World’s First Ukulele Bachelor’s Degree Program Begins in Italy


Dr. Giovanni Albini, music theory and ukulele professor at Italy’s Conservatory of Alessandria, doesn’t play ukulele—that’s because as someone who owns 75 of them, it’s impossible to stick to just one. “I say, ‘I don’t play ukulele, I play ukuleles,’” he says with a laugh. 

Last year, Albini founded the first university-level study program dedicated to ukulele on an international level. As noted in Cynthia Kinnunen’s article in the Fall 2023 issue of Ukulele, before this there were no degree programs specifically for ukulele. There were music degrees where a student could have ukulele as a focus, or music education programs that incorporated ukulele, but nothing on paper that said “ukulele.” This changes things.

“The deeper you get into ukulele, the more you find things,” says Albini. “And
the more I perform on it, the more I find there’s something I don’t know.” This is what led Albini, whose “first life,” as he puts it, was as a composer, to create a bachelor’s degree program in ukulele. 

It started about five years ago in an arranging class he was teaching. “I had an ukulele, because the ukulele has always been my passion,” he says. As a demonstration, he arranged a portion of “The Swan,” from French Romantic-era composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” in a few minutes in class. He had been playing for a few years before that, but this was the epiphany that opened the floodgates for him. 

“After that, I told myself, why not? Why can’t an instrument with so many different aspects have a proper place for people who want to study it?”

The bachelor’s degree requires three years of study, with an option planned for a master’s degree with an additional two years of study. Basic Italian language proficiency is a prerequisite, but students do not need advanced music theory knowledge or performance skills to be admitted. “The goal is to train complete and aware musicians, open to the plurality of styles that the ukulele allows them to explore,” says Albini. 


The first cohort began in November, with three very different players: a contemporary singer-songwriter with a punk rock flair; a host of an ukulele-themed radio show with multiple music degrees; and an oboe player focused on ukulele integration in classroom teaching for young students. More spaces in the program will be opened each year, with a planned maximum of 12 students.

The program was modeled after an existing degree program at the university and tweaked for the ukulele. “I hope that the main characteristic of the program is that it’s quite open,” he says. “What I like about the ukulele is it’s not normative at all. When you look at classical guitar or violin, you have very normative methodologies of teaching and performing. With the ukulele you have many ways—it has this open aspect. And I tried, with my dean, to design a bachelor’s degree program where this openness is kept. So (students) have classical harmony studies, but there’s jazz harmony. They study the history of classical music but they also study the history of popular music. They study ethnomusicology and anthropology of music that allows them to understand traditional and folk approaches to music. I hope for every student it offers something different.”

This program, he says, is “simple to replicate, but the academic world is sometimes skeptical of the ukulele.” Challenges like standardization of tuning, the relatively short history of the instrument, and a perceived lack of repertoire can be barriers to a university taking the plunge with a new program.

While the wheels of academia have been known to churn at a notoriously slow pace, there is hope for rapid evolution at least in terms of repertoire. “The ukulele repertoire is huge, but the thing is it’s not always a written repertoire,” says Albini. That includes Hawaiian songs and American songs from the 1930s and earlier, and as this material is explored and written down, more opportunities for study will exist for students of the instrument.

As a composer, Albini enjoys writing and transcribing music for ukulele. “What I like about the ukulele is that you can do a lot with so much less,” he says. “It’s an apparently constrained instrument, but with all these constraints, you can (still) do it all. I have never found a piece I could not properly transcribe and keep intact the core of the piece.”

In October, Albini hosted the Ukulele International Conference, an academic conference on interdisciplinary perspectives on history, performance, composition, and organology of the ukulele. This was the second iteration of this conference since 2021, and this gathering saw 45 academic professionals in attendance both in-person and virtually, with speakers from around the world giving talks on-site in Italy on topics including teaching ukulele in primary schools, proper posture for preventing injuries, Ernest Ka’ai and tone production, ukulele and electronics, composing for ukulele, arranging Hawaiian melodies as a teaching tool, and much more.

The two-day conference concluded with a string quartet arrangement of Jim Beloff’s “Uke Can’t Be Serious: A Concerto for Ukulele and Symphony Orchestra” performed by Beloff and a string quartet from the university (watch it on Facebook here), followed by pieces by J.S. Bach, Leonard Cohen, and Consuelo Velázquez. Beloff’s concerto begins with the plucked G-C-E-A open strings of an ukulele as an ode to the star of the piece. This is then mirrored individually by the string quartet before things really take off. The ten-minute piece runs the gamut of human emotion, and even includes a strum-and-sing section with lyrics that wag a finger at those who say the ukulele is not a serious instrument.

“The biggest takeaway (of the conference) for me was that the future of the ukulele seems to be in very good hands,” says Beloff. “Also, that future scholars will look back on this gathering and conclude that it was an important step towards the legitimization of the ukulele as a musical instrument worthy of academic study.”