A Matter of Degrees: Music + Pre-Health

Combining pre-med curriculum and music degree leads to medical/health careers

Thinking about combining a music degree with pre-health studies? You are right to be thinking things through: Of the 122 credit hours needed to graduate from SMU, 75 will be dedicated to music if you are pursuing the Bachelor of Music degree (B.M.), or 51 credit hours if you are pursuing the Bachelor of Arts in music (B.A.). In addition to the hours required for your undergraduate degree, the typical student pursuing the Pre-Med track completes (on average) 41 credit hours.

Challenging? Yes, but take heart: Combining the two areas of study is not only possible, the fields can complement each other and pave the way for success in medical school, dentistry, music therapy and beyond.

Below, Meadows School of the Arts interviews four recent alumni who have walked the path.

Q. While earning two degrees as an undergrad is not a requirement to enter med school, some students do pursue two degrees. What helped you juggle two areas of study – one in music, the other in the sciences – at the same time?

Erwin Xia (B.M. Performance/Piano, B.S. Biological Sciences, minor in chemistry ’13), now a radiology resident at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Penn.:
When I was looking for colleges, I met with an SMU advisor who laid out a four-year plan for double majoring in piano performance and biology. So I knew from the beginning that it was possible. It's rare that a university lets you study music and pre-med at the same time, so I’m really grateful SMU offered me that opportunity. Having two completely non-overlapping majors was logistically challenging in terms of scheduling classes, but music was actually a great break from studying. Maybe because music activates a different part of the brain!

Shilpa Kudva (B.A. Music, B.S. Biological Sciences ’17), now a student at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, D.D.S. program:
All my Meadows professors were very understanding of my situation. My flute professor, Kara Kirkendoll Welch, was extremely encouraging and motivated me to continue with both degrees because she recognized the importance of having healthcare professionals with varied life experiences interacting with patients every day. At Meadows, everyone believes in the world-changing impact arts can have on the community. This Meadows culture fueled my desire to learn more about music each day and to round out my perspective on the world so that I could, in turn, make a difference in my community.

Q. Did your overall SMU education help prepare you for a career in the medical field? If so, how?

Alison Etter, MM, MT-BC (B.M. Music Therapy ’10, SMU Meadows; M.M. Music Therapy, Colorado State University ’18), now a board certified music therapist at Kerrville State Hospital, Kerrville, Texas:
My experience at SMU taught me the importance of time management and flexibility. I worked at the Dedman Rec Center during my time at SMU and learned to balance work and school. The psychology classes I took were an important part of my SMU education and definitely prepared me for my work at a forensic psychiatric facility.

Christina Kwon (B.A. Music with a pre-health specialization ’15), now a student at Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, Calif.), M.D. program, class of 2022, currently focusing on geriatrics:
Initially, I pursued a music career as a first year at SMU simply because I had played the violin since the age of 4. Once I got to SMU, however, I had the opportunity to explore other career options, take classes outside the realm of music and make friends with many peers who were working toward careers in medicine, dentistry, etc. Along with a few personal reasons, all these factors sparked my interest in taking a couple pre-med classes like biology and chemistry. This was a big step towards a possible career in medicine, and it really opened my eyes to all the possibilities that I had never realized were there before.

My chemistry professor at the time, Dr. Jennifer O'Brien, as well as organic chemistry professor Dr. David Son, immensely impacted and supported my decision in pursuing this new career. I can honestly say I would not be here without their mentorship, kindness and support, and I am unequivocally grateful for them.

Xia: Juggling two demanding majors prepared me for the workload of medical school. I remember biochemistry and metabolism being much easier to learn during medical school because I worked so hard to learn them at SMU.

Kudva: The SMU biology department really laid the foundation for the basic sciences in my first year of dental school. The pre-medical coursework at SMU was rigorous and I learned a lot in all my science classes. My coursework at SMU helped me learn how to time manage and study efficiently. I would say the course that helped me learn this the most was Organic Chemistry 2 with Dr. David Son. Getting through that course took a lot of adaptability, especially because I had to balance that difficult course with all the music ensembles and coursework.

Q. Let’s look more closely at your music degree experiences at Meadows. Did your Meadows music degree studies help prepare you for entering grad school and your career?

Kudva: Absolutely. In my opinion, it is essential for medical professionals to have another interest in something besides medicine or dentistry. It provides a balanced lifestyle as well as another perspective on life. Studying music provided me with an outlet for self-expression during my busy undergraduate career; it kept me grounded and allowed me to be creative. Through the music school, I was able to keep in touch with the more emotional side of human existence, which will be important in my future interactions with patients. All my music classes were valuable in shaping my world view.

There are two experiences that stand out to me. My time in the Meadows Symphony Orchestra with Dr. Paul Phillips helped me learn to time manage due to the lengthy rehearsal requirements. Additionally, being able to rehearse and perform with the orchestra taught me to perform well under pressure and to hold myself accountable for all my actions in and out of rehearsal, which are two things I will have to incorporate daily in my career as a dentist. Without the opportunity to participate in ensembles and to be a Meadows student, I would not have been able to learn these two essential lessons.

Furthermore, I took a class with Dr. Zachary Wallmark titled “Music and Emotion” in which I learned how meaningful music and the arts are to people across the world. In Dr. Wallmark’s class, I gained a depth of knowledge in how music helps people to make connections with other people as well as to process major life events. I know I will be able to use this knowledge later to forge impactful connections with my patients. The Meadows school provided me with a vast array of experiences that I could not have encountered in any other major or school of study. I am positive that all my experiences as a music student will help me become the best dentist I can be!

Kwon: I believe there is nothing more disciplining than music. Music, in many ways, trained me to perfect my art, to build endurance, to learn to work with others, to empathize and to never stop improving myself. Music is such an extremely delicate, creative and inspiring field that complements the art of medicine because without creativity, discipline, teamwork and dedication, neither is possible. So yes, I believe music is what made me the most prepared and unique candidate to the admissions committee of all the medical schools. It was certainly difficult to balance both music and pre-med at the same time, but nonetheless, it was the best decision I ever made.

Xia: It’s important to study what you love, sinceyou’ll have plenty of time to learn the stuff required to become a doctor later on. My experience at Meadows was invaluable because the musical training I received not only enriched my own life, but has also allowed me to enrich others’ lives. Over the past few years, I've performed for seniors in the local community and hospital, and am always amazed by how people are touched by music. Your musical training is something you will keep for the rest of your life.

Although I had many great professors at SMU, many of whom helped me succeed, I’ll always be indebted to one particular individual who was not only my piano teacher for six years, but also a dear mentor and friend: Professor Alfred Mouledous. Without him, I would not have achieved what I have today.

Etter: I felt confident and prepared to begin my career as a music therapist after graduation because I felt like I had already worked in the field for a few years. The on-campus clinic allowed me to gain experience in a group and individual setting. It was also a great way to see progress over the years as I got to work with some of the same clients. I like that the practicum classes included work with a variety of populations. When I graduated, I felt prepared to work in any facility and with any population. This experience opened many great career opportunities for me, eventually leading me to my current job and graduate school.

Q. What tips can you offer to students who are thinking about combining music and pre-health studies?

Etter: Never stop learning! I've gained so much from collaborating with other professionals at the hospital. And don't be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. Be creative and have fun!

Xia: Enjoy your time at Meadows! It’s an experience you’ll never have again. Get some experience volunteering and share your talent with others. Also, find out if you truly want to do medicine by shadowing and getting advice from medical students, residents and practicing physicians. Choose medicine because you’re passionate about it. And when your hard work finally pays off, don't stop playing music! As Rachmaninoff said, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

Kwon: There are endless possibilities in this world. It's important to be open-minded when deciding your career. Additionally, talk to as many peers as possible because there is always something to learn from each other and wisdom to gain from your professors and mentors. Lastly, a dear mentor of mine once told me that the work she does is what gets her up every morning. I encourage everyone to find that one thing or passion that will give them a sense of purpose and energy to strive each and every day.

Kudva: Experience the myriad of interesting (and free) events that SMU has to offer. You never know what might inspire you or motivate you to continue your journey! Secondly, make sure to cultivate relationships with your professors that can flourish; they are your biggest supporters (outside of family and friends) and can be your most valuable resources. Lastly, before starting medical or dental school, relax and take a break for a while. Professional school is a rigorous uphill battle and it will benefit you to start it with a refreshed outlook!

Learn more about music degrees at SMU Meadows School of the Arts and the SMU Pre-Health program. Read Alison Etter’s research work on the societal roles of marginalized people in a forensic setting: Jaimie Peterson & Alison Etter (2017) Creating Community and Shattering Stigma: Collaborative Arts Interventions for the Forensic Population, Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, 30:2, 78-87, DOI: 10.1080/08322473.2017.1381511

Meet Four Recent Alumni Pursuing Careers in the Health and Medical Fields

Alison Etter, MM, MT-BC

Alison Etter, MM, MT-BC (B.M. Music Therapy ’10, SMU Meadows; M.M. Music Therapy, Colorado State University ’18), now a board certified music therapist at Kerrville State Hospital, Kerrville, Texas.

Shilpa Kudva

Shilpa Kudva (B.A. Music, B.S. Biological Sciences ’17), now astudent at Texas A&M College of Dentistry pursuing a D.D.S.

Christina Kwon

Christina Kwon (B.A. Music ’15), now a student at Loma Linda University pursuing an M.D.; currently focusing on geriatrics.

Erwin Xia

Erwin Xia (B.M. Performance/Piano, B.S. Biological Sciences, minor in chemistry ’13), now a radiology resident at Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, Penn.

How Many Hours Are Needed?

In addition to the hours required for your undergraduate degree, the typical student pursuing the Pre-Med track completes (on average) 41 credit hours. The example below is the minimum to meet the pre-requisite requirements for medical and dental programs:


Biology I & II –   8 credit hours
Chemistry I & II – 8 credit hours
Upper Level Biology (Cell & Genetics) – 6 credit hours
Organic Chemistry I & II – 8 credit hours
Physics I & II – 8 credit hours
Biochemistry – 3 credit hours

While it can be challenging to complete the Pre-Health track and major in performing or visual arts such as music, dance, theatre or studio art, medical schools and dental programs recognize the rigor in these students’ schedules and the discipline required to do well in both areas.

Students who major outside of the sciences can declare a minor in Health Sciences (with the coursework on the Pre-Health track).

The minimum number of total credit hours required to graduate from SMU is 122.

For more information, see SMU Pre-Health program.