The Music Major

As a music major, you will take courses in three areas: Materials and Techniques (M&T), History and Culture (H&C), and Performance and Lessons (P&L).

  • H&C courses situate musical practices or repertoires in their historical and cultural contexts. This involves studying how music frames, constructs, and reflects personal, social, political, and philosophical dynamics, and how musical values vary according to time and place.
  • M&T courses are primarily concerned with how music works, involving both the sonic and conceptual elements that compose it and the techniques with which they can be combined and manipulated. Some of these courses focus on creative methods while others teach analytical skills.
  • P&L courses focus on the expressive and auditory skills required to perform music at a high level. Such courses typically emphasize students’ musical growth, involving the broadening of horizons as well as the acquisition of advanced techniques.

As your studies progress, you can develop specializations by pursuing sequences of courses that investigate topics in greater depth. Our numerous ensembles (see “Performance” tab) provide practical experience and training in collaborative music making, and our lessons program (“Performance” tab) offers individual instruction at the highest level. Advanced students may apply to undertake an Honors Project during their final year. There are also opportunities to get involved in arts outreach and organization in both local and international contexts.

Our major curriculum is designed to ensure students come away from their music studies at Cornell with the ability to apply practical and theoretical knowledge within and across musical traditions; the capacity to listen critically, openly, and deeply to support analysis, study, and collaboration; and the ability to think critically and communicate creatively across social, cultural, and artistic differences.

Prerequisites and procedures to become a music major:

  • Complete three Music courses that amount to a total of at least 5 credits with a B-minus average across the three courses
  • Contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies to register your intention to become a Music major
  • Identify and meet with a faculty Music major advisor
  • Fill out the application form
  • Music 1100 may be counted as one of the three qualifying courses to submit an application to the major, but cannot be counted thereafter as credits toward graduation nor in any other category.

Music Major Requirements

Required Courses for all Music Majors:

  • Music 1101 Elements of Music (M&T): explores a wide range of musics to reveal the complexity within seemingly universal musical elements: pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, and form
  • Music 1105 Building Musical Skills (M&T): introduces practical listening and making skills, and explores analytical concepts and terminology that are applicable both across and within musical traditions
  • Music 2201 Introduction to Music Studies (H&C): introduces students to the critical study of music as an expression of history and culture, and explores different styles of writing about music, including journalistic, academic, and creative

Performance Requirements:

  • Two semesters of performance courses or experiences (one must involve collaborative music making; the other may be private lessons, or other approved music-related performance experiences such as dance, DJing, or participation in a student ensemble approved for this purpose by your major advisor and a member of the performance faculty).

Elective Requirements:

In consultation with their faculty advisor, students will create a program from the Department’s elective courses that is tailored to their interests and development. Students will be strongly encouraged to explore at least two musical traditions through their coursework.

  • A minimum of six courses must chosen in consultation with your music major faculty advisor
  • Three electives must be at the 2000 level or higher
  • Two electives must be at the 3000 level or higher (any combination of H&C or M&T)
  • One can be at any level (Music 1100 may be counted as one of the three qualifying courses to submit an application to the major, but cannot be counted thereafter as credits toward graduation nor in any other category.)
  • At least one elective must be a Materials and Techniques (M&T) course
  • At least one elective must be a History and Culture (H&C) course
  • One (1) performance course in each category (collaborative or individual), taken for a grade, may be counted as an elective toward the graduation requirements.  The same course may not be counted twice (i.e., a student may apply one course in voice lessons and one course in Glee Club, but not more than once each.)

Students who intend to apply for Honors (and anyone else interested in pursuing advanced undergraduate studies within the Department) are strongly encouraged to take Music 3212 (Seminar in Music Research) during their Junior year. This course counts as a 3000-level H&C elective.

All courses must be completed with a grade of C- or better. If a course is offered S/U, a grade of S is acceptable.

Music Courses:

Visit this page to view music course listings.

What You Can Study as a Music Major

The learning objectives for music majors are generalizable skills and approaches to the study and practice of music: analytical rigor, creative and critical thinking, and historical and cultural sensitivity. Students can achieve these learning objectives through many paths. It is crucial that music majors work closely with their faculty advisors to design a program of study that meets their individual needs while equipping them with the credentials for professional success. Visit our Courses page to learn more about course offerings. You can also see some example course plans that relate to the musical areas below.

Popular Music Studies:

Do you love 1960s garage rock or collect the recordings of Celia Cruz? Are you producing SoundCloud rap or uploading your own YouTube album reviews? With particular strengths in rock, punk, hip hop, synthpop, and other popular musics, you can easily chart a path for popular music studies in the music major that enables you to explore your musical passions in depth and to discover new ones. Through our diverse course offerings, you can learn about the racial politics of rock and roll, the global impact of hip hop, and the craft of music journalism.

Western Art Music:

Can’t get enough of Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms? Is Poulenc your ringtone, or was that Takemitsu or Ginastera? Always on the hunt for unknown composers, old and new? The Department of Music teaches the whole gamut of art music history, from medieval chant to the latest compositional innovations. Deepen your understanding of repertoire, history, and music’s entanglement in the social, economic, political, and racial history of the West within a global context.

Performance and Improvisation:

Do you sing or play an instrument? Are you a rapper or beatmaker? Are you gaga for gamelan, or is improvisation more your thing? The Department of Music offers a wide range of performance opportunities reflecting the diversity of our faculty and student population. As a music major, you can take your solo performance to the next level in our lessons program with our faculty performers; find rewarding ensemble experiences in our Wind Symphony, Jazz bands and combos, Symphony and Chamber Orchestras, and an array of choral groups, including the Chorus and Glee Club; and expand your musical skills in the Hip-Hop Collective, Javanese Gamelan, Steel Band, and Music Improv Ensemble.

Music as a Personal, Social, and Political Practice:

Do you wonder why music is important to you and your friends? Have you noticed how music contributes to cultural identity, creates local community, and expresses rebellion and protest? As a music major, you can explore music in daily life through the frameworks of ethnography, psychology, cognition, queer theory, historiography, religion, and mass media, and learn to talk and write about it in a wide variety of ways (as a journalist, an activist, a scholar, or an advocate). Cornell's Department of Music teaches you how to engage with and navigate musical practices online, in the archives, and among living communities.     

Composition, Songwriting, and Production:

Have you ever wondered what your own original contribution to music might sound like? Have you ever dreamed of writing an opera? Do you create electronic beats or pop songs in your spare time? Do you like to construct unusual instruments or sculptures that make noise? Cornell’s Department of Music offers courses that provide writing skills for instrumental and vocal forces, hands-on classes in sound experimentation in composition, sound art, performance, and improvisation. All of these courses take place in an environment that encourages the development of your particular musical language in the classroom and through performance ensembles and workshops.

Sound and Media Studies:

What is music made of, and how does it work its way into your body and mind? How can sonic waves be shaped into recognizably musical forms to be stored, transmitted, and received over great spatial and temporal distances? Music propagates via media ranging from stone and paper to radio frequencies and flash memory. From medieval cosmology to digital games, these courses consider how sound has been imagined and materialized within technological, cultural, and ecological contexts.

Honors Projects

Completing the music major with Honors offers outstanding music students the opportunity for advanced, independent research that results in a substantial scholarly thesis, an extended music-making project, or a combination of both. For many students, the sustained, original work undertaken for Honors over the course of their senior year is the most challenging and rewarding study they pursue as undergraduates at Cornell. Successfully completing honors provides students with an extended piece of critical writing or creative portfolio that can be of great value to applications to graduate programs while forming a substantial achievement in its own right.

Learn more about the Honors process.

Apply to the Music Major

Request to become a Music Major form

There are two deadlines per year by which students must submit their applications for consideration into the major for the subsequent semester. 

  • For consideration into the major for any fall semester, students must submit their application by August 15 preceding that term.
  • For consideration into the major for any spring semester, students must submit their application by December 1 preceding that term.