Despite the growing prominence of music producers within the public sphere (thanks in part to the wild doings of the likes of Rick Rubin, DJ Mustard, and DJ Khaled), few people know exactly what music producers do.
Many aspiring producers lead with their enthusiasm, often neglecting the basics of music theory and the years of effort it takes to create a unique production style.
So what exactly is the education needed to be a music producer? Do music producers need formal education of any kind?
These are difficult questions to answer, especially given that there’s still a significant amount of confusion regarding what producers need to contribute to every project. In truth, music producers can fill many different roles during the writing and recording stages.
Some producers are deeply involved in each project they take on, contributing instrumentals, notes, or even vocals. Meanwhile, some producers are content to limit their input to a studio engineering role, focusing mostly on mixing and mastering.
To help us explore the issue of whether formal education is necessary for aspiring music producers, I spoke with producer extraordinaire Marouane Zouzhi.
Originally from Morocco, a locale with a fascinating musical history, Zouzhi chose to follow a traditional educational path in pursuit of a successful music career, studying at the illustrious Berklee College of Music. He has since worked as a studio engineer, creative director, and music producer.
Zouzhi (who records and performs under the name ZHIROCKS) is currently stationed with SadMoneyMusic in Hollywood, California, where he works with many different recording artists to create unique tracks that stand out in a highly saturated market.
He has continued to solidify his standing as one of the most accomplished and artistically unique young producers working in the music industry today. Zouzhi is, first and foremost, a successful artist in his own right, and his musical education was simply a stepping stone on his path to independent notoriety.
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In the Beginning
When it comes to the question of whether a music producer needs extensive formal education, each artist’s personal background is a major factor.
As I discussed with Zouzhi, musical education doesn’t necessarily have to take place within a formal educational institution, and as such, that education doesn’t have to begin during adolescence, but can in fact begin at a very young age.
When it comes to music, there are many examples of musicians who were professionals before the age of ten, perhaps the most prominent being Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart began performing long before his teenage years, and his musical education started even earlier, overseen by demanding father.
Meanwhile, the great Jimi Hendrix seemed to be born with an innate attraction to music, despite the fact that he didn’t have access to a real guitar until the age of 15. But the time before, the time of desperately wanting to play, and even learning rudimentary skills on a ukelele certainly had an effect on the playing style he would develop years later.
One’s own relationship with music is the true beginning of musical education, and can even influence tastes, skills, and genre leanings down the road.
For Zouzhi, his interest in music began quite early. But direct involvement with creating music came much later.
“I wrote my first song at 12, but I didn’t really get started with music until I got my first turntable and mixing table at 17. Daft Punk, in particular, definitely encouraged that kind of experimentation.”
For several years after this initial contact with music hardware, Zouzhi continued to pursue music with the help of his self-taught abilities. He was able to find a number of resources that make DJ-ing accessible.
Still, his professional aspirations continued to develop, eventually reaching a point where he felt he needed more formal instruction to truly communicate his musical ideas.
“At 22, I was a resident DJ and performed gigs regularly. At the same time, I was leaning heavily in the direction of music production. I felt like, as a DJ, I wasn’t able to fully express my ideas.”
From here, music production quickly became the clear choice, offering a way to shape very big ideas and make them accessible to a wide audience. Zouzhi also felt that production gave him the chance to innovate.
“What really attracted me to music production was creating that element of surprise. It was a way to innovate and create new ways for the world to enjoy music.”
This concept is actually quite common among some of the industry’s most famous producers. Music producers who punch the clock and do their work can still be successful, but it’s the forward-thinking producers who truly make a name for themselves.
Whether or not that forward-thinking approach can be taught is a question that we’ll dig into in just a bit.
The Value of a Musical Education
Now we’ve come to formal music education itself. There is no shortage of brick-and-mortar and online higher learning institutions that offer courses and degrees in music production and studio engineering.
As Zouzhi pointed out, the benefits of attending one such school don’t end with practical musical lessons, they also include career-minded benefits as well.
“Most producers nowadays don’t have a formal education and yet have still found success. However, formal education at a top music school will help you innovative and also helps you to establish connections in the industry. Overall, it highly depends on one’s vision, goals, and circumstances. Overall, follow your instinct.”
Berklee College of Music, whose alumni include John Mayer, Howard Shore, Steve Vai, Esperanza Spalding, and St. Vincent, is unique in its ability to offer more traditional musical training alongside cutting-edge techniques.
So can a music school like Berklee actually make an artist more innovative, more likely to explore new methods and techniques?
For Zouzhi, the answer is a resounding yes. His experiences at Berklee helped shape a specific attitude toward music as a whole, and the value inventive music can offer to listeners.
“Berklee made me think about my career as a marathon, not a race. It made me think about my power as a creative to change society. Music should not be junk food but rather something that should make you think.”
This is one positive aspect of a formal music education that may be difficult to find elsewhere.
For any of our readers who are not musicians themselves, music theory is the formal study of music, from why notes, scales, and chords exist to how different chord progressions can immediately establish the genre and tone of a song.
Extensive knowledge of music theory also allows for complex songwriting and sweeping landscapes with dozens of different physical or digital instruments. It can also serve as a guide for recording and mixing different song components.
However, it’s also possible to compose music, and even have a successful career in the music industry, without extensive knowledge of music theory.
The Beatles, for example, had very little music theory knowledge. Similarly, modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) and software plug-ins have made it easier than ever to create music without making use of music theory.
Zouzhi made it clear that while music theory isn’t absolutely required for music producers, it helps producers express precise musical ideas, rather than letting software steer the ship.
“Music theory is the language we use to express creative ideas. The better you understand music theory, the better you can express yourself and reach a wider audience.”
The comparison to language is a good fit here. If we continue the analogy, a producer without a music theory background is like someone who is fluent in a certain language, just enough to hold a conversation, while a producer with a deep understanding of music theory is like a native speaker, capable of writing satisfying, artful stories, or even poetry.
Making the Call
If you’re hoping to become a professional music producer, the question of whether you need to pursue formal education to better understand your craft is a crucial one.
To help make your decision, you may want to ask yourself a number of other questions as well. To start, how experienced are you with music and music theory already? Have you learned to play several instruments? How much time have you spent working with DAWs?
Are you skilled at networking? Do you already know a number of talented musicians you could work with? Do you have access to a professional studio environment?
If you find yourself answering ‘No’ to many of these questions, then a music school could help you expand your knowledge in all of these areas.
There isn’t one definite answer to whether all producers should pursue higher education because there isn’t just one kind of producer. Producers come from all over the world, and each brings their own specific talents to new projects.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to musician friends, music school admissions centers, and even professional musicians in your area to discuss what would be the best path for your own artistic career.
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Marouane Zouzhi is a music producer and DJ currently working with SadMoneyMusic.
Links to Zouzhi and his work can be found here: