There's a common question that I see come up ever so often in music production forums, and even one I've been asked myself in person many times;
Do I need to study music production in college or university to be a good producer?
There's no one answer to this question, because it's a huge topic, and it's often discussed from a point of view of if formal studies are worth it or not, particularly from a financial perspective. After all, in a lot of places, studying music at a formal level can often come with some hefty fees.
There's definitely an advantage to doing it, sure. I went down the formal music studies route myself. I began studying music at aged 11 and did formal music studies in one form or another right through until I was 21.
So that's a decade of learning from professionals, forming a base on which I've built through my own learning.
But, it's important to point out that this is by no means the only way to learn music production.
There are many other ways to do it, and each of them have their own benefits and drawbacks in comparison to each other.
So I wanted to do a bit of an exploration on how I think formal music studies benefitted me, but also how it isn’t the only route to being a proficient producer.
I think one of the most important things to do to consistently improve as a producer is to constantly review your process.
By doing this, you can stay as aware as possible of what you know, what you have left to learn, and where on your journey you are. There are pros and cons to all things, after all.
For clarity, whenever I say ‘formal musical training’ or something along those lines, I am alluding to the fact I have a Grade V in Music Theory, a Grade 7 in Guitar, two years of ungraded but formal piano tuition, Music Performance BTEC qualifications, Music Technology A Level, Music AS Level and a Music Production degree, all from recognised musical institutions here in the UK. (It sounds so braggy listing them like that but I’m sure you understand the purpose).
Self taught producers may not have some or any of those above qualifications, but are no less talented or skilled!
So let’s have a little delve into this topic.
The DIY Method
I often speak about the benefits of the internet, particularly when we are discussing how it's democratised music production and made it so much more available and accessible.
One of the best things about the internet is how it's an infinite resource for learning.
Just throw a search into YouTube of 'music production tutorial' and you get a whole host of results.
The obvious benefits of this is that there is - in most cases - no paywall.
Many YouTube channels exist as a free resource, though there are some aspects of their content that may be behind a paywall.
Many YouTubers use Patreon and offer bonus content on top of what you're already getting on their channel.
Another obvious benefit of learning by yourself is that you can tailor your learning path to exactly what you want or need to know.
You can start on the basics, as everyone should, but then you can specialise and go down a really specific path.
For example, if you're interested in producing Lo-fi music, you can find specific tutorials that can take you down that route.
Now there are specific advantages and disadvantages to working like this.
There's a famous quote from an ancient Roman statesman:
I am not ashamed to confess that I am ignorant of what I do not know.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
And what this reminds us is that, when learning by yourself, there are things you won't know you need to know.
To use a silly example, you could start learning music production yourself, and not be aware that you need to learn about Compression.
So you'd be learning everything except Compression, and then you wouldn't know why there was something odd sounding about your music.
So this could be a potential disadvantage when learning by yourself, you could develop tunnel vision and miss out on some crucial information.
Lack of structure can be a big issue when you're studying by yourself. If you don't have a specific direction or goal, it can be easy to get confused or lost.
You wouldn't want to get overwhelmed by how much information is out there, and be burdened in to quitting before you've even begun.
This isn't to say that self-study is a guaranteed path to getting lost and not achieving your goals, because many top music producers are self taught.
You'll know yourself if you're the type of person who is suited to setting your own goals and doing the research and work needed to achieve them.
Let's look at studying music in a formal setting to see how it compares.
Studying for a Formal Qualification
Many producers will have, in some form or another, gained a formal and recognised qualifitcation in music production. It's a solid way to learn music production, but it's by no means the only way.
As with all things, there are pros and cons to going down the formal education route.
Let's have a look at some of the pros, first.
The Pros of Formal Music Education
Studying music formally gives you a focused place where all of your learning takes place, in a proper setting. There are obvious benefits to this:
- You're learning an accredited course, which is structured and planned out.
- Your tutors will be industry professionals and very knowledgeable. Having access to these tutors and mentors is super valuable.
- You'll be in a community of other learners, surrounded by your peers.
- You will cover all of the essentials and basics.
- You'll likely have access to state of the art studio facilities.
- There may be various study pathways, allowing you specialise in specific areas of production, such as studio recording, mixing & mastering, DJing, or electronic production and synthesis.
But you also need to consider, when you're looking into what avenue of learning to go down, what type of learner you are.
People learn in different ways, and knowing how you best take in information is crucial in making the decision on how you want to learn music production.
In my experience, one of the biggest advantages I found from studying music formally was that I was living with, studying with and most importantly, collaborating with, a bunch of like minded people.
Everyone I lived with during my time in University was on the same course as me, studying music production. But there were also people studying music performance, songwriting, jazz music, classical music.
So my horizons were broadened, and I learned things I never would have learned if I'd gone down the self taught route.
I began my University studies as an acoustic guitar based singer songwriter, and ended them writing electronic music in a wide range of styles and also DJing on a regular basis.
The community based around my course in University was a diverse bunch of people from all over the country, and from all sorts of different musical backgrounds.
This type of networking was priceless.
As they say, it's not about what you know, as much as it is about who you know.
So, joining a formal course gives you the extremely valuable opportunity to meet other like-minded producers and musicians.
The Cons of Formal Music Studies
The list of benefits above isn't to be sniffed at, but it's not enough to just look at the positives and make a decision.
There can also be downsides to studying in a formal environment:
- The cost is a huge one. Music qualifications, especially a degree, can often come with a rather large price tag.
- It's a time investment. Studying full time is a huge investment of time, too. If you're in a position to be able to do this, then that might not be as big a consideration. But if you've got bills to pay and need to work, then you may not be able to invest as much time as is required.
- Especially if you're looking at a University, this could often be far away from your home. This could be a big concern if you're looking at moving hundreds of miles away from your home.
- It is a formal study environment. Not everyone thrives in formal settings, so this is a big point to consider, as well.
Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, the internet is an absolute powerhouse of a resource. And I won't lie, there isn't anything I learned on my Music Production degree that you can't now learn on the internet.
So this is something else to think about.
What's more is that your actual certification or qualification in Music Production won't mean very much in a lot of industry scenarios.
After all, if you make quality music, and are able to produce consistent results, who's going to care if you don't have a formal qualification?
On the other hand, if you do have a music degree, but the music you make isn't up to par and you can't produce a consistent quality, the degree becomes useless.
In the bigger picture, not choosing to do a formal study won't hurt your reputation.
The middle ground.
Luckily, the world of music production isn't an either/or scenario.
You can combine learning things by yourself, and being taught other aspects by professionals.
But this doesn't necessarily mean you need to go to a fully fledged music school to do this.
Many producers these days who run YouTube channels or Instagram accounts will offer private one-to-one tuition for a fee, or will run courses that several people can join onto.
Obviously learning one-to-one gives you a direct line to a professional, so you can pick their brains and get specific feedback.
Joining a group course gives the benefit of a group of peers to share info and feedback with, as these courses often come with closed Facebook pages or other forums and resources to allow communication between the learners.
Whatever way you choose...
Regardless of what route you go down to learn music production, there are some tips that will guarantee success, whatever you do.
1) The first is to consistently make music.
It doesn't matter if it's a good track or not, and it doesn't matter if you show it to anyone else or not.
The point of this is to keep making music. The more you make, the more you will learn.
The more you learn, the better the music you make in the future will be.
2) Seek out collaboration whenever you can.
Even if you're not learning in a formal setting, head over to Reddit and check out some of the music production forums there.
Collaboration can mean making a track together, but it can also just mean engaging with other producers to share feedback and tips.
You can find a partner to send tracks to and get and give detailed feedback.
3) Never stop learning.
I studied music in school, college and then university. My total study time was a decade, but there are still things I don't know.
Your learning journey is never finished, and you'll always be able to re-learn and refresh your knowledge.
Get it into your head quickly that you'll never know everything. There will always be something new to learn. Keep yourself hungry for more knowledge and you'll always be improving.
4) Don't give up!
You're not going to become a Grammy winning producer overnight, so don't be disheartened if you aren't happy with your music straight away.
Keep at it, and change will come.
5) Avoid unnecessary comparison with other people's music.
Often, we like to compare our music to other people's, and inevitably this leads to hearing an obvious difference in quality.
But there's a strange phenomenon at work here.
When you listen to your own finished tracks, you always hear the process. You can't detach your brain from the memory you had of making the song from scratch.
When you listen to other people's finished tracks, you hear exactly that; a finished track. You don't hear the mistakes and experimentation that went into it. You don't hear the alternate synth line in the breakdown that they ended up scrapping for a new one. You don't hear the weird parallel compression they tried on the drums before deciding it didn't work.
You just hear a finished piece of music.
This can so often lead us to believe that our music isn't as good as other people's, but that's often not what's happening.
Trust your process, and know that the person whose track sounds so finished and polished to you, is probably thinking it sounds rough in comparison to yours.
It may be a bit of a cop-out to say it, but there's no one best way to learn music production.
It's a vast arena of knowledge, and there are many avenues to get into it.
The most important thing is to know what your strengths are, and what resources are available to you.
If you're confident and consistent, you'll get good results.
Ultimately, when deciding you want to learn music production, the route you take is yours to choose. There are benefits and setbacks that come with any course of action, so the best method for one person isn’t necessarily going to be the same for someone else. Many producers benefit from being able to explore and learn their craft on their own terms and in their own time, but others thrive in a more structured educational environment. More still will benefit from a mixture of both of these options.
So, I hope this gave you some useful information and things to consider if you’re thinking about studying music and not sure what route to go down.
There are many pathways you can take to learn music production, so think on it before you make a decision, and most importantly, do lots of your own research!
As usual, thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and be sure to check out the rest of our resources on the site to help you learn production!