I want to get a grasp of the current state of things, and my question is quite simple.

If a person does not have a university degree in music, does he have any chance to get his orchestral works performed or get a world premiere anywhere? How much will his work be disregarded just because he does not have 'formal' education? How much will renowned festivals ignore him just because of that? How will this prospect change if the person holds a BA in music and how much will it change if the said person gets an MA?

The assumption is that the person who has written the score has great knowledge of music theory and composition and his score is clear and of great quality.

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    Quite similar question. The problem is not so much to find a reason for rejection but to provide ample reasons for performing.
    – guidot
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:18
  • There is a lot of negativity posited towards the OP, and I'm not sure why. I'm also not sure of the reason for the down-vote? Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:21
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    @jjmusicnotes I'm not sure why, but I can easily guess why. To me, the "question" looks very much like a rant: "I know I'm a musical genius, but I don't have any formal music education so nobody will believe me". Yeah, right... I'm no musical genius, I don't have a music degree, and I don't spend much time hustling my compositions - but I've had performances in four continents so far, and commissions for more music that followed from them.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 14:18
  • ... maybe it's because people actually like the music. But then, I hardly every bother to write anything that isn't either going to be performed (often by people who I perform with anyway) or at least is intended to be performed. If that means I don't write anything at all for two or three years on end, that doesn't bother me - I don't believe in the 19th century notion of a "Great Artistic Genius" starving in a garret, obsessed with "Creating Great Works Of Art Even When No-one Else Seems To Understand How Great They Are".
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 14:31
  • @alephzero Agreed. I interpreted that as the OP just being young. People who are younger / inexperienced sometimes have a warped view - I know that I myself did (I grew up self-taught in a very rural town; it wasn't until I moved to a Big City that I learned the right way 'round). I think maybe people are getting stuck on the bold text at the bottom of the question. I interpreted the intended the meaning to be "competent". Last, good on you for being a creator. :) Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 19:53

5 Answers 5


When I was thinking about applying for graduate school, I asked my teacher at the time, who was Ivy-league educated, "Please be honest, does it really matter where I go to school; does anybody actually care?"

My professor smiled at me and said, "I'll put it this way: no matter where people went to school or currently teach, we all see each other at the same conferences and the same festivals. Even though their school might not be well-known or fancy, they're still doing good work."

To answer your question, I'll say it this way: I've learned as much from school as I've learned working in professional settings - the difference is in one of those environments nothing really bad happens if you goof up. Just about every "success" I've experienced has not been because of my education, but because I've hustled for every opportunity - I've created them for myself.

An educational institution does make it more likely that your "orchestral" piece will be programmed - they have concerts entirely devoted to student compositions, some of which are orchestra-themed (to give them experience of writing for large ensemble). However, a specific education does not increase your likelihood of being rejected.

As others have alluded to, it comes down to product, not just the music, but you yourself. Here are three things that actually matter:

1.) The score must look good. It's gotta be perfect, publishing-house or better quality. I judge scores for competition and also do engraving work, and any issues in the visual score reveal glaring problems in a composer's skill-set.

2.) The music must be good. Don't waste your time wondering what other people want you to write. If you're grooving on it, then the rest is out of your hands - your job at that point is to shop that piece around until it resonates with somebody. It'll eventually happen, you just gotta play the odds. That said, irrespective of content, the piece must be well-crafted. People can see a well-crafted piece of music even if it's not stylistically in their wheelhouse. (Also, as an aside, unless a group/organization has a specific concert theme, almost no-one cares about artistic style.)

3.) You have to be active. When you apply for festivals, commissions, competitions, residencies, workshops, etc, people (like me) want to see that you're really active in the music community. So if you've got regular performances, some commissions lined up, maybe some teaching or outreach, cool collaborations, active professional development (workshops / festivals), then you'll be more likely to be programmed. If you've never had a performance and you're looking to make your world-debut with an orchestral piece, good luck.

Bonus:) Just for you. You have to hustle, and you can't stop. Me personally, I get rejected by about 100 things a year, at least. I apply to so many things I don't remember what they are. (In fact, earlier this year I got an email saying that I was a finalist for a major award, but I needed to sign and return a confirmation of the score I submitted. I had no idea I applied for the award or even what piece I submitted. That's an instance where not keeping track can hurt you, or at least it did me.) Once during a phone call with a famous composer, I was shocked to find out that he knew who I was. He said, "oh yeah, I judge on a lot of things and I see you come up all the time." I hadn't ever won anything he judged, but he knew who I was because he saw I applied for (and still do) just about everything that comes up.

The point of this isn't about bragging - I don't need the ego-boost (I'm puffed enough as it is.) The point here is that nowhere in any of those stories or experiences did school or education play a determining factor. It was work, product, tenacity, and professionalism that has been and continues to be the glue of how I engage with the music community.

So, do the work, do your best work, and don't stop doing it.

Hope this helps.


Take a look at Piazzolla. I think the premiere of his first orchestral composition including bandonion in Buenos Aires ended in riots and brawls. He did win a stipend for composition school in Paris in that contest, however, and the most seminal thing he learnt from his teacher there was to stop trying to compose classical music. He did take classes in counterpoint at her advice and ended up creating his own avantgarde style of music, Tango Nuevo.

In spite of him taking lessons over decades with various instrumentalists and teachers, I don't think he ever earned any degree (and nobody likely would have cared) but still would not have been the same without his formal education.

But whether he got to perform orchstral compositions somewhere or not did not really hinge on any degree or not.

The world hasn't changed all that much since then. To make it with orchestral compositions, you have to offer something that hasn't already been covered well or better by the old masters. Without actually studying anything closely, the centuries of music they drew from make for a rather high bar to clear.


An academic qualification may initially open a few doors. But it soon comes all about the actual product!

But I detect a subtext in the question. Yes, your music WILL be rejected if the score isn't clear, readable and playable. This isn't like elementary school where the teacher says 'Yes, dear, very creative!' and ignores the poor spelling, untidy handwriting and lack of structure. You need the skills of your trade. If you didn't acquire those skills on a degree course, make sure you acquired them somewhere else!

  • Really -- does anyone these days expect to distribute a hand-written manuscript? Every new piece I've seen (and this is at small-town level) is typeset via Sebelius or LilyPond or equivalent. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 11:59
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    @CarlWitthoft A score can be typeset by computer and still be horribly illegible - I can point to dozens of scores I've seen (written by professionals) that look sad. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:19
  • Indeed. In fact computers have enabled MUCH greater notational sins that would ever have been handwritten. Like when a novice believes the claims made for Flexitime input to Sibelius...
    – Laurence
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:38
  • @CarlWitthoft computers allow people to produce scores (1) quicker, and (2) with less thought. Neither of those two things improves legibility. If you don't know how to lay out a legible score by hand, using a computer won't help you much. "Knowing how to lay out a legible score" has little to do with "having neat handwriting." You don't need a college education - just spend time looking at well-laid out scores. There are thousands of them (created by professional engravers who spent years learning their craft) on IMSLP - and thousands of bad ones, for comparison, on the rest of the web.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 14:09

To be blunt: if your music doesn't get play, there are only two reasons. One, it sucks. Two, you are not a good salesman. Even in the 'shooting star' timeline of rock/pop groups, very few headliners were just plain "discovered." Lady Gaga, for example, played small theatre and college venues 3 or 4 times a week for a couple years before building enough following to break out. The same goes for your compositions: you'll have to build a following or a network of conductors or music directors who will at least look at your scores.

  • This answer doesn't accurately address the question. The question is not: "Why is my music not getting played?", the question is, "Does having a formal education increase my chances of getting played? / Does not having a formal education increase my chances of not getting played?" Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:55
  • @jjmusicnotes I respectfully disagree. My answer covers the true question; further I'm implying rather clearly that a diploma is a much less important cofactor than other issues. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 13:09
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    You are taking the liberty to decide that the posted question and the "true question" are different. If that is truly what you believe, the first step is proposing an edit of the question.
    – Lee White
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 13:44

If a university education would not be able to add any refinement to your skills in composition and orchestration, chances are that your orchestral compositions will be disregarded regardless of whether or not you formally hold a degree.

  • Please read the post carefully. You have almost responded to a reversal of my inquiry.
    – Wone
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 11:44
  • @Wone no, he's accurately responded. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 11:54
  • Let me put it in simpler terms. I'm not speaking of 'skills'. Imagine two people with the same copy of a particular composition, one holds absolutely no university degrees in music, the other does (BA, MA, whatever). Does the person with no degree have a higher chance of being disregarded to get premiers just because he does not hold a degree? Will he have more difficulty to be even 'considered' by festivals, etc.?
    – Wone
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:16
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    This doesn't answer the question at all, and is borderline rude to the OP. There's no need to be quite so dismissive. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:29
  • Agreed with Bob, this answer doesn't adequately or accurately address the question. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:54

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