Musical Career Paths

Music Forum has sent out search parties to find every post-secondary music award-granting institution in Australia. The resulting database is the only complete list known to us — perhaps the first published in many decades. It includes all 57 universities, TAFEs and private colleges. (It does not include university Schools of Education that offer some music courses as a part of education degrees.)

There is much more diversity among these institutions than there used to be. There are universities and conservatoriums where the programs are designed for the study of classical music; some of these also have jazz programs. Some include or are completely devoted to contemporary music genres. Some teach musical composition, and/or digital music in various forms, recording, music of other cultures, music history, music theory and analysis and more. It is in the larger university programs that there are opportunities to study orchestral, choral or opera performance.

Probably, it is fair to say that overall, the university programs are not strong in music business courses, although some include them. However, most TAFE college programs specialise in contemporary music and many include music business and marketing courses. A good number offer courses in music production and recording. TAFE colleges mainly award Certificates or Diplomas but some offer Bachelor degrees. TAFE study may completely satisfy the needs of a student but it can also be a path to admission to a university course.

Recent research included in the Knowledge Base1 reveals that virtually every member of three Australian professional orchestras has at least a Bachelor degree. A good number have gone on to postgraduate qualifications. It seems that tertiary study is an essential preparation for an orchestral career.

A parallel study of successful contemporary music performers and composers show a different picture.2 Only about 40% hold university qualifications and some of those who have had discs go gold or platinum or have won big ARIA awards have none. However, we would not recommend bypassing tertiary study as a considered strategy. Some contemporary musicians in this study have expressed regret at not undertaking or completing music studies, saying that it proved something of a handicap. We conjecture that tertiary study may be especially important in building song-writing and composing skills, an important part of a career path for those who are interested in screen composing, writing for artists other than themselves including foreign artists, and for their own performances. It can also help build a more knowledgeable approach to recording and music production and to managing and marketing their own work or the work of others.

The Database


Richard Letts, published in Music Forum Vol. 19, No. 4, Spring 2013 under the title of Choosing Your Career Path (renamed to draw attention to the major new database reproduced above). Edited text entered on Knowledge Base 21 October 2013, and references added. Table edited to fit online format and colour-coded for location (State, Territory). Deemed up-to-date 23 October 2014.


  1. Short Survey of the Members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), Survey of the Educational Background of the Musicians of the Sydney Symphony, and Survey of the Musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra↩︎
  2. Survey of Successful Contemporary Musicians↩︎

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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