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). As your studies progress, you can develop specializations by pursuing sequences of courses that investigate topics in greater depth. Our many ensembles provide practical experience and training in collaborative music making, and our lessons program offers instruction at the highest level. There are also opportunities to get involved in arts outreach and organization in both local and international contexts. 

The major balances specialization in the areas of music creation, performance, and study with the acquisition of the following broadly applicable skills:

  • the creative application of practical and theoretical knowledge within and across musical traditions
  • the capacity to listen critically, openly, and deeply to support analysis, study, and collaboration
  • the ability to think critically and communicate creatively across social, cultural, and artistic differences

The flexibility of the Music major allows for deep exploration of the Department’s course offerings while ensuring students gain exposure to different methodological approaches to the study of music through a mixture of H&C, M&T, and P&L requirements. Advanced students may apply to undertake an Honors Project during their final year.

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 also 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 individual expression and listening 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.

Music Major Requirements

Required Courses for all Music Majors:

  • Music 1101 (M&T): Elements of Music (explores a wide range of musics to reveal the surprising complexity within seemingly universal musical elements: pitch, melody, harmony, rhythm, and form)
  • Music 1105 (M&T): Building Musical Skills (introduces practical listening and making skills, and explores analytical concepts and terminology that are applicable both across and within specific musical traditions)
  • Music 2201 (H&C): Introduction to Music Studies (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 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
  • One can be at any level
  • Additional electives beyond the minimum can be at any level
  • 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

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.

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

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 subtopics 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, hip hop, and Latin American/Latino popular musics, you can easily chart a path for popular music studies in the music major, to explore your musical passions in depth or to discover new ones. Through our diverse course offerings, you can learn about the racial politics of rock and roll, the historical antecedents for Mexican rancheras, the global impact of rap, 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? Cornell’s Department of Music teaches the whole gamut of art music history, from medieval chant to today’s composition. Focus on 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; 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, or 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 or 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:

As a lifelong listener, have you ever wondered about your own original contribution to music? 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, and 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 that can 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 biological 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