It’s holiday season, your relatives are over for dinner, and you’re dreading what you know is going to happen next: your relatives are going to ask you what your college plans are. How are your grades? What schools are you applying to and what are you planning to study? Much to your relatives’ delight, you tell them your grades are great. But then you tell them that you’re still deciding between applying to academic schools or music conservatories. Your relatives’ smiles fade as soon as they hear that you’re considering attending a music conservatory, and they turn to look at your parents, who raise an “I told you so” eyebrow at you.

While not all relatives are like this, some definitely can be. You’ve had a countless number of talks with your parents about this—you’re undeniably a talented musician, capable of being accepted into the most competitive conservatories; at the same time, you also hold your own with academics. You have great gradeshigh test scores, a standout music supplement, and writing skills capable of producing spectacular college application essays, making you a competitive candidate for even the most selective of schools. You say you love to make music. Your parents say you need to make a living.

Seeking to avoid controversy, you quickly backtrack and say you plan to apply for a dual-degree music program—and it works. Everyone at the table sees it as a compromise between what you love to do and what they see as practical for making a living, and they’re happy that you’ll be getting the best of both worlds. You hadn’t thought about applying to dual-degree programs before, but now, after hearing yourself state the possibility out loud and seeing how it made your family happy, it feels like the perfect option for you. But is it really the perfect option, let alone a good option?

The answer is complicated, and it really depends.

The first thing to realize is that being in a dual-degree music program is nothing like double majoring. When you double major, upon graduating, you get one degree, either a B.A. or B.S.; when you graduate from a dual-degree music program, you get two degrees—a B.M. in addition to a B.A. or B.S. In a dual-degree program, because you would be getting a degree in music, there are substantially more requirements to be fulfilled than if you double majored in an academic area along with music. As a result, most dual-degree programs require five years to complete, which is something to consider if graduating in four years is important to you, or if you have monetary concerns regarding tuition.

In addition, being accepted into a dual-degree program is also significantly harder than getting accepted into either one of the two schools participating in the dual-degree program. Here’s why—say you’re applying to the Columbia/Juilliard dual-degree program. In order to get in, you have to be accepted into both Columbia and Juilliard as if you were a regular applicant to both schools separately, and then, in addition, get accepted into the dual-degree program. In other words, you would need three acceptance letters: one from Columbia, one from Juilliard, and one from the joint program. It is entirely possible, and not uncommon, to get accepted into both schools separately but not the dual-degree program. The point is: it’s no simple task to get accepted into a dual-degree program in the first place.

The next thing to think about is if you’re truly the type of person suited for a dual-degree program. The number of people who are fits for dual-degree music programs is extremely small—it’s part of the reason why programs like the Harvard/NEC joint program only accept around five students a year. If you’re leaning one way or the other—either towards the academic side or the music side—it may be wiser to go with whichever side you feel more passionate about. Only if you truly have equal interests in both music and academics would dual-degree programs likely be a good fit. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The two schools participating in a dual-degree program will not necessarily coordinate with each other, and since you’ll already have a very full course load (you’re trying to earn two degrees at once), it’s very possible that you may have difficulty making it to all of your classes. For instance, for the Peabody and Johns Hopkins dual-degree program, a common warning for dual-degree applicants is that at times, you’ll have to choose between going to a music class or an academic class—your chemistry lab may be scheduled at the same time as your music theory class each week. Thus, unless you’re equally committed to both academics and music, it may be wiser to choose one over the other now.
  • If you’re leaning towards academics and the reason you’re considering dual-degree programs is because you don’t want to give up music, there are many undergraduate programs with strong music departments—you can still major in music and take private lessons. In addition, if you go to school in a big city, you also have the option of studying privately with a teacher (you could potentially even study with a teacher from a music conservatory!).
  • If you’re leaning towards music, but are worried about career options later on, keep in mind that a getting a B.M. from a conservatory does not, in any way, prevent you from getting a non-music related job or from being able to apply to non-music related graduate schools. It’s entirely possible for someone with a B.M. to attend business school, get an MBA, and go on to have a career in business.
  • When determining whether or not to accept you into a dual-degree program, the two schools involved will also evaluate your strengths in academics and music. If they feel that you are weaker in one field, they typically see that as a danger, since they feel that the weaker subject would require more of your time, taking away from how much time you could put into the other field. Thus, it may affect your admissions chances. As a result, if you’re deficient in either music or academics, it may be another sign that dual-degree programs might not be for you.

If you’re the rare applicant that truly feels equally passionate about your interests in music and academics, then perhaps applying for a dual-degree program is for you. Just make sure to do thorough research about what dual-degree programs are and what they’ll take out of you. All too often, the decision to apply to dual-degree programs is made without thought, as students that are talented in both music and academics assume that this kind of program is tailor-made for them. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. However, if you do your research, think long and hard, and come to the conclusion that dual-degree programs are indeed for you, then by all means—apply. You may have just found the perfect program for yourself.


Andrew Liu

Andrew Liu

Andrew is a Mathematical Data Science and Economics double major at Dartmouth College. In his spare time, if he’s not in the kitchen perfecting French macarons or butter-poaching halibut, he can likely be found near a piano, practicing the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Ravel. He enjoys spending time with his cat.
Andrew Liu