Harmony or Discord? Common Challenges in Evaluating International Music Education

Treb clef on staff lines with diplomas and graduation caps and question marks instead of notes

In the field of applied comparative education, credentials offered by conservatories of music can present unique challenges to credential evaluators. Basic steps in the evaluation process, such as determining academic recognition, educational level, or degree equivalence can be tricky when evaluating music education. Institutions and programs offering music education don’t always fit in neatly with a country’s educational system. Music credentials often must be researched on a case-by-case basis; however, there are some common issues that arise. Let’s review some of those issues and hopefully provide you with some tools for evaluating music credentials in the future.  

Determining Recognition

One of the first things you want to determine is whether a music institution or program has official academic recognition in the country of operation. If you are unsure of the recognition, a good first place to look may be a national database or list of recognized institutions or programs in that country. Sometimes the name of an institution offering music education can be misleading. For example, China’s Shanghai Conservatory of Music may not sound like a university or college; however, this institution is authorized to award university degrees by China’s Ministry of Education and is listed with other recognized universities on the Ministry website.

In some cases academic recognition cannot be determined quite so easily. If you can’t find a music institution or program on a reliable resource for academic recognition, another clue to consider is the type of diploma the student may receive upon completion of the program. If completion results in a credential that is considered a standard educational benchmark in that country, then it is likely that the study has academic recognition. For example, I once evaluated documents representing incomplete study at a music conservatory in Brazil. I could not find this institution listed on my resources for recognized secondary or post-secondary institutions. However, the documents we received stated that completion of the program would result in a diploma for Técnico em Música (Music Technician). We were able to confirm that this is a nationally recognized vocational secondary credential in Brazil and that it would be issued in conjunction with a state educational authority. Based on this, we recommended high school-level credit. 

Determining Level of Education

Even when we can confirm academic recognition, another common difficulty in evaluating music programs is determining the level of education a student has achieved.  An issue we often face is music training programs that seem to fall somewhere between secondary and tertiary education. Admission to a program offered at a conservatory of music may be open to school-aged children, but the final credential received may represent completion of tertiary-level education. A good example of this is Corsi Tradizionali (Traditional Programs) offered at Italian conservatories of music. A portion of the training (the inferiore and medio levels) runs parallel to secondary school instruction in Italy. The final superiore level requires an Italian secondary school certificate for admission. The superiore level is considered comparable to university-level education by the educational authorities of Italy. Students generally study for two years in order to receive the final diploma; however, this study is part-time in nature. In cases like these, knowing the admission standards and study duration are crucial for how we determine an equivalent educational level and credits completed. 

Admission Requirements

Evaluation of educational level can also be complicated by the fact that the admission of students to music conservatories is often based on musical talent and ability through auditions, rather than just an academic credential or grade level. In some cases we have encountered music conservatories that are recognized as higher education institutions with degree-granting power in the country of operation, but their admission requirements are not standard for university-level education in the country. Admission to a first cycle degree program may require completion of grade 9 and a successful audition. While completion of the program may result in a university degree that is recognized by the educational authorities in that country, can we consider every year of that program to be comparable to post-secondary education if it only required grade 9 for admission? Should we consider the required audition to be the step that bridges the student from grade 9 to university admissions? Not every evaluator can agree on a solution when faced with these seemingly contradictory situations. We suggest that you come up with an organizational policy for handling these types of programs and apply it consistently. 

Type of Degree Awarded

There are also credit-worthy music programs all over the world that do not lead to a standard academic degree or benchmark in the country of study. While some institutions offer standard academic coursework in conjunction with music training, other programs may only offer applied music training, often assessed by final exams and performances. In some cases students complete their music training concurrently with full-time academic study at another institution or while working as a teacher or musician. In these cases the credential may be more appropriately compared to a non-degree credential, such as Performance Diploma from an accredited conservatory of music. 

Questions to Ask

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating music institutions and programs; however, there are some common questions to ask yourself when you encounter these credentials. 

  • First, can you confirm if the institution or program has official academic recognition in that country? Does completing the program lead to an educational benchmark in that country? 
  • Second, if the credential is credit-worthy, what level of education does the music training represent? What are the admission standards for the program and how does it compare with the standard academic programs in that country? 
  • Finally, if the program is completed, is it equivalent to a completed academic credential in the U.S.? How much study time does the program require? What is the content of the program? 

As with any evaluation process, good places to search for these answers are government educational resources, institutional websites, and credential evaluation resources such as the ECE® Connection Message Board. Based on the conclusions of your research, it’s always good practice to establish methods and policies at your own institution for how to evaluate music education, and then apply those methods and policies consistently. 

Harmony St. Laurent has been an Evaluator at ECE since 2016. Her areas of specialty include East and Southeast Asia, Francophone Africa, and Latin America. 



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