University of Southern California Thornton School of Music: Ranking, Acceptance Rate, Tuition, and More

The University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music holds what many consider to be top programs in composition, classical guitar, cello, and even clarinet. Thornton is also home to one of the best film music composition programs, rivaling both NYU and Berklee.

Add this to the school’s location in sunny California, and you have a strong contender (along with the Colburn School) for a top-notch music school in Los Angeles, a city at the heart of the film and recorded music industry.

Further, the USC Thornton School of Music has strong scholarship opportunities. They strive to provide all undergraduates financial, need-based, assistance; however, doing so requires you to adhere to strict deadlines including a considerable amount of documentation, so get started early.

Thornton also provides solid merit-best aid and typically awards one-third of its undergraduates $5,000 – $10,000 annually. You can also apply for USC academic scholarships and, for master and doctoral students, the school provides teaching assistantships.

You can find a full list of scholarships at USC Thornton here.

The Thornton School of Music was founded in 1884 and is one of the oldest continually operating cultural institution in Los Angeles.

Downtown Los Angeles – photo by Manukm via Pixabay

After World War II, Thornton became deeply intertwined with the cultural renaissance in Los Angeles and many of its faculty and graduates went on to perform in the newly formed Los Angeles Philharmonic; during this flourishing, the school drew internationally renowned faculty such as Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatagorsky and Ingolf Dahl.

More recently, the school became the first official university affiliate of the GRAMMY Museum, which allows the school access to the museum for education, curriculum, research, and even internships!

Perhaps the most compelling reason to put Thornton on your top list of music schools, is the range of its program offerings.

From classical performance and composition, to contemporary music including music technology, screen scoring, and music industry studies, Thornton provides its students with a broad range of offerings to hone your craft while being exposed to a variety of styles.

Acceptance Rate

The University of Southern California, Thornton School of Music has an acceptance rate of approximately 20% and its total student body averages around 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students combined.

Keep in mind this is only for some programs in the school. One program in particular that is extremely desirable for admission, the Popular Music program, has an acceptance rate of less than 5%, according to my personal sources.

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

Although Thornton offers scholarship support, the cost of tuition and other fees is certainly on the high end. For undergraduates, the cost of tuition is $51,442 per academic year and, for graduate students, the cost of tuition is $27,728 per year.

The cost of student housing and meal plans ranges from $15,831 to $17,359 depending on what room type you choose. In short, a common suite is less expensive than a single-occupancy room.

For those looking to live off campus, LA isn’t cheap, but it is not nearly as expensive as say a New York City either.. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $1,950 per month, although it’s a bit more reasonable for a two-bedroom apartment at $2,500 if you split the cost.

You can find a helpful breakdown of the cost of attending Thornton here. Note: the school does not list personal and book expenses, but they typically cost around $800 for books and $2000 for personal expenses per year.

If you need financial help to pay for Thornton, we recommend you apply for support through FAFSA to maximize your chances for funding your education.

Requirements and Admissions Tips

The Thornton School of Music offers undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees and is comprised of three main departments Classical Performance and Composition, which offers the following programs: Choral and Sacred Music, Classical Guitar, Composition, Keyboard Collaborative Arts, Keyboard Studies, Organ Studies, Strings, Vocal Arts (Classical Voice/Opera), and Winds and Percussion; there is also the Contemporary Music Department, which offers programs in Jazz Studies, Music Industry, Music Technology, Popular Music, Screen Scoring, and Studio/Jazz Guitar; finally, there is Scholarly and Professional Studies, which offers Arts Leadership, Early Music Performance, Music Teaching and Learning, Musicology, Community Engagement, and the Polish Music Center.

By clicking on each link above, you can find in-depth information about your chosen field of study.

The deadline for the undergraduate application if December 1st of any given year. Please note: the application deadline is when all material must be received and is not a postmark deadline.

To apply you must fill out the USC Undergraduate Application and submit the requirements for your chosen program such as prescreen recordings, compositions, or lyric sheets. You can find a list of application requirements for each program here. The link also contains audition requirements should you be selected.

Those of you wishing to pursue a graduate degree can learn more about the application process here.

If you are accepted to audition at Thornton, I would recommend you schedule a lesson with a faculty member in the department you are interested in enrolling into at Thornton 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

The graduates from the Thornton School of Music boast some serious accomplishments. In 2007, eight alumni and faculty received Grammy Awards and in 2009 faculty and alumni won six awards … Talk about impressive!

Alumni include Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, recipient of the National Medal of Arts and four time Grammy winner; Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic; and film composer David Newman who has scored over 100 films including War of the Roses, Heathers, and, more recently, Serenity.

You can find more about Thornton Alumni here.


There are far too many exceptional faculty members at Thornton to discuss in full, but here are a few: Morten Lauridsen, perhaps the most important living choral composer in the US alongside Eric Whitacre; classical guitarist Pepe Romero, son of legendary Celedonio Romero, who, along with his father and brothers, formed the Romeros Quartet and went to play at the White House, for Pope John Paul II, and for Prince Charles (to name a few); and internationally renowned cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, who has performed with the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, the San Francisco, Pittsburgh, BBC and London Symphonies, and many others.

You can find a complete list of Thornton faculty here.

Note: if you’re looking to find a professor to work with at Thornton, the faculty page includes excellent and detailed bios.

Similar Schools & Ranking

A similar school to the Thornton School of Music would have a deep faculty, prestigious alumni, and, most of all, an excellent classical and contemporary music department.

At Music School Central, we rank Thornton highly at number 11 on our top music school list published in 2014.

When we publish our updated list of the top music schools in 2019, it will however be in the top 10. Stay posted for that update.

When considering classical performance, keep in mind the school’s close-knit relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, one of the nation’s pre-eminent ensembles.

This relationship by itself makes the school among the most attractive in the nation.

Of course, our rankings are subjective; however, musicians in screen scoring, music technology, and popular music should especially take note of Thornton.

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