The U.S. is home to some of the best music programs in the world, especially doctorate degrees. In general, students have two paths open to them: the Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) or PhD.
The DMA program typically takes around four full-time years to complete and concentrates primarily on performance, composition, or conducting. To graduate, DMA students must complete a musical thesis, such as a performance or lecture-recital.
PhD programs in music also take about four years, but they’re more teaching and research-oriented. These programs are perfect for those interested in becoming professors in music theory, musicology, or ethnomusicology. PhD students must write and defend a dissertation in order to graduate.
These degrees are available at both conservatories and universities. (Most liberal arts colleges, since they focus on undergraduate education, don’t offer DMAs or PhDs.) Which program you choose, and where, should depend on the kind of student life and environment you prefer as well as the specific way you want to explore music.
For example, if you want to learn alongside other aspiring performers and travel the country teaching your instrument, a DMA at a conservatory would be better suited to your goals.
The cost of attending is usually offset by teaching assistantships or stipends, some of which can be very generous. There are even some tuition-free doctorate programs.
Below we’ll discuss 10 of the best doctorate programs in music, including their local ensemble affiliations, tuition costs, and everything else that makes them stand out from other doctorate programs.
Rice University Shepherd School of Music (Houston, TX)
The DMA program at the Shepherd School of Music is one of the smallest university-based music schools in the country, with 350 total students. Admission is extremely selective, ensuring a high level of musicianship among both undergraduates and graduate students.
The school is deeply affiliated with professional ensembles in Houston, like the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera. DMA students will have the chance to work and learn alongside professionals in the field and get involved in the local Houston community on a greater level.
In fact, the Shepherd School and the Houston Symphony launched a new pilot program in 2021: The Shepherd School-Houston Symphony Brown Foundation Community-Embedded Musician Fellowship. The program aims to expand music education for underserved minority students in Houston, and it’s part of the school’s ongoing effort to diversify music education, especially classical music.
Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (Bloomington, IN)
The Jacobs School of Music is not only one of the largest music schools in the country with 1,600 students but also home to the largest academic music library in the world. Its facilities — 200 studios, labs, and practice rooms, and four performance halls — are reason enough to compete for a spot at Jacobs.
Because of its size and venue capacity, Jacobs is able to stage over a thousand performances a year, including seven operas and three ballets. Students can audition for numerous big band, choral, and orchestra ensembles, many of which earn renown worldwide. For example, the Philharmonic Orchestra has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Bastille Opera House in Paris.
All Doctor of Music (DM) and PhD applicants are automatically considered for merit-based financial assistance, including the Graduate Tuition Award, Artistic Excellence Award, Jacobs Fellowship, and more. Students can also get a cash stipend and teaching assistantship positions that cover nearly full tuition.
Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
PhD students at Harvard get up to six years of guaranteed funding in the form of stipends, teaching assistantships, and grants, covering tuition as well as living expenses. There are also extra funds for summer research and additional fellowships.
The program is small but very selective and prestigious. Only a handful of students are admitted every year, in the following areas of focus: musicology, ethnomusicology, theory, composition, and creative practice and critical inquiry. Harvard doesn’t have a performance faculty, but its resources for research capabilities are extensive, including a microfilm library of primary source materials, an archive of world music recordings, and a collection of early instruments.
Students interested in performance can get involved in other local university ensembles (Boston University, Berklee, New England Conservatory) or professional institutions (Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Public Library).
New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, MA)
NEC is the oldest independent music conservatory in the U.S. and one of the most prestigious in the world. Only eight to 12 new DMA students are accepted each year.
Since NEC is filled with top-notch musicians in every area of music, students here can find vast collaboration opportunities. In addition to DMAs in instrumental performance, the school also offers a DMA in music theory, with concentrations in pedagogy, composition, performance, or analysis.
Many NEC faculty are affiliated with the Boston Symphony or have established professional careers on stage. This includes the Borromeo String Quartet, NEC’s quartet-in-residence.
In terms of performance facilities, Jordan Hall is one of the best concert halls in the country. A block from Boston Symphony Hall, it seats over 1,000 and is the only conservatory building in the country with a National Historic Landmark designation.
University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (Ann Arbor, MI)
Studying at SMTD means getting a multidisciplinary education in the performing arts. With 12 performance venues and eight distinct buildings, music students share facilities with actors and dancers. Music students, in particular, can join a variety of bands and orchestras, including a Javanese gamelan ensemble.
Almost all DMA and PhD students receive full funding for full-time study. This includes health benefits and student assistantship stipends. Students can also apply to be Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), who teach courses while assisting faculty members in exchange for a full or partial tuition waiver. There are additional financial packages to fund research, travel, and performance.
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)
Getting a PhD in musicology at Cornell means five years of guaranteed funding, including funding for four summers. The breakdown consists of two years of fellowship and three years of teaching assistantships.
Cornell also offers four years of funding for their Composition and Performance Practice DMAs, including at least three summers. DMAs usually get two years of fellowship and two years of teaching assistantships.
These are three separate programs, but the students take seminars and attend symposia alongside one another as well as teach many of the same undergraduates. Thus, the department promotes an interdisciplinary approach to music that is highly customizable.
With the guidance of faculty members, graduate students develop their own course of study, which must include a minor subject of study. The Graduate Minor can be another music specialization (theory, musicology, ethnomusicology, performance, composition) or another discipline entirely (art history, mathematics, history, linguistics, psychology).
University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
Not only is the Thornton School of Music one of the U.S.’s premier music institutions, but its location at the heart of Los Angeles makes it the perfect place to play and learn music in all its forms.
Whether you want to teach music in underserved communities, play in a jazz club, connect with like-minded musicians, join a local orchestra, or some combination of these, USC and the greater LA area offer limitless opportunities.
Academically, USC offers a PhD in Musicology and a DMA in three different divisions: Classical Performance and Composition, Contemporary Music, and Research and Scholarly Studies. USC is primarily known for its specializations in orchestral studies, jazz, early music, composition, opera, and music industry.
Many faculty are affiliated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic or have had illustrious careers as solo performers, including violinist Midori Goto.
The Juilliard School (New York, NY)
The C.V. Starr Doctoral Fellows program allows students to pursue the DMA degree tuition-free for up to five years.
Juilliard produces some of the world’s best performers, so the school’s only doctorate program is the DMA. This is a highly rigorous program that requires students to give three public recitals and one lecture-recital by the end of the third year. On top of that, DMA students must write and defend a dissertation in order to graduate.
Many of Juilliard’s faculty members are affiliated with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and renowned ensembles like the Juilliard String Quartet and the American Brass Quintet. Some have also had successful solo careers, such as pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist David Chan.
Notable alumni include violinist Itzhak Perlman, soprano Renee Fleming, and composers Miles Davis and Philip Glass.
Princeton University (Princeton, NJ)
Princeton’s PhD programs in composition and musicology are completely free and include a 12-month stipend for all five years. One to two of these years must be supplemented by teaching assistantship positions, and students can apply for additional research funding or summer language study. Students are also eligible for sixth-year funding if necessary.
Although Princeton does not have a performance PhD or DMA, its research opportunities for musicology, music theory, and composition students abound. Unlike many PhD programs in music, academics are not limited to western classical music. Composers and musicologists are encouraged to explore modern music as much as the music that came before it, providing a well-rounded, readily applicable education.
Notable alumni include composer Julia Wolfe ‘12, whose work has been commissioned by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and producer Nathan Michel ‘07, whose band Hospitality has been featured on NPR and Wired.
Yale University School of Music (New Haven, CT)
Yale’s school of music is the only designated music school, instead of department, in an Ivy League.
The tuition-free, five-year DMA program is highly selective, with an acceptance rate below 10%. It is structured by a unique two-year residency on campus followed by a three-year dissertation period in the field. Depending on the student’s chosen area — composition, conducting, or performance — students must use this time to work and learn in a professional capacity, guided by faculty. This could mean performing in traditional recitals, conducting orchestras, getting research published, or having one’s own compositions performed by local ensembles.
By the end of the degree, DMA students will be well-versed in all aspects of music: history, theory, composition, and performance.