The 10 College Towns With the Best Music Scenes In America

Today I want to talk to you about an exceptionally critical factor that can contribute infinitely to your livelihood as either a student or professional musician.

This factor is, as you can possibly guess from the title of this article, location.

A music school or program can have the very best faculty, ensemble opportunities, and scholarship money that can be offered, but if you are not satisfied with where you are living, then all of the aforementioned can actually mean very little to your daily happiness and overall learning experience.

There is no question – your livelihood outside of your college music program is a hugely important and defining part of your education. Experience in and out of college will consistently inform your life as a professional musician and beyond.

Going to school in a town that has an incredible music and arts scene can be of exceptional benefit to your education.  Being able to attend and perform in theatres, music venues, orchestras, museums, festivals, and on-air can give you a defining perspective that could never be duplicated with just a degree in a school alone.

But before we delve into which 10 college towns offer the most multifarious opportunities for embracing musical culture, let’s talk about what defines a college town.

A college town is a city that has an exceptionally large economic dependency on the universities that exist in the town. There is an exceptionally high student to resident ratio in college towns, a significant percentage of people in their 20s and early 30s, and a strong atmosphere of attaining higher education. Many residents of college towns have Master’s degrees.

Some famous college town examples include Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, and Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College.

The other major component to a college town (at least the ones mentioned in this article) is that it has to have an active culture outside of the parent college or university as well.

To make this list, we looked at a number of factors, including the diversity and quality of musical offerings in the form of festivals, theatres, orchestras, ensembles, jazz clubs, popular music venues, music companies/record labels, and the like. We also looked at whether the town is an attraction for major touring musicians and groups of all genres.

Additionally, the city must have a reputable college or department of music to be included in this particular list, as well as a significant number of active musicians who either currently live in or had musical beginnings in the city.

So let’s get into it – here are the ten best college towns in America that have the best music scenes.


10. Boulder, CO

boulder colorado photo
Boulder: Photo by Amy Aletheia Cahill

Boulder is a city bustling with a liberal culture embracing all sorts of genres of of music. Known for having a very friendly attitude toward classical music, Boulder is home to three classical music orchestras, including the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, a full-time professional orchestra thriving under the baton of esteemed conductor Michael Butterman , as well as the Boulder Symphony and the Boulder Chamber Orchestra. Additionally, from every June to August, Boulder is home to one of America’s most well-known classical music festivals – the Colorado Music Festival, a staple of sophisticated musical culture since its inception in 1976.

Outside of classical music, Boulder is home to a diverse array of venues that host live jazz, rock, and electronic music artists. The city is also home to an excellent college of music, the University of Colorado, Boulder College of Music.

Notable Music Programs: University of North Colorado, Boulder College of Music


9. Asheville, NC

asheville north carolina photo
Photo by Dougtone

If you are a fan of live music, then look no further than Asheville, NC, where live concerts serve an integral part of Asheville’s resident and tourist community. Street and stage performances can be seen during Asheville’s summer music festival “Shindig On the Green,” a weekly festival in the summers that features a variety of bluegrass music. Other outdoor festivals include Downtown After 5 as well as the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival.

Asheville is also home to opera and even a diversity of theatre. Experimental companies such as Black Swan Theater and the Dark Horse Theatre call Asheville home. The professional, non-profit opera company, the Asheville Lyric Opera, also produces at least two productions every single year of major, large-scale operas.

Outside of classical music, folk festivals, and theaters, the city has a rich history of being home to one of the most important electronic music creators of all time. The late Bob Moog, former professor at UNC-Asheville and incredibly influential musical technologist, is responsible for developing the modern day electronic “Moog” synthesizer. A high-end studio in his honor is still able to be visited at the UNC-Asheville Department of Music.

Notable Music Programs: UNC-Asheville


8. Ithaca, NY

ithaca photo
Photo by bobistraveling

Ithaca is home to a surprisingly diverse music scene of talented folk, classical, jazz, and rock musicians and ensembles. The Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, often designated as “The Official Orchestra of the City of Ithaca,” was founded in 1976 as the “Finger Lakes Orchestra” – since then, the orchestra has performed hundreds of oratorios, ballets, and orchestral works to the Ithaca public at large. The orchestra also has an educational outreach initiative, interacting with schools in and around Ithaca to promote the ideals and benefits of classical music.

Outside of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, the Finger Lakes Grassroots Music Festival is an annual festival held just outside of Ithaca, NY every single summer. Bluegrass, country, folk, and even Cajun styles all come together in an attraction that draws over 20,000 visitors every single year. Some artists who have performed at this festival include Ani DiFranco, the Avett Brothers, and Los Lobos, among thousands of others.

At the town’s School of Music, one finds an exceptional music school housed in the liberal arts institution Ithaca College. The School of Music presents hundreds of concerts each year to the student body as well as to the residents of Ithaca. Although not a music school, Cornell University’s graduate program also boasts a very fine contemporary music ensemble that champions works of modern composers in the Cornell graduate program and beyond.

Notable Music Programs:

Ithaca College School of Music

Cornell University Graduate Program (For Composers and Musicologists)

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