Music Careers: Musicians, Singers, and Related Workers

Music Careers: Musicians, Singers, and Related Workers

Republished with Permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics
From the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001 Edition
October 15, 2002

Significant Points

  • Part-time schedules and intermittent unemployment are common; many musicians supplement their income with earnings from other sources.
  • Aspiring musicians begin studying an instrument or training their voices at an early age.
  • Competition for jobs is keen; those who can play several instruments and types of music should enjoy the best job prospects.

Nature of the Work

Musicians, singers, and related workers play musical instruments, sing, compose, arrange, or conduct groups in instrumental or vocal performances. They may perform solo or as part of a group. Musicians, singers, and related workers entertain live audiences in nightclubs, concert halls, and theaters featuring opera, musical theater, or dance. Although most of these entertainers play for live audiences, some perform exclusively for recording or production studios. Regardless of the setting, musicians, singers, and related workers spend considerable time practicing, alone and with their band, orchestra, or other musical ensemble.

Musicians often gain their reputation or professional standing in a particular kind of music or performance. However, those who learn several related instruments, such as the flute and clarinet, and can perform equally well in a several musical styles, have better employment opportunities. Instrumental musicians, for example, may play in a symphony orchestra, rock group, or jazz combo one night, appear in another ensemble the next, and in a studio band the following day. Some play a variety of string, brass, woodwind, or percussion instruments or electronic synthesizers.

Singers interpret music using their knowledge of voice production, melody, and harmony. They sing character parts or perform in their own individual style. Singers are often classified according to their voice range—soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone, or bass—or by the type of music they sing, such as opera, rock, popular, folk, rap, or country and western.

Music directors conduct, direct, plan, and lead instrumental or vocal performances by musical groups, such as orchestras, choirs, and glee clubs. Conductors lead instrumental music groups, such as symphony orchestras, dance bands, show bands, and various popular ensembles. These leaders audition and select musicians, choose the music most appropriate for their talents and abilities, and direct rehearsals and performances. Choral directors lead choirs and glee clubs, sometimes working with a band or orchestra conductor. Directors audition and select singers and lead them at rehearsals and performances to achieve harmony, rhythm, tempo, shading, and other desired musical effects.

Composers create original music such as symphonies, operas, sonatas, radio and television jingles, film scores, or popular songs. They transcribe ideas into musical notation using harmony, rhythm, melody, and tonal structure. Although most composers and songwriters practice their craft on instruments and transcribe the notes with pen and paper, some use computer software to compose and edit their music.

Arrangers transcribe and adapt musical composition to a particular style for orchestras, bands, choral groups, or individuals. Components of music—including tempo, volume, and the mix of instruments needed—are arranged to express the composer's message. While some arrangers write directly into a musical composition, others use computer software to make changes.

Working Conditions

Musicians typically perform at night and on weekends. They spend much of their remaining time practicing or in rehearsal. Full-time musicians with long-term employment contracts, such as those with symphony orchestras and television and film production companies, enjoy steady work and less travel. Nightclub, solo, or recital musicians frequently travel to perform in a variety of local settings and may tour nationally or internationally. Because many musicians find only part-time or intermittent work, experiencing unemployment between engagements, they often supplement their income with other types of jobs. The stress of constantly looking for work leads many musicians to accept permanent, full-time jobs in other occupations, while working only part time as musicians. Most instrumental musicians work closely with a variety of other people, including their colleagues, agents, employers, sponsors, and audiences. Although they usually work indoors, some perform outdoors for parades, concerts, and dances. In some nightclubs and restaurants, smoke and odors may be present, and lighting and ventilation may be inadequate.


Musicians, singers, and related workers held about 240,000 jobs in 2000. More than 40 percent worked part time, and more than 40 percent were self-employed. Many jobs were found in cities in which entertainment and recording activities are concentrated, such as New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville.

Musicians, singers, and related workers are employed in a variety of settings. More than half of those who earn a wage or salary are employed by religious organizations. Classical musicians may perform with professional orchestras or in small chamber music groups like trios or quartets. Musicians may work in opera, musical theater, and ballet productions. They also perform in nightclubs and restaurants, and for weddings and other events. Well-known musicians and groups may perform in concert, appear on radio and television broadcasts, and make recordings and music videos. The Armed Forces also offer careers in their bands and smaller musical groups.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Aspiring musicians begin studying an instrument at an early age. They may gain valuable experience playing in a school or community band or orchestra or with a group of friends. Singers usually start training when their voices mature. Participation in school musicals or choirs often provides good early training and experience.

Musicians need extensive and prolonged training to acquire the necessary skills, knowledge, and ability to interpret music. Like other artists, musicians and singers continually strive to stretch themselves, musically, and explore different music forms. Formal training may be obtained through private study with an accomplished musician, in a college or university music program, or in a music conservatory. For university or conservatory study, an audition generally is necessary. Courses typically include musical theory, music interpretation, composition, conducting, and performance in their particular instrument or voice. Music directors, composers, conductors, and arrangers need considerable related work experience or advanced training in these subjects.

Many colleges, universities, and music conservatories grant bachelor's or higher degrees in music. A master's or doctoral degree is usually required to teach advanced music courses in colleges and universities; a bachelor's degree may be sufficient to teach basic courses. A degree in music education qualifies graduates for a State certificate to teach music in public elementary or secondary schools. Musicians who do not meet public school music education requirements may teach in private schools and recreation associations, or instruct individual students in private sessions.

Musicians must be knowledgeable about the broad range of music styles, but keenly aware of the form that interests them most. This broader range of interest, knowledge, and training can help expand employment opportunities and musical abilities. Voice training and private instrumental lessons, especially when young, also help develop technique and enhance performance.

Young persons considering careers in music should have musical talent, versatility, creativity, poise, and a good stage presence. Because quality performance requires constant study and practice, self-discipline is vital. Moreover, musicians who play concert and nightclub engagements and who tour must have physical stamina to endure frequent travel and an irregular performance schedule. Musicians and singers always must make their performances look effortless; therefore, preparations and practice are important. They also must be prepared to face the anxiety of intermittent employment and rejections when auditioning for work.

Advancement for musicians usually means becoming better known and performing for higher earnings. Successful musicians often rely on agents or managers to find them performing engagements, negotiate contracts, and develop their careers.

Job Outlook

Competition for musician, singer, and related worker jobs is expected to be keen. The vast number of persons with the desire to perform will exceed the number of openings. Talent alone is no guarantee of success. Many people start out to become musicians or singers, but leave the profession because they find the work difficult, the discipline demanding, and the long periods of intermittent unemployment unendurable. Overall employment of musicians, singers, and related workers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010. Most new wage and salary jobs for musicians will arise in religious organizations, where the majority of these workers are employed. Average growth also is expected for self-employed musicians, who generally perform in nightclubs, concert tours, and other venues. Although growth in demand for musicians will generate a number of job opportunities, many openings also will arise from the need to replace those who leave the field each year because they are unable to make a living solely as musicians or for other reasons.


Median annual earnings of salaried musicians and singers were $36,740 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,590 and $59,330. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,250, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $88,640. Median annual earnings were $41,520 in the producers, orchestras, and entertainers industry and $16,570 in religious organizations.

Median annual earnings of salaried music directors and composers were $31,510 in 2000. The middle 50 percent earned between $21,080 and $45,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,530, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $66,140.

Earnings often depend on the number of hours and weeks worked, a performer's professional reputation, and setting. The most successful musicians earn performance or recording fees that far exceed the median earnings indicated above.

According to the American Federation of Musicians, minimum salaries in major orchestras ranged from $24,720 to $100,196 per year during the 2000-01 performing season. Each orchestra works out a separate contract with its local union. Top orchestras have a season ranging from 24 to 52 weeks, with 18 orchestras reporting 52-week contracts. In regional orchestras, minimum salaries are often less because fewer performances are scheduled. Community orchestras often have more limited levels of funding and offer salaries that are much lower for seasons of shorter duration. Regional orchestra musicians often are paid per service without guarantees.

Although musicians employed by some symphony orchestras work under master wage agreements, which guarantee a season's work up to 52 weeks, many other musicians face relatively long periods of unemployment between jobs. Even when employed, many musicians and singers work part time in unrelated occupations. Thus, their earnings usually are lower than earnings in many other occupations. Moreover, because they may not work steadily for one employer, some performers cannot qualify for unemployment compensation, and few have typical benefits such as sick leave or paid vacations. For these reasons, many musicians give private lessons or take jobs unrelated to music to supplement their earnings as performers.

Many musicians belong to a local of the American Federation of Musicians. Professional singers usually belong to a branch of the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Related Occupations

Musical instrument repairers and tuners (part of precision instrument and equipment repairers) require technical knowledge of musical instruments. Others whose work involves music include actors, producers, and directors; announcers; broadcast and sound engineering technicians and radio operators; and dancers and choreographers.

Sources of Additional Information

Disclaimer: Links to non-BLS Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For general information about music and music teacher education and a list of accredited college-level programs, contact:
National Association of Schools of Music, 11250 Roger Bacon Dr., Suite 21, Reston, VA 22091.

Editor's Note: This article was republished with permission from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hundreds of other occupations are reviewed in similar fashion in its Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2000-2001 Edition.

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