Throughout the country, different cities & areas serve as hubs of higher education.
One of those places is Boston, which has an amazing 52 colleges and universities of higher education within city limits or close proximity.
Naturally, as many colleges and universities exist in the greater Boston area, a number of excellent music schools and programs are also present.
Five schools in Boston are dedicated schools of music, and because of this, they take a ranking priority in our list today.
However, a number of other excellent music departments exist in Boston, and we will cover our picks for the best ones.
We chose these schools based on their individual excellence, faculty/student accomplishment, selectivity, program offerings, and other factors. This ranking is an opinion-piece based on these factors.
I personally have met with faculty at all of these schools and can speak to their significant quality.
However, a list like this is important because while all 10 schools are good, it is of utmost importance to find the “best-fit” best music school for yourself and your future.
The most important part of looking into music schools? Finding the right-fit school for your future.
So, without further ado, here are our picks for the 10 best music schools and programs (ie departments of music) in the greater Boston area.
Technically 20 minutes outside of Boston, the program at Brandeis is decidedly classical; the instructors are pre-eminent teachers who are accomplished musicians themselves.
Many schools hire music ensembles to be “in residence;” the idea here is to expose students to faculty who frequently concertize and make a living in music. For many years, Brandeis has been home to the acclaimed Lydian String Quartet, a group celebrating its 40th season together this calendar year.
Students at the school can study privately and take masterclasses with members of the group. This proves especially valuable for string players interested in sharpening their chamber music skills, learning from some of the best musicians in all of Greater Boston.
Brandeis is a solid choice for a music student who wishes to combine the best of classical music performance or composition with an academic curriculum. Like the next two schools on this list, Brandeis has the virtue of being a top academic university with a compelling music department.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I bet you didn’t expect this one on the list!
Of course, if this were a list about computer science, software engineering, or any related technology-based field, MIT would likely go number one not just in Boston, but throughout the country.
Believe it or not, MIT has a very strong department of music. Perhaps what is most impressive about MITs program is the quality of their instrumental students; while many, if not most, are dual majors in other subjects at MIT, the music students are often on par, in terms of their ability, with conservatory students.
Like with the next academic powerhouse on this list – Harvard – many students who would qualify for a conservatory, but have the grades for a tier-1 university, often choose a department of music at a major university to doubly pursue other majors and passions.
I am certainly of the mindset this is an appropriate action for some students.
Also, MIT is not shorthanded in their music faculty; in fact, the schools employs, as of this writing, exactly 100 faculty members for their music department.
The faculty is simply extraordinary at MIT. Members include John Harbison, Pulitzer-Prize winning composer, Lynn Chang, one of the most important violin teachers in the world, and Eli Epstein, an important horn teacher who holds simultaneous appointments at Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory.
Like MIT before it, Harvard University is an extraordinary department of music.
Perhaps at the heart of Harvard’s excellence as a music program is their extracurriculars in music. The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra could bear its own weight against any other top collegiate orchestra in the country, including those at a major music conservatory.
You also can’t forget the Krokodiloes, the university’s oldest a cappella group.
Harvard does a good job hiring some of the world’s most famous musicians. A recent hire from 2017, critically-acclaimed jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, perhaps best exemplifies Harvard’s commitment to hiring the best of the best.
Other musicians on the faculty include Grammy-winner Daniel Chong, a member of the prestigious Parker String Quartet, and Claire Chase, a former MacArthur winner.
Like MIT before it, what I am most impressed about Harvard music students is their excellence; I have seen many perform and many are just as good as students from top-tier conservatories or dedicated music schools.
However, admission to Harvard is completely different than a traditional music school. You don’t get accepted based on the quality of your audition, although you are allowed to submit an arts portfolio/supplement to showcase your talent.
At the graduate level, Harvard offers a compelling MA/PhD program, a joint master’s & doctorate degree program. The upside is the school provides a very generous stipend and access to the many musical opportunities in Boston.
It is a super small, selective program and very few end up getting accepted. But, if that’s not Harvard in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
Emerson is not a music school per se, and in fact does not even have many majors in music.
However, one of its music programs is so great, it deserves to be on this list.
Definitely the most well-known music program at Emerson is Musical Theatre. Emerson’s musical theatre program, in a word, is selective, just as selective as nearly any other musical theatre program in the country.
Headed by Scott LaFeber, an accomplished musical theatre actor and pedagogue who has a way with bringing out the best potential in students, students at Emerson are among the most talented actors, dancers, and singers in the country.
For students interested in getting a taste of what musical theatre at Emerson might be like, the school does offer a summer program for high school students.
Emerson is unique in how ingratiated academics are into the curriculum; to graduate with a BFA in Musical Theatre, students have to acquire over 40% of their credits in academics. For the student desiring both an intensive musical theatre experience in combination with a strong academic program, Emerson fits the bill.
Certainly, Emerson is perhaps not the strongest choice for a student interested in a classical, jazz, or contemporary popular music performance degree. However, it is a top-notch school for musical theatre, which is why we include it here.
Northeastern does not have an attached music school, however it does have a robust music department offering one of the country’s top music business degree programs in the country.
What is particularly excellent about their music industry program is the co-op opportunities; all students at Northeastern, regardless of major, have to participate in an internship program at least once during their undergraduate degree.
Co-ops Northeastern has developed partnerships with include Live Nation, a premiere music promotion company, Glassnote Records, a record label featuring artists such as Grammy-award winners Phoenix as well as Mumford & sons, and Nettwerk, a music conglomerate in Boston.
The Music Industry program at Northeastern is particularly good if you are looking for a career in music production, promotion, marketing, management, booking, and related fields.
Longy School of Music of Bard College
One of the elder statesmen of music schools in the country, Longy was founded over 100 years ago. Today, the school serves just 300 students from 23 countries.
Longy’s program is most definitely on the graduate-heavy side – the majority of students are enrolled in a Master’s degree program.
Undergraduate students simultaneously do studies at Emerson College to round out their Bachelor’s degree requirements in academics and some music classes. This serves as a good, practical choice for students who wish to have both a conservatory and a college degree experience.
Several faculty members at Longy are among the most respected names in their instruments. I give particular credit to their woodwind faculty – artists such as clarinetist Jonathan Cohler, saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky, and tubist Kenneth Amis are widely regarded in their instruments.
Boston University School of Music
In the world of music, Boston University is perhaps best known for its summer program, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, widely regarded as the top summer program for classical musicians in the country.
However, the school is much larger than its summer offering; in 2015, I named BU a top hidden gem music school, and I stand by that designation.
Although in the same city as NEC and Boston Conservatory in Boston, BU is in considered equal company.
One offering BU has over independent conservatories is an extensive suite of academic courses and majors. Undergraduates in the school of music can double major in both music as well as academic offerings.
One teacher I spoke to told me one of his students has even triple-majored in music as well as two other subjects! Keep in mind that double majoring in music and an outside field will usually take 5 years to complete.
Boston University does lean heavily towards graduate students; approximately 2/3rds of all students at BU are graduate students.
The practice areas at BU are top notch, some of the most tech-advanced I have seen in music schools. Additionally, students can expect a newly constructed modern facility at BU’s School of Music in the near future.
Although I have worked with a number of professors at BU, I can say with certainty that Jim Demler in their voice program is among the best teachers I have ever worked with.
It is true that Boston Conservatory is technically part of Berklee, the next school on this list. However, because the schools still have different admissions processes and identities as of today, I will be writing separate entries for each school.
Boston Conservatory is an important school not just in Boston, but throughout the country.
Perhaps Boston Conservatory’s most known program is in musical theatre. Numerous graduates of Boston Conservatory have found themselves performing on Broadway as well as in major off-Broadway productions, television shows, and more.
I have worked with a number of faculty here in musical theatre personally and can attest to their extensive knowledge and ability in their field. One such professor, Steven Jones, has extraordinary depth and understanding of musical theatre voice and monologue repertoire. Most importantly, he is excellent with young students.
Boston Conservatory’s merger with Berklee back in 2016 was an intelligent move by both parties. While Berklee is known as the contemporary/jazz school, Boston Conservatory rounds Berklee out with musical theatre and classical performance.
Together, the two form a formidable combination, and now that students can take classes at both schools, their joint-venture results in a plethora of opportunities few other schools can match.
Berklee and Boston Conservatory, as well as all US independent conservatories, do not require standardized test scores (SAT/ACT) for admission. Rather, it comes down to the quality of the audition process and interview mostly.
Inevitably, when you ask a layman what are the best schools of music, they will have only heard of two: Berklee and Juilliard.
Of course, this answer is reductive; both are great, but at very different things.
If this were a list for contemporary music, songwriting, film scoring, music production, or music business, Berklee would hands down go number 1 in Boston and top-3 throughout the United States.
The facilities Berklee has for contemporary music are unrivaled; 27 recording studios with multi-million dollar investments into recording hardware, software, and top-tier instruction.
Berklee can best be described as a microcosm of the modern music industry.
This is what I mean by it:
Looking for a great songwriter? Berklee has some of the best young talents in the country.
How about a producer for your project? I have worked with several producers who ended up at Berklee and I can confidently say nearly all of them were prodigious in their skill level.
Maybe you want a composer for your next film project? No problem, Berklee’s got them.
What I like about Berklee is the school’s openness to opportunity.
Here’s what I mean: some schools place you into a single track. For example, say you got into a classical conservatory for classical voice. You are expected to be a classical vocalist throughout all four years at the school. This is not bad by any means, it’s just how it is at some schools.
However, at Berklee, you don’t have to declare your major until a few semesters in. This allows students to explore different interests in a safe and open environment.
PLUS, double majoring is common at Berklee! Lots of students commit to a dual major of music performance and music business, for example. What this leads to is skills in playing music with an understanding of how to survive in the music world.
New England Conservatory
When it comes to classical music, contemporary composition, and jazz performance, New England Conservatory is not just the best school in Boston, but a top-10 school nationwide.
You can place NEC’s faculty against Juilliard’s in terms of individual accomplishment and excellence; they are just that good.
What I particularly like about NEC is their environment. While many conservatories have a “cutthroat” competitive vibe, NEC stands out as an environment conducive to growth, independence, and innovation.
Every program here has tier-1 faculty; students have turned down Curtis to study with violinist Paul Biss, one of the world’s foremost violin professors. I would say NEC is home to one of the top-two teachers in the country for cello performance as well in Paul Katz.
(If you’re curious, my opinion for the other would be Richard Aaron of Michigan).
Michael Gandolfi in composition is one of the most intelligent teachers I have ever seen working with a student, and Michael Meraw is a straight-to-the-point teacher who can transform a voice in a single lesson.
I could go on and on about their classical program, but it’s important to note their jazz performance program.
Many of the world’s best jazz musicians teach here. If you know contemporary jazz, you know the Bad Plus; Ethan Iverson is faculty here, former jazz pianist of said group.
Jerry Bergonzi, another faculty member, is perhaps the most skilled jazz saxophonist living today.
One area NEC addressed in the last few years is their facilities; a new, state-of-the-art building was erected in NEC a few years ago, containing new dorms, a recording studio, a proper cafeteria, and more.
Perhaps it cannot be said enough; NEC’s affiliation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra exponentially increases its value as a school. After all, in an orchestral training program like NEC’s, you want to study with people who are either successful orchestral players or soloists.
NEC is perhaps the most selective music conservatory in Boston with an acceptance rate of 33% according to Niche.