The Usefulness of German for Music Majors

By Jeremy Zima
WLC Class of 2007
M.M. Western Illinois University, 2009
Ph.D. University of Wisconsin, ABD

When music majors at Wisconsin Lutheran College are looking to meet their foreign language requirement, they should be advised to meet those requirements with German language courses. While Spanish or Mandarin could be more practical for students majoring in Business, Communication, or Education, German is far and away the most useful foreign language for music students, especially if the student intends to pursue a graduate degree in music. 

Familiarity with German is important for several reasons, the first of which is that nearly every graduate music program in the United States requires proficiency in German as either a prerequisite for admission or as a requirement for graduation. In fact, most elite programs insist on a certain level of proficiency in two languages, one of which is always German. A quick survey of the graduate admissions requirements for the Eastman School of Music and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University (two of the largest and most competitive programs in the country) revealed that some level of German competency is a prerequisite for admission to M.M. and M.A. programs in voice, piano pedagogy, orchestral and choral conducting, music history, and music theory. Students who are deficient in their German are often admitted on a probationary basis until the deficiency is met either through remedial coursework or a language competency exam. Taking German at the undergraduate level usually allows the student to test out of their graduate language requirements, which allows them to focus on their primary area of study. 

Besides preparation for graduate school, there are other important reasons for the music major to study German. For singers and choral conductors, a proper understanding of German diction and poetic forms is essential for the correct performance of lieder, opera, and choral works.  The singer's ability to understand the sung text can aid in the interpretation of works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner. Orchestral literature is dominated by German music, and scores are littered with instructions in German. Many critical editions of early music scores are edited by German speaking scholars, as are the thematic catalogues of most major composers. The field of musicology was invented by German scholars during the nineteenth century, and a large portion of work in the field is still conducted in German. For the historian, the ability to read German is fundamental to his ability to conduct research; some of the world’s largest and best archives reside in Austria and Germany.  Furthermore, there are dozens of scholarships and fellowships available to performers, historians, and theorists through the German government, nearly all of which require a preliminary language evaluation. 

Of course, not all music majors will pursue graduate work or need German to advance their careers.  However, music students should be advised that German language courses are the most practical way to meet their foreign language requirements at WLC, given the ubiquity of the language in the discipline. Establishing a firm footing in German while at WLC will aid students in graduate school applications and auditions, and will improve their interpretive skills. Conscious coordination between the German and Music departments on this matter will not only create better music majors at WLC, but will also equip them more thoroughly for their professional lives.