It’s true – California is home to a number of amazing music schools.
Now, when people talk about the top music colleges in the country, we usually hear about the east coast or midwest schools.
You know them – in New York City alone we have several great music programs like MSM and Mannes, in Boston NEC and Berklee, Philadelphia has Curtis…
In the midwest, we talk about Michigan, Indiana, and Northwestern as the frontrunners. Other well-known programs in the midwest include Cleveland Institute of Music and Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music.
However, the conversation often ends there, and most people “in the know” about music schools can usually name just 1 or 2 in California.
Today, we talk about 10 amazing music schools & programs based in California.
California State University-Northridge (Los Angeles, CA)
CSU-Northridge has a surprisingly large influence in the world of music.
For one, a great deal of music educators throughout the state of California received their training at CSU Northridge. That means, by association, tens of thousands of musicians were taught in high school by someone who is an alum of this school.
Outside of education, CSU-Northridge is one of the undergraduate programs in the country with a focus on two popular areas of contemporary music study – film scoring as well as music industry.
And, they have quite an accomplished student body of jazz musicians.
The faculty in jazz here is just outstanding – players like jazz legends John Pisano, Wayne Bergeron (also teaches at the next school in this list), and Luis Conte, percussionist who has performed with Eric Clapton, Madonna, and James Taylor.
Los Angeles College of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
It’s a mini-Berklee.
Like Berklee, its focus is on contemporary popular music – that includes music production, performance, songwriting, jazz, the whole nine yards.
Also like Berklee, it is an urban campus.
Unlike Berklee, LACM is young and small – just 200 or so students comprise this unique school.
LACM is also, perhaps controversially, a for-profit music school. Although this is not normally associated as a positive, in this instance it is okay because the quality of the school is very high.
In particular, some of the faculty here are big names not only in Los Angeles, but throughout the entire country. People like jazz trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, previously a member of Maynard Ferguson’s 80s band, and Tim Landers, bassist for several notable acts including Al Di Meola and Gil Evans.
This is also one of the few schools in the US where you can major in guitar or electric bass performance.
Azusa Pacific University School of Music (Azusa, CA)
Years ago, I ranked Azusa Pacific as one of the nation’s top hidden gem music schools.
I standby this assertion today – Azusa Pacific is a fine school of music based outside of Los Angeles.
One unique program Azusa Pacific offers that few other music schools do is a major in Music and Worship. Although not required for a job in a Church, this degree would give students an advantage when searching for a job in a religious institution.
Other interesting offerings at Azusa Pacific include a Commercial Music major. Unlike the majority of Commercial music majors at schools across the country, this one is focused on the Christian Music Industry. Although a niche major, this could be the right school for someone interested in the business, production, and performance of contemporary Christian music.
Finally, APU is among the growing list of schools with an Entrepreneurship program specifically for music. Available at the Master’s degree level, this program is designed to help music students start and grow careers in music business or management.
University of Redlands School of Music (Long Beach, CA)
The University of Redlands counts itself among other fine Southern California music programs, including Chapman, UCLA, USC, Pepperdine’s music program, LACM, CSU-Northridge, and more.
The University of Redlands does maintain a strong relationship with a regional orchestra appropriately known as the Redlands Symphony Orchestra. Students at University of Redlands have found themselves performing in this group as substitutes or even sectional players. Additionally, a number of faculty members perform regularly in this group.
Music Education is one of the most popular majors at this school, which is actually the trend throughout most music departments and programs in the country. Although students are awarded licensure in California upon graduation, reciprocity agreements ensure students can teach in a public, k-12 setting in any state.
Double-degree programs are also common here in music and an outside field, making this a strong choice for a student interested in both music and academics.
Chapman University Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music (Orange, CA)
Chapman is a music school on the rise, and will likely be a top-25 music school nationwide, if it isn’t already, within the next decade.
Perhaps its best known program is in voice. Although primarily a classical voice school, upperclassmen can take classes in jazz voice as well, giving students a solid foundation in the two most significant and difficult genres of music.
Another well-known program is in Piano Performance. Grace Fong, one of the younger professors at the school, has won some of the world’s most prestigious competitions, including Leeds in 2006 and the Bosendorfer International Competition in 2007.
Chapman as a whole is probably most well-known for its film school, the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Although not a music program, the presence of this institution does foster a unique collaboration between students in music and students in film.
University of California Los Angeles Herb Alpert School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
Historically, UCLA has not normally been considered in the same company as some other tier-1 university music schools like Michigan, USC, and Northwestern.
However, this sentiment seems to be changing; with an increasing roster of world-renowned faculty, a new undergraduate jazz program known as “Global Jazz Studies,” and perhaps the most diverse musicology & ethnomusicology program in the country, UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music has a lot of good going for it.
What I like about UCLA, for some students, is its connection to a major university. Having spoken with over 2,000 parents of music students, I can confidently say that over 80% of them desire a school with both music and academics, and their children most of the time want to be in a major city.
UCLA is an especially good deal for in-state students, as the tuition is dramatically lower than comparably excellent music programs.
California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
CalArts is something of a pleasant anomaly in the world of music.
Niche interests are abundant at CalArts; besides standard fare such as performance and composition, CalArts is home to some of the following majors: Experimental Popular Music, African Music and Dance, Experimental Sound Practices, North Indian Music, and World Music Performance.
CalArts is also entirely an arts-based school; musicians go to school with filmmakers, ceramicists, dancers, actors, and more.
The melting pot of this creative environment results in genre-defying collaboration.
Additionally, CalArts has close ties to Disney, who are always in need of creative types in their productions. In fact, Walt Disney himself was on the faculty of the school when it first opened over 60 years ago.
CalArts is a smart choice for a student who does not want to pursue rigorous academics, but does like the idea of an arts-only institution; like other independent, non-university attached music programs on this list, CalArts does not require SATs for admission.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music (San Francisco, CA)
One of the nation’s most important music schools, the San Francisco Conservatory, like most other great independent conservatories, is affiliated with a tier-1 orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony.
The atmosphere at SFCM is best described as small and tight-knit. The school is, like four others on this list, an independent, non-university-affiliated music school.
The school also has a newish program called Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM for short). Affiliated with west coast mainstay music organization SFJazz, faculty in the RJAM program include internationally successful artists like guitarist Julian Lage. Another faculty member, pianist Rebeca Mauleón, has performed with celebrities like Santana and Tito Puente.
This is what makes SFCM one of the better music schools in the country – faculty who have actually been there, done it in the music field are the type of people you find at this school.
San Francisco itself is, although first and foremost a tech city, a great place for an artist to hang his or her hat in. Over 100 venues call San Francisco home, providing music students abundant opportunities for performing in and out of school.
Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)
Classical musicians often call Colburn the “West Coast Curtis” for good reason – it’s small, unbelievably selective, and free of tuition.
Like Curtis, it only caters to classical musicians; however, unlike Curtis, it only caters to instrumentalists and conductors. Curtis, on other hand, additionally has programs in voice and composition.
One recent program Colburn has instituted is the Diploma in Conducting. Led by esteemed conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, previously the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, only three fellows in any given year are accepted into this program.
The faculty at Colburn are among the nation’s best teachers. Some of them include Clive Greensmith, who was the cellist of the Tokyo Quartet for nearly 15 years, Andrew Bain, who has been the principal horn player of the LA Phil for 8 years, and Mark Lawrence, a top trombone teacher.
Colburn is not only in a great music city, it is literally less than 1 block away from Walt Disney Concert Hall, the home of the LA Phil. Students here get direct access to faculty who also perform in the LA Phil.
University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
USC is among the very best music schools in the country.
Classical performers enjoy access to faculty who perform in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, widely regarded as a top-3 orchestra in the country and likely top-10 worldwide.
Music Production students are home to what is perhaps the most selective and impressive music production program in the country, accepting just a handful of students out of many, many applications a year.
USC even has a Popular Music Performance program with an acceptance rate of less than 5%. Alongside Berklee, Belmont, and NYU Clive Davis, it is widely regarded as among the best, if not the best, in the country. Even Grammy-winning artist Melissa Manchester used to be on the faculty here just a few years ago.
Two other excellent programs at USC include Music Industry, essentially a music business program, and jazz performance. The faculty in jazz performance here are just as good as anywhere else in the country, and include names like legendary jazz musician Bob Mintzer and hugely successful jazz drummer Peter Erskine.
Few other schools are as selective as USC Thornton, and none are as desirable given its location in an entertainment mecca. Its overall acceptance rate in music is less than 20%.
USC may not be the right fit for everyone – its large campus & urban atmosphere would likely not cater well to a student who desires a smaller, liberal arts college experience.
I would say USC does not have any particular specialty in music – whereas Colburn is strictly classical instrumentalists and California Jazz Conservatory is strictly undergraduate jazz musicians, USC stands out in how unusually well-rounded it’s curriculum is for a large music school.