Composers, performers, producers, educators, music therapists…
Behind this important fabric of society lies some of the most profound education one can receive in any college major.
Choosing to attend a top college for music is among the most important decisions for any young musician and their family.
Why should a musician go to music school?
Going to college for music gives you the opportunity to study with master musicians of top orchestras, performers who have won Grammy awards, jazz artists who have recorded on the top labels, Pulitzer-prize winning composers…
At music school, you are given the unparalleled opportunity to study with some of the greatest minds in the world of music.
Additionally, you can surround yourself with peers on the same mission as you, build your future contacts, and begin an amazing career in music.
Regardless, one of the most common problems students have interested in attending college for music is trying to find the very best schools for them.
What goes into a great music school?
We look at the following when making this list:
- Quality of faculty at the school; at music school, students often study with the same individual faculty instructor, or group of faculty, for all 4 years of education.
- Alumni accomplishment
- Level of student ability at the school – some schools have far more advanced musicians than others
- Overall prestige
- Resources and performance opportunities provided for students
Before we get started, it’s important to realize that this list, just like any other informed list, is based on opinion.
The best school for any individual student is going to be the school that fits them best.
This particular list is a great place to get started on your search for the top schools.
And of course, for some specialty niches, such as popular music performance, songwriting, and musical theatre, many other schools come into play for the top names besides some of the ones in this list.
Finally, only undergraduate music programs were considered for this particular list (so that excludes Yale School of Music and Academy of Vocal Arts, two top-tier programs for older students).
Without further ado, listed alphabetically, here are our picks for the top 20 music schools in the country.
Bard College-Conservatory of Music (Annandale-On-Hudson, NY)
We start our list in a remote New York town housing one of the most important music programs worldwide.
Noted for top-tier performance faculty, incredibly talented students, and an administration headed by a legendary President, Bard is an intriguing option for an aspiring music major.
Bard is unique; all undergraduate students in the program must hold a dual major with a program outside the Conservatory.
For the student desiring both music and a rigorous academic major, this represents the ultimate option to immerse yourself in a culture where every single student is encouraged to pursue a well-rounded, individualistic path.
Faculty at the school are among the best in the world. In fact, many hold dual appointments with other top schools on this list such as Juilliard and Curtis.
The culture of Bard is best described as liberal. Nearly the entire student population is leans left on the political spectrum, and historically the school has been noted as a haven for the non-traditional student.
The embodiment of the non-traditional student is well-represented by Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College and a maverick in the world of academia who himself is an accomplished musical artist.
Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA)
The Berklee College of Music is perhaps the most innovative music program in the country.
While other schools have been focused on the “traditional” classical performance of music, Berklee has always had a taste for the contemporary, placing itself at the forefront of modern music styles.
People at Berklee often refer to the school as a “microcosm of the music industry,” and it is easy to see why…
First of all, the contemporary performance program is one of a kind.
The school’s steadfast dedication to popular music, jazz, and even global music styles make it the breeding ground for some of the world’s most famous performers.
Ever heard of Imagine Dragons, the chart-topping modern rock band? They formed at Berklee.
Or perhaps Dream Theater, one of history’s greatest heavy metal band?
They also formed at Berklee. Or perhaps you have heard of one of these 120 Grammy winners before, who are all alumni of Berklee.
These are the kinds of people who come out of Berklee every single year.
On top of the performance program, the music production & recording programs are second-to-none.
The school has over 25 recording studios, which is about 24 more than most music schools in the US.
On top of this, the school’s business program offers real-world music business training to students who want to take their music degrees into marketing, booking, entrepreneurship, and representation.
In 2016, Boston Conservatory, once an independent institution, merged with Berklee. Since then, these two institutions have combined to create one of the most impressive programs spanning classical, jazz, and contemporary styles.
At Boston Conservatory, the most noted program is perhaps musical theatre, which has sent countless students to Broadway as well as other top theatres and commercial venues throughout the entire world.
The deep connection Boston Conservatory has with the greater Boston music scene is deep. Students, alumni, and faculty are affiliated with the dozens of orchestras, choirs, chamber ensembles, jazz clubs, and more that Boston has to offer.
The city of Boston is also one of the best places to study music in the US.
There are five colleges of music in the greater Boston area – Berklee, New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Boston University’s School of Music, and the Longy School of Music – all of which are among the best in the country.
Bienen School of Music (Northwestern University) (Evanston, IL)
Perhaps the most academically prestigious school on this list, Northwestern is one of the foremost universities for the student who excels both musically and academically.
The heart of Northwestern lies within its deep connection to the Chicago Symphony; many members of the Chicago Symphony, one of the top orchestras worldwide, are on the faculty of this school.
Historically, Northwestern has been one of the top schools for brass performance. Today, the tradition still stands – alumni of the brass program, as well as the other music departments, at Northwestern hold positions in the world’s top orchestras.
Northwestern offers two initiatives bringing world-famous musicians to campus for artist residencies. In these residencies, students interact with the musicians in class and concert settings.
One such initiative in the Nemmers Prize, a $100,000 award bestowed every other year to a major composer worldwide. Past winners include Pulitzer winning composers Steve Reich, Jennifer Higdon, John Adams, and Aaron Kernis.
Another such initiative is the Jean Gimbel Lane Prize, a $50,000 award given to major classical concert pianists. Past recipients include Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax.
We note the extraordinary facilities of Northwestern’s music program. The Music Library, founded in 1945, contains 300,000 volumes, including extensive resources for modern music.
In Fall 2015, the school opened the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, an impressive $100,000,000+ building housing a Bienen’s major concerts.
Cleveland Institute of Music (Cleveland, OH)
An institution of tremendous depth, the magic of Cleveland Institute starts at Severance Hall, where the closely affiliated, world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra performs the repertoire’s greatest music.
Like many other independent conservatories (Juilliard, Curtis, NEC), many of the faculty in this orchestra also teach in the Cleveland Institute of
Music, making this conservatory a compelling option for students who wish to receive the highest levels of orchestral training from faculty playing in one of the world’s elite ensembles.
Notably, students who are both musically and academically inclined can fulfill their passions studying at Cleveland Institute. CIM has an arrangement with Case Western Reserve University (US News #42 ranked national university) in which students accepted to both schools can pursue simultaneous degrees.
The atmosphere at Cleveland can only be described as a big family. With less than 500 students in the entire school, the Cleveland Institute’s student body are all deeply connected with the faculty, resulting in a close, 1-on-1 partnership existing between students and mentors.
Alumni of the school have gone into the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and dozens of other professional ensembles worldwide.
In 2016, the school appointed Paul Hogle to the Presidency. He has taken his school on an incredible mission moving forward, pushing to a tuition-free future for its students.
Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)
Sometimes referred to as the “West Coast Curtis,” Colburn is the smallest independent conservatory in the country with just 110 students in its college program.
Like Curtis, tuition is free for all attending students.
The students at Colburn are among the best in the world. The program is entirely classical, and is only offered to instrumentalists – no vocalists, composers, or jazz majors are at Colburn.
Depending on the year, admission into Colburn is between 5% – 10%, making it just as competitive as Juilliard and Curtis.
Faculty at the school are among the best in the world in their profession.
You can look to just about any instrumental department and find a faculty member who is considered one of the best teachers in the world for what they do – Yehuda Gilad in Clarinet, Andrew Bain in Horn, Lipsett and Steinhardt in the Violin programs, etc.
If a teacher is at Colburn, you better believe they are there for a reason.
You can’t beat the location or price (free) either. Based in Los Angeles, Colburn has the distinct advantage of being right in the center of a major international arts capital.
Many of Colburn’s teachers are in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, providing students a great connection to one of the world’s most important arts organizations. The venue of the Philharmonic itself, the world-famous Walt Disney Concert Hall, is just across the street from Colburn.
Who knew downtown LA has become one of the great arts scenes of the world? Consider it a top choice for yourself if accepted.
Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, PA)
While many would call Juilliard the most famous music school in the world, musicians in the know would call Curtis the most prestigious in the world.
And for good reason – Curtis is the most selective music school in the world, with a 4% acceptance rate for students applying for the 2016-2017 school year.
On top of that, the tuition is absolutely free and always has been.
Alumni of the program is a who’s who of classical music luminaries, including composer Samuel Barber, famous for his Adagio for Strings masterpiece, Alan Gilbert, music director of the New York Philharmonic, and Leonard Bernstein, one of the most famous musicians in any genre of all time.
Curtis is perhaps best-known for being the most prominent school for professional orchestral placement in the US. Indeed, just about every single major orchestra, such as the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Seattle Symphony, and more have Curtis alumni actively performing in them.
There are only 150 to 170 music students in the school at any given time, just enough to fill a single orchestra as well as one student opera company (plus a few extra composers, classical guitarists, pianists, organists). This would make it one of the very smallest schools in the country!
The Philadelphia Orchestra is intricately connected to Curtis – alumni of the school are consistently filling the orchestra’s open roster spots. Many members of the orchestra teach at Curtis as well, providing world-class training from top orchestral musicians to these great musicians.
Keep in mind Curtis is excellent for those seeking classical performance and composition – if you are looking for jazz, popular music, or recording, you can look to other schools on this list.
Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY)
Time and time again, Eastman has demonstrated itself as one of the top conservatories in the world. You don’t have to look too deeply into the school to see why.
The faculty rate among the very best around the globe. You can take a look at any department and see what makes this school so incredibly amazing.
As one example, the classical voice program is a uniquely outstanding department, housing luminaries such as Anthony Griffey on faculty, a four-time Grammy award winning tenor who regularly performs around the world with the likes of the Metropolitan Opera.
Other faculty members of the voice program serve as the pedagogues to the world’s most renowned classical singers.
The alumni of Eastman are among the most prominent musicians in the worlds of classical music and jazz performance. They include Steve Gadd, one of the most important session drummers in history, Renee Fleming, perhaps the greatest soprano of the last 30 years, and Robert DeMaine, one of the foremost cello virtuosos of our time.
What we especially like about the school is its close-knit relationship to the University of Rochester, one of the premiere research universities in the country.
Eastman is exceptionally difficult to get into – less than 15% who apply are admitted – but for those who want the balance of an incredible education with musicians on par with those studying at schools such as Juilliard, you cannot beat the Eastman experience.
Frost School of Music (University of Miami) (Coral Gables, FL)
One of the top music schools in the south, Frost is particularly well-known for its contemporary music division.
With unparalleled curricular offerings in music business, production, and even artist development, Miami’s Frost School of Music is one of the top schools, alongside Berklee and USC, for students wishing to pursue a more modern style of music.
One such major at the school is their Musicianship, Artistry, Development, and Entrepreneurship (MADE) major, a program merging both performance and business into one curriculum preparing students for the real world of contemporary artistry.
Miami is one of the few schools in the country that offers a commercial music major. Thankfully, schools are slowly but surely adopting this curriculum to accommodate the career aspirations of every genre of musician.
Outside of contemporary music, the college is a force for classical performance. Earlier this month, we recognized Charles Castleman, a violin professor at Miami, as a legendary pedagogue.
Previously serving at Eastman School of Music, Professor Castleman is one of the most important violin teachers of the last half-century.
It should also be noted: the jazz program at Miami is outstanding. Alumni of the program regularly find themselves getting work in the country’s top music cities, including LA, NYC, and Nashville.
Jacobs School of Music (Indiana University) (Bloomington, IN)
The Jacobs School of Music is widely regarded as one of the top music schools in the country, often being ranked as high as number one.
In fact, according to the Jacobs School of Music Wikipedia article, the school was previously ranked number one by the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as Change Magazine.
Long regarded as one of the foremost schools for opera, the school stages six operas a year, which is three more than any other competitor school in the country.
Historically, the school was the very first non-professional opera company to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Indeed, musical life at Indiana is thriving – with nearly 1,600 students and 1,100 performance opportunities each year, the Jacobs School of Music finds itself unable to go a whole school day without some kind of performance recital!
The jazz program at Indiana consistently produces some of the most successful jazz musicians in the world. Alumni of the jazz program include influential jazz educator Jamey Aebersold, jazz composer David Baker, and jazz pianist Michael Weiss.
The facilities at Indiana are top of the line. The William and Gayle Cook Music Library is easily one of the largest music libraries in any school throughout the world. In fact, because of this, the school has a well-recognized Master’s of Library Science in Music degree, one of the few of its kind throughout the US.
Additionally, the school’s Musical Arts Center houses a theatre that can hold a 100-piece orchestra playing for 1,460 people.
Overall, the Jacobs School of Music – one of the largest music schools in the world – is one of the most exciting and accomplished institutions for music in the US.
Juilliard School (New York, NY)
What can you say about Juilliard that is not already known?
Easily the most famous and well-known institution of music throughout the world, many of the greatest classical soloists of our time attended Juilliard.
The history of Juilliard is one of virtuosic tradition in music, theatre, and dance. Time and time again, we see many of the best musicians in the world graduate from the halls of Juilliard.
In fact, just perusing the list of famous alumni from Juilliard almost seems like a who’s-who rolodex of the most celebrated talent of the 20th and 21st centuries.
The acceptance rate at Juilliard is miniscule – between 5% and 8% of all applicants are accepted into the program in any given year. The only music school more selective would be Curtis, also mentioned in this list.
The faculty at Juilliard are among the most celebrated throughout the world.
They include luminaries such as Joseph Alessi, perhaps the world’s greatest trombone player, Ithzak Perlman, perhaps the world’s greatest violin player, and Richard Aaron, perhaps the world’s top cello teacher (he also teaches at Michigan).
The location of Juilliard is admittedly one of the most desirable of any music school in the world.
Not only is it located in New York City, the most important city for the arts in the US, it is also located in Lincoln Center, a melting pot of classical music activity that houses the New York Philharmonic as well as the Metropolitan Opera.
Additionally, the jazz program at Juilliard is perhaps the most selective of its kind, taking just a small studio of the very finest musicians. Faculty at Juilliard’s jazz program include Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer winning trumpet virtuoso.
Manhattan School of Music (New York, NY)
Few can dispute the legendary status of the Manhattan School of Music.
Founded over one century ago in 1917, the Manhattan School of Music has become one of the world’s premiere training centers for tomorrow’s top musicians.
MSM’s reputation originally laid on the shoulders of its classical performance faculty, many of which became among the most outstanding musicians worldwide.
Today, some of those faculty include the most noted names in classical music, including David Krakauer, classical clarinetist extraordinaire, Linda Chesis, one of the most important flute teachers in the country, and Yefim Bronfman, a legend in the world of classical piano performance.
An argument can be made that the jazz performance program at Manhattan School of Music is even more prestigious than that of any other jazz program in the US.
50 faculty musicians head the jazz performance program, all of which are active, in-demand artists in the New York City and international music scenes.
These figureheads include Dave Liebman, one of the great jazz saxophonists of our time, Stefon Harris, an in-demand jazz vibraphonist, and Ron Carter, the most recorded jazz bassist in history who has appeared on a staggering 2,200+ recordings!
Recently, the school has instituted a musical theatre program. Due to its close proximity and close association with top Broadway artists, this musical theatre program has already risen to one of the top of its kind.
New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, MA)
Most people know NEC because of the world-class orchestral training it provides.
Indeed, this school is one of the best in the world for placement into top orchestras. Alumni of New England Conservatory preside in just about every major orchestra in the country.
Of course, the school’s deep connection to orchestral training begins with its close association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the most important orchestras throughout the entire world. Many members of the BSO also preside on the faculty here.
But what many do not know is that NEC has perhaps the most impressive jazz performance program in the world.
Legendary saxophonist Michael Brecker was famously asked “how does it feel to be the greatest living jazz saxophonist?”
His response? “Ask Jerry Bergonzi,” one of NEC’s most lauded faculty artists.
Other jazz faculty include Jason Moran, Ethan Iverson (formerly of the Bad Plus), and Miguel Zenon, all legends in contemporary jazz.
Pictured above, Jordan Hall is housed inside New England Conservatory. One of America’s greatest concert venues, it is the only conservatory building in the nation to be labeled as a National Historic Landmark.
New School College of Performing Arts (New York, NY)
Housing two of the most important music institutions in the country, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well as the Mannes School of Music, the New School’s unique offerings and recent faculty hirings have ascended its stature towards the top.
Richard Kessler is the Executive Dean of the Performing Arts school, encompassing both the New School for Jazz as well as Mannes.
Originally hired to advance the direction of Mannes, we interviewed Richard in late 2014 as he was embarking on making The New School one of the best training centers for professional musicians in the country.
Now in early 2019, Richard has delivered on the promises he would bring to the New School, bringing Mannes downtown to integrate the school with the greater cultural scene of New York.
Additionally, his additions to the school’s faculty mark an important turning point for Mannes’ future. Some of these faculty are members of the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York City Opera, and Metropolitan Opera.
Others are some of the most important composers in the country, including recent hires Missy Mazzoli and David T. Little.
The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, the other school besides Mannes in the College of Performing Arts, houses one of the best jazz programs in the country.
Faculty are among New York’s top jazz musicians. These include Andrew Cyrille, legendary avant-garde jazz drummer, and Vic Juris, a seminal jazz guitarist.
Oberlin College-Conservatory of Music (Oberlin, OH)
The ultimate liberal arts college experience for the full-time music major, what distinguishes Oberlin from other top music schools worldwide is the unusually strong emphasis on the undergraduate experience.
With a small exception, the entire music program is undergraduate at Oberlin.
Why is this advantageous?
This allows for more resources and opportunities for the undergraduate student body, with zero competition stemming from any graduate students for top seats in orchestras, opera productions, and other major performance opportunities.
For the student aspiring to pursue music and a second academic major, few schools are better than Oberlin, which outside of the conservatory is considered a top liberal arts school nationwide.
The campus itself is conducive to the double major; you only have to walk one short block from the conservatory to get to the non-music classes.
Now, let’s talk about the conservatory itself.
One of the most important schools in the country, the school boasts not just an amazing classical music performance program, it also is home to an impeccable jazz performance program.
Only 40 minutes from Cleveland, students are able to get the major city experience while studying in the idyllic setting of Oberlin, OH.
Recently, the composition program at Oberlin has made tremendous strides forward, becoming one of the most desirable places to study at the undergraduate level.
After 26 years at USC Thornton, Stephen Hartke became the head of the composition program at Oberlin in 2015. His students are widely considered among the best young composers in the world.