We all know the old story. A group of friends meets up in a neighborhood garage. They pick up some instruments and start playing around.
Pretty soon, a band is formed. They get discovered and start playing hits around the world, all thanks to their natural talent and hard work.
That’s a great story, but unfortunately, it’s pretty unrealistic. While talent certainly can take you far in today’s music industry, it’s often not enough.
Today’s hitmakers need to not only sharpen their skills under the direction of mentors, but also understand the complex world of the music business and understand state-of-the-art technology.
For those reasons, a degree in pop music and songwriting is increasingly essential for those who want to top the charts.
Fortunately, more and more schools around the world are offering just such a degree. These programs bring in experts in the industry, the producers and songwriters that make the music stuck in everyone’s head and lets them share their secrets with students. They offer access to some of the best recording technology available, giving students real studio experience.
More importantly, they bring artists together, allowing them to collaborate and expand their skills to push the genre forward.
This list ranks schools according to their faculty, the resources they offer, and the success of their students.
So if you’re ready to see your songs rise up the charts, start by reading through this list of the best colleges for pop music and songwriting.
10. Anderson University (Anderson, SC)
At South Carolina’s Anderson University, the songwriting degree is not a stand-alone program. Rather, it is an interdisciplinary degree, one that brings together several fields of study.
At first glance, that might be surprising. After all, most songwriters emphasize their skill and artistry as musicians and writers. They may not want to delve into other subjects.
But Anderson understands that the music industry is a business. If a songwriter wants to succeed, they must know the ins and outs of selling their work. To that end, the songwriting program involves classes in the school of business, to learn how to market their work to artists and labels.
That doesn’t mean that Anderson ignores the artistic element. In fact, students also take classes in the English Department and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. These classes help songwriters develop their performance and writing skills.
9. Columbia College Chicago (Chicago, IL)
For those looking for wide-ranging education in various modern musical styles, they can do no better than Columbia College Chicago’s Bachelor of Music in Contemporary, Urban, and Popular Music.
Taking advantage of the school’s urban campus, CCC brings in a faculty consisting of seasoned professionals.
Faculty members include Cassandra O’Neal, who has recorded and performed with major acts such as Mary J. Blige, Prince, and Macy Gray. With the support of these teachers, students get an inside look at the industry they hope to join.
In addition to its faculty, CCC also has several facilities to aid future songwriters. The school’s fully-appointed Music Center features several spaces for performance and practice.
The Center’s Digital Music Lab includes everything performers need to record their own music, allowing them to create an album to shop to labels and artists.
8. Middle Tennessee State University (Murfreesboro, TN)
Every program on this list measures its value in practical terms. If its students go on to success in the music industry, if its faculty consists of professional artists, then it is a good program.
For that reason, Middle Tennessee State University’s commercial songwriting program deserves attention.
The school’s faculty includes Torrance “Street Symphony” Esmond. A graduate of MTSU, Esmond has spent 16 years in the industry, working with artists such as Yo Gotti and 2 Chainz and winning a Grammy. He has returned to the school to teach Hip Hop and R&B songwriting.
Esmond is just one of the professionals involved with MTSU. Alumni include the Grammy-nominated songwriter Shelly Peiken, who has written Billboard hits for artists Christina Aguilera and Bebe Rexha. Dez Dickerson went on to perform with Prince as a founding member of The Revolution.
MTSU has crafted a well-trod path of success for students to follow.
7. University of Colorado at Denver (Denver, CO)
At the University of Colorado at Denver, students learn both the fundamentals of musicianship and the art of writing. The school trains students to pursue careers in music publishing, advertising, music producing and studio performing, and more.
Other students take their studies further into graduate school, where they study music education, musicology, and more.
Students succeed in these fields thanks the UC-Denver’s cross-disciplinary approach to teaching songwriting. Students take classes in their instrument, including focused courses in piano and ear training, as well as courses in music marketing, publishing, and artist management.
Students can find further inspiration by visiting UC-Denver’s Entertainment Industry Collection at the Volkmann Klapholz Memorial Library. Holdings include many artifacts commemorating the creation of some of the most essential pop culture products, including papers and books.
6. California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
The California Institute of the Arts needs no introduction. Its graduates have gone on to become leaders in the fields of animation, filmmaking, and production. So it should come as no surprise that CalArts also has a first-rate songwriting program.
As part of the School of Music, the school’s musical arts/experimental pop specialization encourages students to innovate in the genre. Encouraging students to embrace all the diversity and incongruities in their personal interests, CalArts provides mentorship as artists blaze their creative trails.
The program takes advantage of the school’s faculty and resources with an emphasis on musical articulation. Working alongside a faculty mentor, students are encouraged to experiment.
Students have the opportunity to develop those experiments in their numerous recording spaces. Open 24 hours a day, the Digital Music studio features everything artists need to make their masterpiece.
5. Belmont University (Nashville, TN)
While plenty of schools offer pop music and songwriting degrees, none have done it longer than Nashville’s Belmont University. Since 1979, Belmont has been training the people who make the hits with their commercial music degree.
Although the commercial music degree is focused on the future, it’s developed on a love of the past. Belmont builds upon a rich history of jazz, blues, and classical music to see how these well-worn genres inform the future.
Students in the commercial music program have areas of interest to choose from when planning their educational track. Those interested in the playing and writing of music can study songwriting, performance, and composition & arranging. Those who want to be involved in the business side can study the music business and music technology.
With this rich history and foundation, Belmont brings students into the future of pop music.
4. New York University (New York, NY)
NYU Steinhardt has long established itself as one of the best art schools in the country. The school’s songwriting program continues in that proud tradition.
Taking advantage of all the cultural offerings of the Big Apple, NYU Steinhardt offers multiple tracks for those interested in songwriting.
The music theory and composition track gives students the tools to focus on the craft of their trade. Students focus on the art of writing and recording songs, with side courses in production and navigating the music industry. Throughout the program, students collaborate with others in the school as well as working professionals.
Those looking for advanced studies can earn a Master’s Degree in music theory and composition. In this program, students work closely with professional musicians to hone their skills. Not only do they compose songs, but students have their work performed and recorded by professionals in the city.
Additionally, NYU offers the Clive Davis program in its Tisch School, where songwriters can go to learn about entrepreneurship and the music business.
3. University of Miami Frost School of Music (Coral Gables, FL)
The quality of the pop music program at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music can be summed up with one word: MADE.
MADE stands for Modern Artist Development and Entrepreneurship. The acronym not only captures the program’s focus on increasing students’ artistic and business skills but also indicates the confidence they have in their program.
That confidence is well-founded for a variety of reasons.
MADE takes an immersive approach to teaching modern music, letting students work with a faculty of professionals and record in the school’s top-level facilities. Teachers of included experts such as Marcus Strickland, a Grammy-winning saxophonist considered to be one of the best in the world.
Thanks to this support, MADE students have gone on to success in their chosen fields. 2003 graduate Nicolas Repetto has gone on to score film and television shows, including a feature documentary for the STARZ network.
As this evidence shows, anyone studying modern music at the Frost School has it MADE.
2. Berklee College of Music (Boston, MA)
The songwriting program at Berklee College of Music has everything you’d expect from a top-rated program.
Students learn under professors such as Sarah Brindell, an arranger and musician who has performed with artists such as Norah Jones and Carol King. They have access to unparalleled facilities, including a professional writing MIDI lab, complete with state-of-the-art technology. They even enjoy a yearly trip to Nashville to meet with industry professionals and make connections.
But the real reason that Berklee stands out is its Popular Music Institute.
The Popular Music Institute focuses on live performance, training students to play music at festivals such as Lollapalooza and Essence.
The Institute gives students access to A&R representatives in the industry, learning how to optimize their career development. Students even have the opportunity to perform and tour with professional musicians, gaining valuable hands-on experience.
With all these options, Berklee is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to join the music industry.
1. University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
We’ve ranked the popular music program at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music number one on this list. But you shouldn’t take just our word for it. Rolling Stone magazine called Thornton “a cutting-edge department” and “the site of Los Angeles’ most productive new music scenes.”
What earns the program such accolades?
First, there is its broad range of tracks. Students at Thornton learn how to be experts in genres from rock and pop to folk and Latin. No matter what students love most, Thornton has the tools to prepare them.
Second, there is the school’s creative spirit. Even as it gives students the freedom to choose their own educational track, Thornton also encourages collaboration with others at the school. Working with those interested in every aspect of pop music, students are bound to discover new avenues of exploration. Finally, there are facilities such as the Roland Drumlab.
In the Drumlab, students can practice on Roland TD-9SX V-Drums sets, as well as various pieces of recording and producing equipment. Labs such as this are places where students can experiment and collaborate, paving the way toward the future of popular music.