarist, for your large ensemble
requirement, you will be thrown into the college chorus for four years
because the orchestra doesn’t have a place for you. The college chorus is
made up of voice majors, theater majors, and “the others”: people who
either don’t play an orchestral instrument well enough to be in the
orchestra, or whose instrument won’t be in the orchestra very often (such as
a harpist or even piano majors). Through practice, it is relatively
easy to sing even complicated music at the same time as a group. The
voice teachers seldom single out “the others” to sing alone. They know who
you are and have some mercy, but they do expect to see you trying and
Counterpoint is two or more independent melodies and is often two
different semesters: vocal or 16th-century counterpoint, which is different
from instrumental or 18th-century counterpoint. You may only have to
take the latter, which is more relevant. The four-part writing you did
in music theory helped prepare you for this. There are rules for how
the “voices” can move, and it gets harder as you reach three and
four-part counterpoint. You will likely have to write things like a canon,
invention, or fugue, though they only have to be technically correct, not
musically enjoyable. Of great importance here is learning to spot
variations on the theme through analysis of written music. If you’re a
composer, seeing how the greats did this will greatly augment your ability
to create more material out of your original idea. This is one of the
most valuable things to gain from a music degree.
Musical Form explains the internal structure of all those things you’ve
heard about: canon, fugue, sonata, symphony, and so on. These are
larger scale structures that are made up of many smaller forms, all the way
down to the phrase. Naturally, you start learning the simple ones and
work your way up. These structures are defined by chord progressions,
key changes, and variations. The elements of these structures can be
used in rock music without the musical form itself, and can be extremely
Conducting will give you an appreciation of the conductor’s job in
training an orchestra to perform to his interpretation, but won’t help you
Music History is condensed into two semesters for an overview and frame
of reference for everything you’re learning. You’ll listen to a lot of
music so you understand what music of various periods sounds like.
This is less technical, and on the level of personal enrichment, is
possibly the most rewarding course. Now when you hear a snippet of classical
music somewhere, you know it sounded like a Beethoven symphony, and
what the significance of that music is, not to mention that if you wanted
to hear the whole thing, you at least stand a prayer of finding a CD of
Orchestration will certainly challenge your reading ability. There are
at least twelve staffs and three clefs, plus transposing instruments
(the note on the page might say C, but it’s really a B flat). You’ll
learn the instrument ranges and how to orchestrate for each group
(strings, woodwinds, brass) and combine them. This may not help your rock
music, except for seeing how material can be spread across multiple
instruments, but will change the way you hear symphonies. You may have to
orchestrate something and get to hear the school orchestra play it. You
may even get to conduct it yourself.
A Better Rocker?
For a rock guitarist, there are so many benefits to a music degree that
this section became a second article titled “Music Degrees and Rock
Guitarists, Part 2”. This is a second major focal point aside from the
content of a typical music degree. These benefits in the next article
* Knowing how to write variations
* Effective use of keys
* Writing multiple parts, including dual leads and harmony more easily
* More sophisticated arranging of guitar parts
* Being able to create much more emotional, complicated, or
* Significantly easier writing of lead guitar that is more melodic and
does what you want it to
Some think that the only point of a degree it to later get a job,
especially in that field. While this is true in the practical sense, you
are an artist, too, and if you never hold a music related day job again,
you can still benefit enormously from your training. How many other
fields can claim that?
Still, possible jobs include composing, arranging (orchestration),
performing paid gigs (such as weddings), and teaching private lessons. To
teach at any formal institution such as high school or college, you’ll
need a music education degree instead of a classical guitar one. If
you want to teach college level courses, you’ll need a master’s degree
and probably a doctorate, but positions are rare due to the tenure of
existing music professors. Many working musicians hold multiple jobs and
have little job security, so if this isn’t for you, what then?
That’s where working in another field comes in, a prospect that leads
many to snidely claim a music degree is useless, but this is nonsense.
For starters, a degree is a degree. You’ve still proven to prospective
employers that you’re mature enough to see it through. Don’t discount
this. It’s important. Do you think people go to college just to have
specified knowledge? They don’t. Many people change careers several
times throughout their lives and don’t have a degree in the field in
which they are now working. The fact that you’ve got a degree can be
actually more important than what the degree is in, and if nothing else in
college appeals to you, a music degree is far better than no degree at
People like to make fun of music degrees, but at the risk of being
ridiculed, I’m very proud of my degree, my experience, my musical
knowledge, my understanding of a truly specialized field that few understand
(which makes me feel quite privileged and lucky), and most importantly,
that I am able to do one of my most cherished things in my life so much
better than before. I was always surprised when other music students
complained about their music classes when I took more music courses than
required. Maybe I’m just a geek (yes, I did do the extra credit
stuff), but I thought the details of music were fascinating. I had always
been an average student, but my love of music made me graduate with
honors. And yes, it is an honor, one that I wear on my sleeve, thank you
Be sure to read “Music Degrees and Rock Guitarists, Part 2”, coming
Music Degrees and Rock Guitarists, Part II
Earning a traditional four-year degree in music, and specifically
classical guitar, can make guitarists better at rock music, but it usually
takes some effort to transport what you’ve learned from the classical
concert hall to the rock arena. The possible benefits to this education
* Knowing how to write variations
* Effective use of keys and more dynamic, sophisticated arrangements
* Writing multiple parts, including dual leads and harmony, more easily
* Significantly easier writing of lead guitar that is more melodic and
does what you want it to
An idea is the source of all artwork, and since a good idea is hard to
come by, it’s smart to make the most out of each. This is central to
classical composition technique, and one thing students learn is to find
variations by studying the music. An entire five-minute piece can be
written from a single idea less than one measure long.
Variation is all about retaining some element of the original idea
while other elements are altered, keeping music fresh and yet familiar.
The variation does not have to be recognizable as such, though it helps,
but listeners of different astuteness will notice different things
anyway. The most important thing is that if you made more music out of
your idea, you have avoided adding a second idea to the piece just to
finish the writing. That second idea could have been a song of its own.
It is fine to write music based on two different ideas, and this “theme
1 vs. theme 2” approach is widespread, but both ideas are then used as
a source of variations.
Cosmetic variations are simple and don’t involve manipulation of the
material’s structure, which is why untrained musicians often opt for this
approach. One example is changing the instrumentation, such as the
singer performing the melody, and then the guitarist doing it verbatim.
Even extreme changes in instrumentation by all band members, while
effective, are cosmetic. Progressive metal bands excel at this.
Structural variations are typically more sophisticated and involve
breaking down a musical idea into its component parts, such as its harmony,
rhythm, and melody. The most important of these is the melody, which
can be further divided into several smaller snippets called “motifs”. A
motif is a short musical idea that is recognizable. A motif can be
surrounded with different chords and keys, repeated at different pitches,
and used as the basis for a new melody. The motif itself can also be
varied, not simply repeated in different guises. This is an extensive
subject to be covered in future articles.
Knowing how to write variations will not only make your music more
compelling, but it can prolong your artistic life. Why waste ideas when
you can mine the song for unexploited potential? How many bands sound
like they’re out of ideas after three albums? Lead guitar ideas can
often be derived from something within the riffs, too.
Dynamic Use of Keys
A key change can be a powerful thing – or it can be largely pointless.
In classical music, keys are used to define structure, add tension in
either subtle or obvious ways, and for variation. These ideas appear
throughout a music curriculum but are most prominently studied in Musical
Form class. Each classical form, such as a fugue, sonata, or minuet,
is defined in part by its key changes, and while you might not want to
write an allemande, for example, the harmonic ideas within such a piece
can still be applied to other genres.
Defining Structure: Writing a verse in one key and the chorus in
another helps distinguish the sections from each other. The average listener
won’t be consciously aware of it, but it still affects them. Their
sense of forward motion and the “You Are Here” feeling are stronger.
Without key changes, a song may feel like it meanders. For two alternating
sections of music, the most basic approach is derived from chord
progressions and involves changing from I to V. In other words, if the verse
is in A major (I), write the chorus in E major (V), so that when the
verse (I) reappears, a V-I motion occurs. This is discussed in more
detail in another article, “Structural Chord Progressions”.
Adding Tension: When a song remains in one key throughout, it goes
nowhere harmonically. By contrast, a song with key changes feels more
dynamic. The goal of chord progressions is to return to the home chord
(I), which is why all progressions end with it. The goal of key changes
is that, once left, the home key is a destination-in-waiting, and the
desire for the original key to return adds tension. This is why it is
used structurally, too. Another option is to surprise the listener with
a more audible/noticeable key change. They may not understand what
happened, but the jarring or colorful change adds drama. This is also
discussed in “Structural Chord Progressions”.
Variation: Presenting the music in different keys makes it sound
different because keys don’t sound the same. Switching between two major
keys, or two minor ones, works easily, but going from major to minor (or
vice versa) often works well, too. Which key depends on an
understanding of related keys and how to use a progression to change keys, and
personal preference. For example, from E major, some obvious options are E
minor, B major, A major or minor, and C# minor. Each has structural
implications, and knowing how to return to E major later brings things to
a resounding close.
Every key falls on the guitar differently, opening up some
possibilities and closing others. Adapting your theme to fit can cause subtle
changes in how it sounds (this is especially true of riffs). Working in
different keys also changes your thinking, keeping your perspective and
your playing fresh.
Writing Multiple Parts
Guitarists enjoy cleverly written guitar parts, especially when there’s
more than one at a time. Whether dual leads or layered rhythm guitars,
writing such parts is much easier when you’re very familiar with the
internal structure of chords and have studied counterpoint. Both
subjects are taught intensely in a music curriculum.
“Partwriting” in Music Theory class will make it clear that you can
change chords simply by changing one pitch, not moving all of them. If
you’re holding A, F, D (a D minor chord in 2nd inversion), you can drop
the D to a C to create an F major chord (A, F, C) in 1st inversion.
This might not sound like much, and as a single guitar part, it may not be
enough change, but if this is an additional guitar part, such simple
motions can make great secondary writing. If it’s a 3rd or even 4th
guitar, the resulting sound can be rich, like this three-guitar and one
bass example from my acoustic piece, “The Joys of Spring”. It works with
distortion, too, not just acoustic guitars.
Another version of multi-part writing is having several distinct lines
in addition to the rhythm guitar’s chords. This short clip from my
song “Epic” demonstrates this with 5 guitar parts that enter one by one:
the main riff, chords, a melody that becomes an ostinato, double-stops,
the high E string, and finally a solo. This sort of writing is
difficult without some training.
Dual or harmony lead guitar is much easier to understand as well.
Classes in Music Theory, Counterpoint and Musical Form, with all the
analysis and four-part writing, will make writing only two parts pretty easy
by comparison. Playing a melody in strict 3rds is effortless, and
writing two different melodies that work together (counterpoint), even over
riffs that have melodies, too, is also more straightforward. Listen to
this clip from my song Journeys, where two call-and-answer leads work
over the riff melody.
Easier Writing of Lead Guitar
A classical guitar degree will have you knowing the notes below the 9th
fret fluently, and this can (but may not) help you play better lead
guitar lines. For it to help, you must be able to think about what you’re
doing instead of playing by rote. This means abandoning the more
common way of navigating the guitar neck for the second and more thoughtful
The more common approach among untrained musicians is to use scale
patterns, chord shapes, and memorized fingerings to find your way. This
helps players go everywhere on the neck, play the same thing in many keys
just by moving the hand around, and compensates for unfamiliarity with
the pitches. This is how most guitarists learn to play because we’re
in it for fun at first. Why waste your time learning all those notes
when there’s a shortcut? Because this can come back to haunt you later –
as a crutch that prevents you from thinking about what you’re doing.
The second way is to navigate via the notes on the neck.
Non-guitarists might be surprised to discover this isn’t how people do it, but old
habits die-hard. Once you know the fingerings in E minor, it’s hard to
ignore them and focus on which notes you’re holding, but there are
reasons to change. Every pitch has a melodic and harmonic relationship to
the root of the key (E in this case) and the other notes. For example:
You should be able to think, “I’ll play a D# because it’s the altered
7th of E minor, and it resolves up by step to the root if it’s in the
outer voice, and it’s the major 3rd of the V chord in a V-I progression,
which is what the riffs are doing in background. I’m on B major (V)
now, and the next chord is E minor, so my next note should be E, even if
only briefly. Maybe I’ll quickly move up to a G to emphasis the minor
tonality of the key. Or maybe I’ll play a G#, making it sound like I’m
in E major instead, though this will only work if the riff isn’t
playing a G natural. Since the chord is an E5 voicing of E and B, though, so
it will work.” If all of this isn’t in the back (or front) of your
mind before your finger lands on that D#, you are not playing by the notes
on the neck.
It is not enough to be able to figure out what note you are playing at
a given moment. You must have placed your finger at that spot because
of its letter name and all the associated relevancies, but this won’t
happen automatically even after a degree unless you change your thinking
(how to do so is a subject for another article coming soon). Even so,
this multitude of knowledge about what could be done with pitches, if
utilized, will make you a far more melodic and powerful lead player.
A traditional four-year degree in classical guitar, or another music
specialty, is extremely valuable to longevity, versatility, and overall
effectiveness as a musician. This is true even for rock guitarists, but
only if you are able to apply it to the rock genre. This requires some
thought and ingenuity, and many of these subjects will be discussed in
further detail in other articles. The techniques can be seen in
virtually all of the music I write, some of which is available as a free
download. The annotated tablature shows progressions, key changes, and
variations, and comes with an explanation.
Randy Ellefson is an instrumental guitarist with a Bachelors of Music
in Classical Guitar, Magna Cum Laude. His debut album was released in
June 2004 on Guitarosity Records. The album’s title, The Firebard, is a
nod to his experience with tendinitis, which took away his playing for
five years before he fully recovered it and rose from his ashes. For
more details, mp3s, tabs, articles, videos and other cool stuff, visit
the official site, www.randyellefson.com, or email Rand at