Attending college is one of the most important decisions for any young musician. The amount of talent, dedication, time, and yes, even connections it takes to get into a top career is actually mind-blowing.
Music students, especially classical music performance majors and Music Theatre performance majors, typically have one major goal in mind: to secure a performance position within a major ensemble or company. We have examined the top schools for music performance and composition in the country that have consistently led their students to the top awards, symphonic orchestras, Broadway gigs, professorial positions, and other highly coveted jobs in the nation. Additionally, we have looked at the general reputation of the music schools, the performance opportunities available at each school, and what the schools can offer from a financial standpoint. Believe it or not, three top music colleges are completely free of tuition to all students!
Without further ado, here are the top 15 colleges for music in the US.
15. Oberlin Conservatory of Music – Oberlin, OH
One of the midwest’s top colleges for music, Oberlin’s music conservatory is a strictly undergraduate program. While the chance to work with graduate students may be something students will miss out on, the biggest benefit for not having graduate students at this program is that less competition exists for winning lead roles in the school’s opera productions as well as more personalized attention towards students in the classical performance and composition majors. Certainly, the sense of individualism is strong at Oberlin, as the entire college’s enrollment is approximately just 600 students, making it nearly three times smaller than other major music schools including Indiana and North Texas, and almost 8 times smaller than Berklee.
Students of Oberlin frequently ascend to many of the top professional orchestras and ensembles throughout America and beyond. A great benefit of Oberlin is that it is neither a stand-alone conservatory nor attached to a major university; rather, Oberlin is attached to a progressive and leading liberal arts college. The free-thinking liberal climate of the liberal arts college can be of tremendous benefit to the growing artist at the conservatory. The only other top music schools I am aware of that are attached to excellent liberal arts colleges are the Ithaca College School of Music and the Bard College-Conservatory of Music.
The intellectual atmosphere of Oberlin’s academic community can be of great benefit to the aspiring musician, especially for the undergraduate looking to double major. Oberlin offers a 5 year double-degree program between the Conservatory and main academic campus for those interested in pursuing more than just an excellent and unparalleled music degree.
14. University of North Texas College of Music – Denton, TX
The University of North Texas is the largest college of music accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music, making it one of the largest music conservatories in the world. Noted for outstanding programs all around, the school was the very first in the entire world to offer a degree in jazz performance. In fact, it’s jazz program is so highly lauded, the school’s premiere jazz ensemble, the One O’Clock Band, has been actually nominated for six Grammy awards! While most top music colleges in the US host between 400-600 performances per academic year, the University of North Texas presents over 1,000. Truly, even considering the incredibly large enrollment of the music college, there is never a shortage of opportunity for music students to find an ensemble or concert to participate in. Students of North Texas can be found in many of the major professional ensembles throughout the world, as well as in coveted teaching positions throughout the globe.
13. Manhattan School of Music (New York, NY)
A program deeply embedded into the classical and contemporary music culture of New York City, the Manhattan School of Music is one of the world’s premiere music schools. Boasting an incredible faculty of distinguished artists, the Manhattan School of Music is widely considered to have the top programs in a number of disciplines, including clarinet performance, where the associate principal of the New York Philharmonic, Mark Nuccio, as well as klezmer-clarinet master David Krakauer, teach the top young clarinetists in the entire world. The college also boasts a faculty partnership with the famous violin master Pinchas Zukerman, who takes on a selective studio of some of the most talented young violinists in the country.
In addition, the school offers an amazing contemporary music performance program, a unique, one-of-a-kind degree that prepares students not in the traditions of Beethoven and Brahms, but rather, in the traditions of the fiery, passionate modern music ensembles Kronos Quartet and Bang On a Can, who were recently featured on the long-running children’s show Arthur. Students of the MSM contemporary performance program are frequently cited as successful freelance musicians throughout New York City and beyond.
Outside of clarinet and contemporary music, MSM is an incredibly impressive music school, hosting distinguished strings, woodwind, piano, percussion, and composition faculties of the highest distinction.
12. New England Conservatory (Boston, MA)
A legendary institution located in the heart of Boston, the New England Conservatory can claim as alumni many of the most impressive names working in the classical and contemporary music industry today, including jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, clarinetist Don Byron, violist Roberto Diaz, percussionist Vic Firth, soprano Phyllis Curtin, just to name a few.
Boasting a faculty of musicians that are among the most accomplished classical musicians in the country, the New England Conservatory holds a strong, historical relationship to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which is located right down the street from NEC. As such, students of the New England Conservatory are frequently studying with teachers who hold concurrent positions in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the BSO, the city of Boston itself offers a number of classical music offerings that many students and alumni of NEC participate in, including the Handel & Haydn Society, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and others.
Unlike other top music programs, the New England Conservatory is a leader in teaching its students how to take their career into their own hands and have established the “Entrepreneurial Musician” program. In addition, the school hosts one of the most impressive, accomplished, and professional-sounding jazz bands in the country. A leading school, any serious music performance major must consider the New England Conservatory for advanced study.