Why study music?

A masterclass in tabla technique in the Indian Music Ensemble


Music is universal.


It is a significant element in every culture.  But it’s not all the same.  There are lots of musics in the world.  And understanding each other means exploring each other’s cultures.  Sharing music–like sharing food–is hospitality.  Making music together connects us in ways nothing else can.

If you are reading this, music matters to you. 


But why study it in college?

Professor Doug Gately with four members of the UMW Jazz Combo on the steps of the Virginia State House
Prof. Doug Gately and the UMW Jazz Combo at the Virginia State House in October 2019

There are a lot of different ways to study music:  performance, composition, theory, history, education, technology, ethnomusicology.  Music majors try all of these.  But you don’t have to major or minor to study it at UMW.  You can concentrate on whatever interests you most.  For example:

  • Hone your singing or instrumental skills in private lessons and ensemble rehearsals with outstanding faculty
  • Perform for the university community–or on tour regionally or internationally
  • Learn audio recording and production techniques
  • Train your brain in music theory courses to perceive what your ears hear and to imagine what might be possible
  • Compose your own music:  a UMW student won a national composition prize recently
  • Learn the sitar or mridangam, in the Indian Music Ensemble, or jazz improvisation, or bagpipes and drums for the Eagle Pipe Band
  • Consider the historical narratives that continue to shape our perceptions of the music we love (or love to hate)
UMW Choirs in the Bernstein Centenary Concert, November 2018
The audience in Dodd Auditorium awaiting a concert of the UMW Philharmonic Orchestra

There has been a lot of research into the benefits of music study for children–language acquisition, fine motor skills, developing self-discipline and cooperative skills, improved concentration–all skills that is helpful to have in college, regardless of your major.  Students who study music tend to do better taking tests in any discipline–maybe because they become accustomed to performing under pressure?  We notice, too, that the student leaders on campus tend to be involved in the music programs here.  They make time for it because it is worth their time.

Image: AlwaysAvery Photography

“As the only Biochemistry major in my diatonic music theory class, I at first felt that I was the ‘outsider’ in the group. I spoke the languages of Chemical Anisotropy and Enzymatic Entropy while my peers spoke of Overtones and Harmonic Minors. Regardless of our different backgrounds, it was the beauty of music that quickly united us. Music isn’t limited to just concert halls and staff paper. It holds a special place in our memories, experiences, and society as a whole. I think that music is worth studying at Mary Washington because–regardless of your course of study–knowing more about it can be an integral tool of communication that can be used to overcome the dissonant divisions present in our society today.”

Matt Tovar 

(UMW ’19; GWU School of Medicine)

When COVID-19 forced us off campus suddenly in the middle of the Spring 2020 term, the Music Department continued without interruption:

  • teaching studio lessons over Skype (as with Prof. Bruce Middle at left)
  • a Zoom conducting course (with Dr. Chris Ryder, above)
  • converting student presentations into web-based projects


Follow your passion in your own 

research projects.

In the last few years, a student-initiated collaboration between the Music and Physics departments has led to the creation of a laser-harp.





Other students have been involved in unearthing and performing lost music–including presenting on a work by John Phillip Sousa at conferences both in this country and in England.


UMW is a recognized leader at nurturing undergraduate research–which is a great way to shape your own college experience.

At work retrofitting the laser harp.
Elyse Ridder ('19) going over Sousa sources with Dr. Kuykendall for their new edition.

What do music majors do after #MaryWash?

One Note Stand, one of UMW’s student a capella groups

We treat each student as an individual, so our majors go on to do all sorts of things.  Given UMW’s historic strength in education, it’s not surprise that about half of our music graduates go on to teach–whether in early childhood, elementary, middle, secondary, or higher education.  Other recent students have gone on to pursue graduate study in composition, musicology, or music therapy; or have taken jobs as arts managers and promotors, studio teachers, church musicians….  Our goal is to give you a well-rounded training in the skills you need for a career in the arts, but to give you the flexibility to dive deep into where your passions are.

Let us know what your interest is.

Email:  music@umw.edu

Music office phone:  540.654.1012

Chair, UMW Music Dept.:  Brooks Kuykendall:  jkuykend@umw.edu  540.654.1958