In the world of classical music, there is ample debate about the top school. The Curtis Institute of Music or Juilliard? While the debate rages on over who has the best alumni, faculty, and music program, one fact sets Curtis above the rest … it’s free! That bears mentioning again: Curtis is free, a benefit not shared by Juilliard or nearly any other major music school in the nation except for the Colburn School in Los Angeles and the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

The free tuition along with the impeccable faculty and exceptional alumni make Curtis our number two pick for music schools. Given Curtis’ prestige and free tuition, the institute is one of the most selective music colleges in the entire world with acceptance rates typically below 5%!

As for funding, all incoming undergraduates and graduates receive full scholarships. Directly from the Curtis website: “Since 1928 Curtis has maintained an all-scholarship policy. The Curtis Institute of Music provides merit-based, full-tuition scholarships to all undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of their financial situation.”

If you apply to Curtis, you do not need to apply for tuition funding; however, if you wish to apply for Supplemental Financial Assistance for living expenses, you can find the application here.


Curtis Institute of Music: Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

The Curtis Institute was opened by Mary Louise Curtis Bok, the only child of Philadelphia-based Louisa Knapp and Cyrus H. K. Curtis, in 1924. Mrs. Bok worked at the Settlement Music School in South Philadelphia with culturally and financial deprived children. Her work at the settlement convinced her of the need to organize a music conservatory based on rigorous teaching and performance standards to train the next generation of musical talent.

Since its opening, Curtis graduates have won Pulitzer Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, and Avery Fisher Awards. In every major American orchestra, a Curtis alum can be found.

The institute maintains a small student body of approximately 175 students, just enough to maintain a full symphony orchestra and its opera program. The institute is unbelievably selective to ensure students perform with musical peers whose talents challenge and inspire them to be their best.

The institute’s faculty has a high proportion of actively performing professors to provide students with a direct link to professional musicians. Further, students at the institute have the opportunity to participate in over 200 public performances each year! If you are ready for the rigors of Curtis and possess the artistic talent, we highly suggestion you make Curtis a top priority on your list of prospective music schools.

Here at Music School Central, Curtis was ranked #2 on our list of the top 15 music schools in 2014. An updated list for the top schools in America will be released in mid-2017.

Acceptance Rate

With a highly selective acceptance rate, you’ll have to showcase your artistic talents to enter the Curtis Institute of Music. The average acceptance rate at the institute is less than 4-5%.

As with all applications to music school, keep in mind sometimes the numbers just don’t work to your advantage. For example, teachers can only take on a certain number of students for a given instrument each year. In these cases, musicians who apply for maxed-out studios are usually refunded their application fee and told no one who plays their instrument will be accepted that particular year.

Tuition & Fees

As noted, tuition at Curtis is free and awarded to all undergraduate and graduate students. The cost of room and board at the institute is $14,363. There also are additional expenses such as health insurance, administrative fees, and textbooks, which comes to about $6,780 in additional costs per year.

All students are required to live on campus in Lenfest Hall during their first two years of study at Curtis. The only exception are students over the age of 22; although Curtis strongly recommends all students live on campus for the first two years. If you are eligible to live off campus, Curtis provides assistance to find suitable housing.

Despite the additional expenses at Curtis, the total cost is, of course, very reasonable.

Requirements and Admissions Tips

Curtis requires pre-screening materials for all applicants in bassoon, clarinet, composition, conducting, double bass, flute, horn, piano, trombone, trumpet, violin, voice and opera. Each instrument and musical role has specific requirements for the pre-screen portion of the application. For example, clarinet must submit the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart concerto with piano accompaniment, composition encourages submissions of orchestral and large ensemble compositions, piano must submit a video recording with keyboard in view of a complete work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and so on.

You can find a complete and detailed list of each pre-screening requirement here

Please note: Curtis requires students to submit SAT scores and students must have a minimum of 500 Verbal and 500 Critical Reading to be considered.

If you are invited to audition at Curtis, you should become familiar with the requirements of each department. Although some departments allow latitude in the selection, others require specific repertoire. For example, vocalist will need to provide a live audition at the institute including one selection in English and three selections from the standard oratorio repertoire, German lieder, classic Italian songs, or French and English songs of any period.

You can find a complete list of audition / interview information here.

If you are accepted to audition at Curtis, I would recommend you schedule a lesson with a faculty member in the department you are interested in enrolling into at Curtis prior to your audition. Knowing how a specific teacher works with you is critical for determining if a school is a good fit. Also, if they like you and your playing in your lesson together, your chance for getting in might be higher. Keep in mind this is only a recommendation and not a fact in every instance.

Notable Alumni

Before even mentioning the depth of Curtis Alumni in the music world, a few facts help to drive home how much a Curtis education can accomplish: 18% of the New York Philharmonic are Curtis Alum, 45% of the Philadelphia Orchestra are Curtis Alum, and 17% of the Boston Symphony Orchestra are Curtis Alum. Further, Curtis Alumni perform at opera houses across the world including the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Opera, and the Vienna State Opera.

A few of the most notable alumni include: Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Ned Rorem, Gian Carlo Menotti, George Szell, Jennifer Higdon, and many more …

To show the connections a solid music school can make in your life, we offer the following example. The composer Samuel Barber attended Curtis in the early days of the school. The founder of Curtis, Mrs. Bok, took a special interest in the young composer and helped nurture his talents. Barber would go on to compose, at the age of 26, what many consider his most famous work: Adagio for Strings. Leonard Bernstein, also a Curtis Alumni, would go on to conduct Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the most famous of which is perhaps the recorded version in 1971 with the New York Philharmonic.

There are too many great Curtis Alumni to discuss in full here. For a good list, check out this page.


As noted, Curtis has an impressive list of active musician to help prepare students for a professional music career. Faculty include composer Jennifer Higdon recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, guitarist Jason Vieaux winner of the 2015 Grammy for best classical solo recording, and Jeffery Lang principle horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra just to name a few. Talk about amazing company!

You can find a complete list of Curtis faculty by department here.

Similar Schools & Ranking

A school similar to Curtis would be a small music school emphasizing a direct link to professional musicians. My picks for schools similar to Curtis in the US would be small, independent classical-emphasis conservatories that are affiliated with a local orchestra. This list includes Juilliard, New England Conservatory, Colburn School, and the Cleveland Institute of Music, among other schools.