Career Path Options for a Music Director

Points Of Interest

Most musical performances take place at night and on weekends, so music directors must be prepared for flexible schedules. Composers can craft a more regular schedule, at least while engaged on a project. Most arts workers are subject to intermittent unemployment. The competition for projects and full-time jobs is intense, so music directors and composers must both learn to deal with rejection. Building strong personal and professional networks is important to career success.

Many musicians take part-time jobs in other industries in order to supplement their incomes. The vast majority of successful musicians begin practicing instrumental skills, learning music theory and developing the skills needed to audition and perform successfully at an early age. Music directors and composers are also accomplished pianists, and many are just below the top concert level in skill and talent. For music directors, facility on multiple instruments and familiarity with a wide range of musical styles will enhance job prospects.

Nature Of The Work

Music directors and composers play musical instruments and may also sing. Both jobs involve composing or arranging music, usually in standard notation, and conducting ensembles of instrumentalists and perhaps vocalists in performance. While performance is not the most important part of the job, both music directors and composer often give solo or group performances in theaters, concert halls, clubs, amphitheaters (sheds) that combine indoor and outdoor seating, and occasionally in stadiums and arenas. A live audience is usually present even when the performance takes place in a radio or TV production studio.

Music is often recorded in studios for use in radio, TV, film or video programs as well as computer games. Composers typically work alone at a piano or electronic keyboard, and increasingly use computer software to produce musical scores. They need to be familiar with the performance techniques, range limitations (highest and lowest notes) and special requirements of a wide variety of musical instruments when creating orchestrations. Music directors are often arrangers as well and therefore need to same kind of broad knowledge of instrumental that composers do.

Music directors are often keyboard players or pianists, but they may play string, wind or brass instruments or even percussion as their main performance instrument. Many music directors are “doublers” who can play several similar instruments with equal skill: players in the saxophone section in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra can also play clarinet, flute and piccolo in performance. While composers often specialize in a particular musical style, and classical composers attempt to form individual styles, music directors need to be able to play and arrange equally well in many different musical styles. Most music directors are also instrumental performers, who might appear in an orchestra section in the evening, then go on to lead a rock group or jazz band later that night. They might be called for a studio recording date the following day.

Many performances and some recordings require rehearsal in advance of the live or recorded event. Conductors are also music directors. They plan and direct the repertoire of larger ensembles such as orchestra, chamber orchestra, choirs, glee clubs, brass bands, marching bands and “big bands” of jazz musicians. They also lead performances and rehearsals by conducting the ensemble. Many conductors will audition musicians and choose new or replacement members of an organization or ensemble.


Conductors must know the talents and abilities of their group members and choose material that is appropriate to them. Duke Ellington, for example, not only conducted his big band, but composed much of the repertoires with specific musicians in mind: “Concerto for Cootie” was written for the trumpet soloist Cootie Williams. If the ensemble is mainly composed of singers, the music director is called a choral director. They may collaborate with other music directors or conductors on joint appearances by a choir and orchestra, such as a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Choral Directors

Choral directors usually have authority to audition and select the members of the vocal group. In rehearsal and performance, the choral director gives indications to help the ensemble produce the tempo, rhythm, harmony and tonal shading that is appropriate for the music. Composers can write anything from pop songs and commercial jingles to musical theater scores, operas, symphonies, chamber music, concerti, sonatas, film scores and other forms. Modern composers tend to use computer software to transcribe their musical ideas into written notation that gives performers guidelines about the tempo, rhythm, melody, harmony and overall structure of the piece. Songwriters are composers who specialize in songs and incidental music: most write lyrics as well as music, and are more likely to compose directly on a chordal instrument such as piano or guitar while singing the melody and lyrics.

Many singer/songwriters perform their own work. Both composers and music director often take work as arrangers, transcribing existing compositions and adapting them to specific style or to the needs and abilities of a particular band, group, orchestra, vocal chorus, or individual performer. Arrangers retain the basic harmonic and melodic building blocks that make a piece recognizable, while altering stylistic aspects such as tempo, rhythm, structure, key and orchestration. While a few arrangers continue to write scores by hand, most use computer software to produce and edit musical scores.

Music is most often performed live outside of normal working hours. Most performances are given indoors, but parades, outdoor concerts and summer festivals are all outdoor events that usually take place in daylight. Music directors and composers spend most of their daytime hours writing music or rehearsing for a performance. A very few music directors have long-term contracts with TV or film production companies or theatrical producers that give them a steady income and minimum time away from home and family. Music directors for solo performers or small groups spend more time traveling, including extended regional, national and international tours that may involve a wide range of venues and audiences. Some nightclubs continue to reflect the stereotype portrayed in classic films: a dirty, poorly lit room full of smoke and unpleasant odors. Excessive noise exposure is an occupational hazard for all types of musicians and singers, especially when electric and electronic instruments and drums are involved.

Classical and Jazz Composers

Classical and jazz composers typically work on commissioned projects and apply for grants from non-profit organizations that support the arts. Composers of incidental or background music for film scores and computer games may have either a steady stream of project work or in some cases an employment contract, for instance with a computer games publisher. Both composers and music directors are frequently unemployed in their chosen field, occasionally for long periods. They may take other types of jobs to supplement their income: it is common for well-trained musicians and composers to teach privately or in a school or conservatory. To reduce the stress of constantly auditioning and applying for positions, many musicians take permanent full-time jobs in other areas and continue to pursue music part-time or as a hobby. While composition is a solitary creative endeavor, all musicians must be able to cooperate successfully with agents, colleagues and employers. They must also establish and maintain good relationships with audiences and sponsors.

Training, Other Qualifications, And Advancement

Music is as much an avocation as a vocation. Musical talent is usually identified early in life and developed by intensive study and practice. Young people attracted to a musical career should exhibit versatility, creativity, stage presence and poise in addition to musical talent. Experts suggest that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery and professional knowledge in music. Today, many prospective musicians are well on the way to this milestone while still in high school. They will have demonstrated strong self-discipline by practicing, taking private lessons and participating in choral and instrumental groups sponsored by the school in a variety of musical formats. They will often spend all or part of the summer at a performing arts or music camp. The next step for an aspiring composer or music director is to audition for a place in a university or conservatory program.

Composers and music directors usually require a bachelor’s degree in music, and this is becoming more common for musicians and singers as well. There are about 630 accredited college-level programs with membership in the National Association of Schools of Music. Students will take classes in the theory of music, composition, conducting, interpretation and performance on one or more instruments or with the voice. Other courses might cover the history of music in various genres and styles, musical traditions from other parts of the world such as Northern or Southern India, Persia or Southeast Asia, music production and recording technology, and the business of music.

There are also programs specifically designed for music educators, that combine musical knowledge with teaching and classroom management skills. Music directors and composers will take more classes in theory, composition, orchestration and arranging, and de-emphasize performance skills. After graduation, music directors, conductors, composers and arrangers will look for opportunities to gain work experience and credentials. They may also continue with advanced training. A post-graduate degree, at least a master’s and more often a doctorate, is a requirement for faculty positions in college and university music departments. A BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in Music may qualify the applicant to teach basic courses at smaller schools. To teach in public school systems, a State certificate is required, and this requires in turn a degree in music education. Private schools and recreational associations may hire musicians and composers who have not met these requirements.

Additional Work Opportunities

Any music director or composer is able to offer private lessons, and many do. Purchasers of original music and musical arrangements look for material in all styles and genres. Music directors and composers who focus broadly and maintain interest in contemporary forms enjoy expanded employment opportunities, and may not have to compromise artistic integrity. Herbie Hancock, for example, has composed, arranged and performed both popular music and jazz. He continues to enjoy success in both areas and is regarded with the highest respect by his peers. Wynton Marsalis has performed and recorded classical music, big band orchestral jazz and small group jazz. He has won Grammy Awards in all these musical disciplines. Music directors who go on tour need good health and physical stamina to withstand the stresses of constant travel and maintain excellence throughout a demanding performance and personal appearance schedule. At home, music directors and composer face other kinds of stress: the anxiety of uncertain and irregular employment and the pain of rejection after many if not most auditions.

Music directors and composers advance their careers by building a reputation along with personal and professional networks. These make it easier to find work and better pay. The must successful music directors retain agents and / or managers, who receive a percentage of income in return for booking performances, obtaining commissions, negotiating contracts and providing career development services such as publicity. Employment Music directors and composers held about 53,600 jobs in 2008, the most recent year for which the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has published data. Job Outlook Job opportunities for music directors and composers are expected to expand at an average rate of about 8 percent through 2018. Music director and composers will do slightly better than average with a 10 percent rate of growth in total employment. Competition will be especially strong for full time positions. The best job candidates, as in the past, will be highly talented, creative and entrepreneurial people whose skills and interest encompass multiple instruments and musical genres.

Typical Job Options

Most new salaried jobs for musicians and music directors will be created by religious organizations, especially evangelistic churches: they may carry the title of Music Minister or Musical Pastor. Work in nightclubs, concert tours and similar venues will decline as entertainment dollars shift to other forms such as movies, computer games and television. The “music industry” is in the midst of substantial disruption by the Internet and other new forms of media such as mobile phones, for which some composers are already providing ring tones. Alternative methods of music distribution are providing income opportunities for more musicians while making it harder for capital-intensive corporations to mass-market music and create “stars.”

Jazz is continuing its slow transition from popular music (which it was in the 1930s and 40s) to art music supported by government subsidies and charitable foundations. Demand for musicians will grow. At the same time, many will leave the field each year as they become discouraged about the prospects of making a living as music directors, conductors, composers or arranges. But competition for all types of full-time jobs and projects will continue to be intense. The number of people with a desire to write and arrange music will exceed the number of opportunities by a wide margin. Talent is a prerequisite to success, at least in more formalized musical genres, but not guarantee.

Many talented music directors and composers leave the field each year because the work is demanding, the discipline is difficult to maintain, and the financial rewards are small and inconsistent. 


The earnings of the most successful music directors and composers exceed the median by far. Major national and regional orchestras negotiate minimum contracts with the American Federation of Musicians, but individual musicians as well as composers, conductors and arrangers or music directors negotiate individual contracts that often exceed the minimum. Regional orchestras give fewer performances to smaller audiences and receive less funding, so they pay less well. The lowest pay scales, but the easiest jobs to get for new entrants to the field, are found in community orchestras.

Metropolitan symphony orchestras, Broadway pit orchestras and some television bands or orchestra enjoy master wage agreements that can guarantee up to 52 weeks of work per season. But most music directors and composers must be prepared for extended gaps in employment. Many do this by working part time in unrelated jobs, even when they are engaged in their chosen field. Because most of their income is derived from part time work, music directors and composers rarely qualify for unemployment compensation, health benefits, sick leave or paid vacations. Many music directors and some composers will maintain membership in a local of the American Federation of Musicians. Those who work in the broadcast industries might belong to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.


In May 2009, the 14,330 music directors and composers who had salaried positions were earning a median annual wage of $45,090. Half of them earned between $32,210 and $61,630. 10 percent made less than $21,480, while the top ten percent earned $85,020 or more. The bulk of these salaried jobs were as certified music teachers in public schools at the primary and secondary level: the average annual wage was $50,330. The highest earners were independent artists, the mean annual wage for this select group of 340 individuals was $93, 810. Nevada is the best paying state in which to look for work as a music director and / or composer: the 40 people who have full-time employment there earn a mean annual wage of $99,210. New York has the most jobs available (2,350 of them), but the mean annual wage there is $59,970. Portland, Medford and Corvallis, Oregon all have high concentrations of music directors and composers, but the top wages are found by the 30 music directors who work in Las Vegas: they earn $108,700 on average. The LA basin has most job opportunities of any metropolitan area: 440, paying an average annual salary of $84,010.

Related Occupations

Musical instrument repair and tuning (mainly piano tuning) requires a technical knowledge of musical instruments, their components and assembly. Other performing arts workers include:

  • Actors
  • Producers 
  • Directors
  • Announcers
  • Choreographers and dancers.

Sources Of Additional Information

General information about education for musicians, composers and music directors as well as publicly certified teachers of music, along with list of accredited college-level programs, is available from the National Association of Schools of Music, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 20190.