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.
11. University of Southern California – Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
Widely considered, along with the Colburn School, as the premiere institution for music in the west coast, USC-Thornton hosts what many consider to be among the finest programs for composition (notable faculty: Stephen Hartke, Donald Crockett, Andrew Norman), classical guitar (notable faculty: Pepe Romero, Scott Tenant) and even cello (notable faculty: cellist Ralph Kirshbaum). Other top programs include clarinet performance, where legendary teacher Yehuda Gilad hosts what many consider to be the world’s most competitive studio in the nation. For those of you wishing to pursue a career in film music composition, USC is widely considered, along with NYU and Berklee, to have the very best program in the entire world.
A major presence in the musical landscape of Los Angeles, the location of USC could not be better, as Los Angeles is a hotspot cultural epicenter where students can focus thoroughly on their studies in admittedly beautiful, not freezing your butt off cold weather all year long. Consider USC for performance and composition.
10. Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY)
An institution of historic proportion located in the heart of Rochester, New York, Eastman has long been deemed as an excellent music composition and performance program. An incredibly selective school, Eastman accepts just 13% of all applicants – there are just slightly more than 900 total students (including graduate students) in the entire school. Traditionally, Eastman’s programs have always ranked in the top 10 of famous publications, such as US News and World Report. The school also boasts about 20 ensembles.
Notable faculty include legendary trombonist John Marcellus, who has consistently placed his students into the upper echelons of professional symphonic orchestras and ensembles, as well as double bassist James VanDemark, known for putting on virtuosic recitals with Andre Watts back in the early 1980s. With a composition program once headed by the widely-known artists Samuel Adler and Christopher Rouse, the program is now headed by the talented faculty member David Liptak, who hosts an impressive score of students that have won BMI and ASCAP awards, the top prizes for student composers in the nation. Expect a complete and thorough education at Eastman.
9. Bard College-Conservatory of Music – Annandale-On-Hudson, NY
Bard is an intriguing college for the prospective music student, as the faculty at the school are of world-class quality, often sharing appointments between Bard and other top colleges including Yale, Curtis, and Juilliard. The school has a bevy of resources musically and financially; the college has worked especially hard in the last 10 years to brand itself as among the top music colleges in the world. It has successfully accomplished this task, boasting an unparalleled faculty of inspiring musicians such as Joan Tower, a leading American composer, So Percussion, one of the most widely regarded modern percussion ensembles of all time, and even the likes of legendary string teachers Michael Tree and Arnold Steinhardt. Students of this college are provided opportunities to perform in New York City, as the city is located within 90 minutes of the school.
The school is, to my knowledge, the only in the entire country to require all undergraduate students to pursue a 5-year double major, a smart decision considering that many music majors, even those who graduate from top performance programs, do not end up pursuing careers in music. One of the top colleges for music in the US, musicians who have an interest in fostering their artistic growth in an incredibly liberal environment of outstanding talent should consider Bard.
8. Rice University Shepherd School of Music – Houston, TX
Rice University has a distinguished legacy of accepting the most talented students in the entire world. Along with the likes of the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Austin, Rice is among the leading colleges for music in the entire southern region of America. A very selective school, the university accepts just 1 out of every 10 applicants into its graduate program, as well as 1 out of every 7 or 8 undergraduate applicants. The college presents over 400 concerts per year, which includes two large-scale opera productions. In fact, the college is currently constructing a brand new 600 seat opera house, which will be completed in 2018.
Many of the most notable music faculty in the world are staples of Rice’s academic culture, including french hornist William VerMuelen, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest french horn teachers of all time, as well as renowned trumpet pedagogues Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer, violist James Dunham, who is a favorite among the likes of Joshua Bell and Emmanuel Ax, and notable bassoonist Benjamin Kamins, among dozens of others. The teachers regularly graduate students who ascend to the ranks of top orchestras and college professor positions in the world.
7. The Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)
Three of the schools in the top ten are completely free of tuition to all enrolled students; Colburn is one of them. Located in Los Angeles, the Colburn School is a relatively young institution that breeds the top musicians in Los Angeles, consistently sending young students to the top professional orchestras in the entire world. Formerly a preparatory school for USC back in the 50s, Colburn sought independence from its mother university in the 80s. Some of the most talented musicians in Los Angeles studied under Colburn’s legendary faculty, which include violinist Robert Lipsett, widely considered one of the most important violin teachers of all time.
Colburn does not have a music composition program, however its faculties for strings, winds, percussion, and brass are second to none. You also can’t beat free; if you are looking to attend a top school be aware of this one thing about Colburn: it is exceptionally, exceptionally competitive to get in. However, if you do get in, it should be at the top of your list.
6. Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA)
Conservative, classical academics and pedagogues may be baffled at the ranking of Berklee, but don’t be fooled by the fact Berklee is not as well known for its competitive classical music program. From jazz legends Keith Jarrett and Hiromi Uehara to popular musicians John Mayer and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Berklee represents a generation of unprecedented influence in the realms of mainstream popular music, jazz, and music production. Located in the heart of Boston, students are exposed to nearly any cultural offering of a major city they can dream of, from a classical music concert at the Boston Symphony Orchestra to electronic music concerts at the local favorite The Middle East to indie rock concerts at the Brighton Music Hall. The possibilities for performing at Berklee and outside Berklee are nearly limitless.
If you are looking to pursue a degree from a top school for popular music, jazz performance, music production, film scoring, and even music business, consider Berklee as, quite possibly, the very best option for pursuing your talents. The number of famous, rich, accomplished, and influential alumni that have come from Berklee is unrivaled by almost any other music school; check out their list of alumni here.
5. Yale School of Music (New Haven, CT)
A school blessed with an anonymous $100,000,000.00 endowment made in the last decade, students accepted to the Yale School of Music are able to go to this program free of charge. Admission to this highly competitive college is for graduate students only. If you are applying to Yale as an undergraduate, the music courses you would take at the school are completely different than those offered in the graduate music college.
Their programs are among the most lauded in the country; some of their respected faculty members include composer Martin Bresnick, who has taught an unusually large number of important composers working professionally, clarinetist David Shifrin, who is regularly heard on top commercial recordings throughout the world, and cellist Aldo Parisot, who has taught at the school since 1958.
Ten years ago, I would have said that Juilliard has the highest number of active alumni in professional music; in 2014, the leader could be Yale, who have students in practically every professional music position available to a musician around the entire globe. Not to mention, many of Yale’s students begin networking with top talent in New York City while at Yale, due to the college’s close proximity to the important cultural center.
Noted for boasting several of the top programs in the nation, including music composition, as well as percussion, strings, winds, and brass performance, the Yale School of Music is a serious contender that should be on every prospective graduate student’s list.
4. University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (Ann Arbor, MI)
The school of music widely considered to have the very best musical theatre and classical saxophone programs, this institution, famously noted for graduating the likes of Madonna, Darren Criss, and Iggy Pop, consistently sends students to lucrative positions in the top broadway stages and professional symphonies throughout the globe. Additionally, the school also hosts the most popular cello teacher in the nation, Richard Aaron, who is noted for having students almost every year advance to positions in the top-paying symphonic orchestras in the entire world.
Other notable faculty members include the Grammy-Award winning composer Michael Daugherty, who became an internationally known composer in the late 1980s with the premiere of his “Metropolis Symphony,” as well as recently appointed saxophone professor Timothy McAllister, a man who has held a dramatic influence over the state of classical saxophone in the last 10 years.
Outside of classical music performance, the school also boasts a state-of-the-art music production facility.
A selective institution with a strong background in both music and traditional academics, as well as an intelligent, liberal arts community in Ann Arbor, MI, this school is the creme de la creme of state-sponsored music schools.
3. Juilliard School – New York, NY
Juilliard has the benefit of not only having one of the most distinguished names in classical music history, but also has an incredibly impressive list of alumni that have walked from its stages. From actor Robin Williams to trumpeter Miles Davis to cellist Yo-Yo Ma to clarinetist-turned-economist Alan Greenspan. Juilliard, it goes without saying, attracts only the most accomplished faculty in the entire world, including a conductor of a major orchestra in Alan Gilbert, a Pulitzer Prize winner in John Corigliano, and a leading french hornist in Erik Ralske, as well as world-beloved violinist Itzhak Perlman and even pianist Emmanuel Ax.
Students at Juilliard are regularly named prizewinners in all of the top competitions, including the ASCAP and BMI student composer awards, piano competitions like Van Cliburn, and even chamber music competitions like Fischoff. The students also have the benefit of living in a cultural epicenter of America, getting to network with myriads of people and musicians in and out of Juilliard. The advantage of living in New York City as a Juilliard student is phenomenal for those students who are able to capitalize it.
For graduate study, Juilliard could be the very best option in the country, along with Yale and the next two colleges on this list. The acceptance rate at Juilliard is a mere 8%, making it even more selective than Eastman, which accepts 13% of students. However, it is not as selective as the next college listed below…
2. Curtis Institute of Music – Philadelphia, PA
There is no classical musician that has never heard the word “Curtis Institute of Music” in the same sentence as “the Juilliard School” – both schools are regularly compared against each other in the dog eat dog competitive world of classical music performance and education.
Curtis has been a hot school lately, having graduated in the last ten years the likes of international piano sensations Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Other recent alumni have gone on to principal positions in the major orchestras of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta, among many others! The school has a tradition of graduating legendary talent, such as Leonard Bernstein, who left the institution with a master’s degree in conducting in the early 1940’s.
What sets Curtis above the rest, besides impeccable faculty and an exceptionally noted alumni history, is that it is completely free of charge, a tradition it has held for almost 85 years. This is a benefit not shared by its competitive counterpart, the Juilliard School, nor nearly any other music college in the nation, except for the Yale School of Music graduate program, the Colburn School in Los Angeles, and the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. It is, indeed, the most selective music college in the entire world, with acceptance rates typically below 5%.
1. Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (Bloomington, IN)
Perhaps the most impressive, diverse, and extraordinary music school in the entire world, the IU Jacobs School of Music offers unmatched quality of instruction to its large student body of approximately 1,600 music students. Considered to be one of the best schools in the nation for vocal performance, music composition, percussion performance, orchestral conducting, and even music librarianship, the IU Jacobs School of Music is widely known for staging an incredible six operatic productions every single school year. Most other colleges can only afford to stage two!
The institution also boasts an astounding thirteen choirs, seven symphonic orchestras, eight wind bands, a nationally lauded contemporary music ensemble, and well over 600 performances per year. Whether you are a budding undergraduate or an advanced doctoral student, you will never run out of top-level ensembles to perform with or write music for at this school.
With 1600 students, IU Jacobs School of Music hosts an impressive diversity of faculty, from legendary soprano Sylvia McNair to the hallowed pianists Andre Watts and Menahem Pressler. Joshua Bell is also listed as a lecturer on the website, though considering his substantial fame and international concertizing schedule, it is unclear how much time he actually spends at the school teaching. A number of other top musicians teach at Indiana as well.
Although it is not free to attend like Yale, Curtis, and Colburn, the Jacobs School of Music is not only much more affordable to musicians who are residents of Indiana, the school also doles out an unbelievable $5 million dollars per year in merit-based funds. Additionally, students at the entire Indiana University (including music and all other programs) are provided over $280 million each year in loans and federal funding. No student should have to say no to Indiana based on lack of finances.
The IU Jacobs School of Music, our #1 program in the entire nation, is a serious program breeding top-level talent that should be on every single prospective music student’s list.