Why you want a CS + Music degree

4/1/2024 Devak Nanda

Written by Devak Nanda

CS + X series by Women in Computer Science at Illinois

The Strength of Community

Technology has revolutionized music, and computer science has played a crucial role in this transformation. The CS + Music degree at Illinois explores how technology can be used to understand, create, and appreciate music.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has been at the forefront of computational music even before the establishment of the Department of Computer Science. Many notable names in music, like John Cage, Lejaren Hiller, and David Weinstein, came to campus, pushing the boundaries of computer science, music, and electronic composition. The Illiac Suite (1957), the first score composed by an electronic computer, was written and performed here and was programmed on the ILLIAC I computer.

The students and faculty of the CS + Music major are a very close-knit and diverse group. They are always eager to help and share their experiences. The best way to get one’s “toe in the water” with the student community is to join the Discord server. On Faculty is actively chiming in and participating in the student community, which is amazing.

CS + Music faculty come from several departments, including Music, CS, ECE, and Information Science. 

"Discord was used in a few CS classes already, so it seemed like a nice, casual platform. It’s still growing to accommodate more people interested in CS + Music. It’s easy for people to share what they’re working on and discuss different opportunities on campus. The student moderators help keep it relevant and active — updating channels, sending out announcements, and reaching out to answer current and prospective students’ questions." — Rochelle, Class of ‘22

One useful product of the Discord community is the Prospective Students FAQ. Among the chatrooms available are “#music-composition,” “#music-rec,” “#recommended-or-not-courses,” “#grad-school,” and “#prospectives-chat.” The Music Tech track here contains information relevant to both that program and CS + Music.

Applying to CS + Music

So, you want to study the intersection of music and computer science. How do you go about doing it? You will need to submit a portfolio with your application. This portfolio should include your Music and Computer Science accomplishments.

"Be sure to add a description for each thing, and don’t worry about a page length. Both short and long portfolios have gotten students accepted." — Evan Matthews, Class of ‘23

Who Should Apply

There is also the historical element. Despite being new, the major exists in a very mature area within the campus, between the College of Fine and Applied Arts (FAA) and the Department of Computer Science. There are lots of materials, classes, and research opportunities for anyone interested. The interdisciplinary course offerings alone should be enough to sell anyone with a passing interest.

Between CS, CS-engineering and CS + Music, I highly recommend CS + Music if you have a lot of passion for music, (composition, performance, music production). — Evan Matthews, Class of ‘23

Finally, there is the opportunity to be part of the amazing community and expand one's horizons beyond what the courses and faculty provide.

Being in CS+M, I pursued my own music interests along with CS, and I also learned about my peers’ music endeavors, which I found very refreshing and inspiring. — Rochelle, Class of ‘22

What can I expect from CS + Music?

CS + Music covers all the same CS core that a CS engineering student would take. Students will learn De Morgan’s laws and how to implement malloc. CS + Music students also take the full “ensemble” of music courses that the College of FAA offers. The curriculum comprises music theory, musicianship (ear training), music history and cultural studies, and basic piano/keyboard skills. It also includes courses specific to music technology and computational applications for audio and music.

the music core curriculum is very involved, so much so that CS+Music students are effectively full-on music majors for at least the first four semesters of the program. — Renzo Ledesma, Class of ‘23

CS+Music students immerse themselves in the School of Music through a rigorous curriculum that includes four semesters of music theory, four semesters of musicianship, three semesters of musicology, and two semesters of keyboard proficiency. Alongside music performance, composition, technology, and education majors, among other programs, CS+Music students undergo a comprehensive academic program that solidifies their understanding of music. This is on top of the CS Core students take and additional “specialized coursework” dedicated to the major.

It is not uncommon for students to be working on side projects in CS + Music and research. 

it’s not too untypical to have heavier loads in the first few semesters because the intro music core is heavy — Quin Ouyang, Class of ‘25

It is worth noting that CS + Music is not a Music degree with a CS minor or a CS degree with a Music minor. This is a multidisciplinary program stretching across two very involved majors that teaches students all the skills they will need throughout their careers.

Specialized Coursework
Special thank you to Renzo Ladesma for help with this section.

Technical music-related courses are offered within and outside the School of Music as part of the CS+Music program. Students take classes covering sound's acoustic properties, analog and digital audio, and the history of music technology from the perspective of electroacoustic music composition and sound synthesis/effects. CS + Music students take the “Musicianship” track inside the School of Music and, in the latter half, are invited (though not required) to take Close Audio Listening sections alongside Music Technology majors rather than the default sections of MUS 207 & MUS 208.

The Experimental Music Studios, a hallmark of the Illinois legacy in Computer Music, are also available to students. They gain free, hands-on experience and guidance in utilizing studio equipment for multi-channel music composition and production.

Computation and Music

The MUS X05 classes explore programming in music-related topics, including representing Western music notation in code, building synthesizers using JUCE, and developing compositional algorithms.

MUS 407–409

MUS 407 and 409 are advanced courses in music technology offered at Illinois that cover various topics such as digital signal processing, computer music programming, sound recording and mixing, and advanced music production techniques. These courses offer hands-on experience utilizing professional-grade equipment and software for music production and signal processing. Students are encouraged to develop their projects and research topics in these courses, culminating in a final project or thesis.

Additional Courses

Outside the School of Music, students take ECE 402 as an overview of electronic music synthesis while building patches for Haken Audio’s Continuum Fingerboard. There is also CS 448, where students learn how computing has helped further digital audio to implement modern techniques like pitch detection and correction, music identification, sound filtering for cleaning noisy signals, designing musical sounds, and much more.


While there are a few niche CS + Music research labs and groups, most students will find themselves in a CS or Music research lab. Students will be on equal footing as other undergraduate researchers from the College of FAA and CS Department when looking for positions. In fact, due to the nature of the curricula, CS + Music students might find themselves in better standing due to the number of research papers and capstone projects they will encounter throughout their school career.

Experimental Music Studios

Experimental Music Studios (EMS) is one of the most renowned and influential centers for electronic and computer music in the United States. Founded in the late 1950s by composer Lejaren Hiller, the EMS has been at the forefront of experimental music for over six decades. The studio has been home to many legendary composers and performers, including John Cage, Salvatore Martirano, Herbert Brün, and Ben Johnston. The EMS has also hosted numerous concerts, workshops, and conferences, attracting some of the most talented musicians and researchers worldwide.

The EMS is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and software, making it one of the world's most advanced and versatile music studios. The studio’s facilities include a large collection of vintage and modern synthesizers, computer workstations, and specialized hardware and software for sound synthesis, processing, and recording. The studio also features a dedicated listening room to provide an optimal acoustic environment for critical listening and evaluation. All are available for students to use and utilized by many CS + Music courses. The EMS has developed many groundbreaking techniques and concepts in electronic and computer music, including algorithmic composition, computer-assisted live performance, and sound spatialization.

EMS’s director, Eli Fieldsteel, is an active CS + Music Discord group member.

Job and Post Grad Opportunities

CS + Music majors have access to all CS opportunities, including internships, full-time jobs, and Master’s programs. CS + Music is well-suited for students seeking careers in audio computing, where knowledge of signal processing and digital audio is essential. Alumni of the program have secured positions at companies such as Shure, Izotope, and Motorola or pursued graduate studies. The program’s unique combination of CS and music education gives graduates a competitive edge in these fields, distinguishing them from those with a purely CS background.

CS + Music students have also taken full-time positions in telecommunications, human resources, banking, big tech, and all the other fields one might think of when it comes to CS. As for internships, students have found a broader set of domains like agricultural tech, mathematical and physics computing, data analysis, AI/ML in entertainment applications, marketing and sales, business management, and online learning platforms.

CS + Music is a great choice for anyone looking to get a career boost and learn the essentials for breaking into tech, music, or a blend of the two.

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:

Articles courtesy of the Illinois Women in Computer Science student group at The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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This story was published April 1, 2024.