Here Are the Best Master’s in Music Programs in the US

What’s the point of a Master’s in Music? Teaching, right? Sure, some musicians go through the extra work after mastering their instrument to acquire academic authorization, maybe even to teach at the university level.

But a Master’s degree in Music can offer much more than training as an educator. Before any musician can determine which—or if—graduate school is the right move, they must think about their ideal career path: what kind of musician do I want to be?

Everybody knows programs exist for symphonic and orchestral performance. Jazz programs provide opportunities to hone improvisational skills with other outstanding players and offer coursework in historical context.

Recording technology and sound engineering programs make up part of most conservatory programs today. Getting a Master’s in these areas gives students the chance to work in world-class facilities and make professional contacts.

Students of music history can not only read about rare instruments, but at schools with working instrument libraries, they can actually play and hear them.

Envisioning a desired career can help navigate other decisions, like pursuing a Master of Arts or Master of Music. MM and MMus degrees are usually fit for professional performers, whether the goal turns out to be playing in a Broadway pit or in the hottest club in Los Angeles.

Continuing music education often requires an MA degree; these degrees often fall into theory or history categories, rather than performance. Musicians with more than one instrument specialty often opt for graduate certificates in a second instrument.

When researching music programs, prospective students must consider location: if they are already a working musician, they should consider where they want to live and where they can keep playing gigs. Most programs offer ample performance opportunities.

The programs here include among their faculty some of the greatest working musicians in all genres, from operatic sopranos to electric bass masters. Since most graduate programs in Music center on mentorship, it’s important to find a school with strong faculty in the right area of instrumentation and technique.

Not all Music graduate programs require a GRE, but they do require auditions. Knowing as much about the program as possible ahead of time can help in preparation.

A Master’s in Music from these programs can enhance a musician’s professional opportunities, as well as providing a couple of blissful years of collegiality, focus, and nonstop music.

Here are College Gazette’s picks for 10 of the best Master’s in Music programs in the US.

New England Conservatory of Music (Boston, MA)

New England Conservatory of Music
Daderot, New England Conservatory of Music – Boston, MA, CC0 1.0

Reputation, faculty, facilities, and breadth of study options all contribute to the New England Conservatory of Music’s status as a top location for graduate study in music. 

At its founding in Boston over 150 years ago, NEC represented a new American vision of music rooted in European conservatory traditions. 

Today, the campus and its main performance space stand as National Historic Landmarks, and the school’s mission continues to establish the highest levels of artistic performance and critical understanding.

NEC’s MM program spans two years of performance, composition, or research training, along with advanced musicology and theory courses. Master’s candidates take electives across departments, as well as masterclasses from visiting faculty.

Major areas of concentration include instrument- and genre-based categories, from Trumpet to Vocal Pedagogy to Jazz Composition. The NEC MM program satisfies the entry prerequisite for most doctoral programs in music.

NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship program serves students by guiding them to internships, grants, and fellowships. Advisors help students craft resumes, choose curriculum, and plan career goals. Entrepreneurial Musicianship segues NEC students into music careers of all kinds by teaching the long-term planning and goal-setting skills needed for a creative professional life.

Acceptance into the MM program at NEC requires an audition and a solid undergraduate academic record; about 33% of the most recent round of applicants received an offer of admission. Graduate Diploma and doctoral programs are also offered at NEC.

Once on campus, NEC students can partner with NEC alumni in the NEC Mentor program, which provides support, advice, and professional contacts. Alumni as diverse as Aoife O’Donovan, Nestor Torres, Sarah Jarosz, and Bernie Worrell demonstrate the range and depth of the program.

Manhattan School of Music (New York, NY)

Manhattan School of Music
DannyDaWriter, Msm 122 bway, CC BY-SA 3.0

New York City provides one of the best backdrops in the world for studying the arts. Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the jazz clubs in Greenwich Village: the faculty for the Manhattan School of Music live and work here in this international city, mentoring students at this school that is a global center for musical study.

MSM focuses on classical, jazz, and musical theater genres, with MM degree programs and a joint MM/EdM degree in conjunction with Teachers College Columbia University. Violinists should note the Pinchas Zukerman Performance Program at MSM. The legendary violinist/conductor selects a handful of MCM students each year to instruct personally—an extraordinary and rare opportunity.

Venues dot the campus and stay active; over 700 performances a year happen at MSM. Dozens of Master Classes give students the opportunity to learn form and practice directly from some of the greatest working musicians in the world, like guitarist Pepe Romero and mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

The school’s storied alumni spread across generations and genres: Herbie Hancock, Dave Grusin, Max Roach, Charlie Puth, Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Holloway, Angelo Badalamenti. While its jazz program garners continued acclaim, MSM ranks in many highly specific genres, including Cello Performance. The great cellist Pablo Casals joined the school’s Artist Advisory Board in 1918.

Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD)

Peabody Conservatory of Music
Daderot, Peabody Institute, Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore, MD, marked as public domain

The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins may be 160 years old, but its focus on collaboration and interdisciplinary education demonstrates its commitment to innovation. Baltimore provides rich history and a cosmopolitan arts sector, but with a strong community in which the conservatory plays an important role.

Faculty have included Elliot Carter, Oscar Shumsky, and Henry Cowell; Dominick Argento and André Watts studied there, as did Leonard Bernstein and Tori Amos.

Peabody’s Master of Music requires performance skills coursework and mentorship, along with classes in the literature of the candidate’s major field of study. Students must demonstrate mastery of skills and must play a recital in each year of study.

Areas of study include most traditional instruments, conducting, and composition, but Peabody also offers concentrations in Historical Performance, Computer Music, and Acoustics. An MA in Audio Sciences prepares students for a career in the recording industry with training in the most current engineering and electronics areas.

The Peabody Institute of Music offers a Low-Residency Master of Music as well. Students in this program will attend classes on campus during two summer sessions, with online instruction during the intervening school year. This program allows candidates to finish the MM program in 13 months while continuing their teaching or performing careers.

University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)

USC Thornton School of Music
Lan56, USC-Bing Theatre, CC BY-SA 3.0

The University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, located in Los Angeles, figures as a logical program choice for students interested in composing or performing for films. Anyone planning a media-related music career can find in this program the training, tools, and professional support they need.

The Master of Music program not only offers courses like Applied Techniques in Contemporary Scoring, but more niche topics as well, like Spotting Music for Cinema, Recording, Mixing, and Editing for the Screen Composer.

Students pursuing degrees related to film composing enjoy access to actual Hollywood soundstages for their own student projects, gaining invaluable professional experience and contacts. The Hollywood Reporter ranks Thornton as one of the top twenty music programs for film composing.

While Thornton clearly stands out as an excellent choice for media scoring, Thornton offers a Master of Music in a variety of study areas, including Choral and Sacred Music, Strings, Vocal Arts, and Early Music Performance.

Performance-oriented study areas typically earn MM degrees, while academic or research-based areas can be pursued for a Master of Arts. Thornton recently added Master of Science degrees in Arts Leadership and Music Industry.

Harold Budd, Marco Beltrami, Martin Denny, Patrice Rushen, Michael Tilson Thomas, Tina Guo, and Herb Alpert represent the diverse musical styles and popular success of Thornton alumni.

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music (Evanston, IL)

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music
Music man 600000000, Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, CC BY-SA 4.0

Collaborative teaching and a flexible program characterize the Bienen School of Music. Part of Northwestern University, Bienen enjoys the resources of a large college and proximity to a central metropolitan area (Chicago), while maintaining small classes and favorable student/faculty ratios.

While Bienen offers many traditional performances and research-oriented course paths, the program features an unusual field of study, Music Theory and Cognition. This focus area combines elements of a Music Theory degree with scientific research, allowing students to fully understand how we create music and how we perceive it.

Recital Halls, performance venues, and recording studios include a 400-seat venue with undulating wood walls, a 1,000 seat modern venue, and practice rooms overlooking Lake Michigan.

The Institute for New Music, dedicated to contemporary composition, holds a biennial festival, NUNC!, drawing innovative composers worldwide. The school hosts annual international festivals and performance series for classical guitar, piano, chamber music, and vocal performance.

Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY)

Eastman School of Music
Matthew D. Wilson (LtPowers), Rochester Eastman Theatre – Exterior, CC BY-SA 2.5

The Eastman School of Music likes to say its acronym—ESM—also stands for “Eat, Sleep, Music.” 

Based at the University of Rochester, the program offers Master of Music and Master of Arts degrees, combining the community feel of a small campus with the resources of a major state university.

Areas of emphasis show a focus on Conducting, with three separate study paths (Orchestral, Wind, and Choral). Students can also pursue Composition tracks, Jazz Studies, Music Education, Early Music, and several instrumental performance majors. Educators have a Summers-Only Master of Music Education option.

Depending on the track, Master’s candidates at Eastman take theory and literature courses alongside music performance tutorials and lessons, both private and in small groups. Some divisions require written and oral exams; performance majors involve recitals and juried performances.

Facilities include the Sibley Music Library, the largest music library in the United States. The Rochester Philharmonic calls the Eastman Theater home. Kilbourn Hall enjoys worldwide acclaim for its singular acoustics.

Eastman faculty and students teach through the Eastman Community Music School, a program providing music classes to students of all ages and abilities throughout the Rochester area.

Juilliard School (New York, NY)

Juilliard School of Music
Pmasck, Juilliard School – Alice Tully Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

If asked about music programs, most people say “Juilliard.” The name itself calls up images of practice rooms and rehearsal halls full of promising new artists. The reality lives up to the legend, with top global rankings, hundreds of annual performances, and over 300 Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards among Juilliard alumni.

The Master of Music program at Juilliard provides training for musicians who want to prepare more thoroughly for a professional performing career. Programs in Composition, Jazz Studies, Historical Performance, and Conducting can be pursued, along with majors in all kinds of orchestral and popular instruments.

Juilliard offers graduate and artist diplomas in many of the same areas for students who want to study beyond undergraduate degrees, but who do not wish to fulfill all the academic requirements for a Master’s. These kinds of programs require auditions and can be even more selective.

Each area of concentration maintains a separate set of audition and application requirements, as well as a separate timeline toward graduation. For instance, while Jazz Studies requires 56 credit hours, Historical Performance asks 62 hours. Many programs require a graduation recital, while others provide an equivalent experience.  

No school boasts a more illustrious list of alumni and faculty. Attending Juilliard means going to a school where Wynton Marsalis and Itzhak Perlman taught. From Miles Davis to Leontyne Price to Alan Greenspan, Juilliard alumni make up the strands of our cultural fabric.

Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)

Colburn School of Music
Dave Parker, ColburnSchoolFront, CC BY 3.0

Located in downtown Los Angeles, Colburn fits the model of a traditional conservatory in some respects. Begun by the University of Southern California as a way for schoolchildren in the community to take piano lessons, the school grew over the last 70 years into a full conservatory by the 21st century.

Master’s in Music students at Colburn study music theory, history, and composition while developing performance skills. Recently the program added a Studies in Conducting track, led by composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Anyone with an established Chamber Music group can apply as a group to the graduate program. The Graduate Chamber Ensemble in Residence allows pre-formed groups to pursue graduate degrees or diplomas while serving as a school ambassador in the community.

A newer campus, Colburn provides modern, state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal spaces. The campus inherited a remarkable architectural and historical treasure: Jascha Heifetz’s backyard studio, which occupies part of the third floor of the Grand Building.

Colburn stands as one of the few tuition-free conservatories in the United States. One of the youngest as well, its status increases each year, and it already consistently ranks in the top 30, alongside the giants.

Curtis Institute of Music (New York, NY)

Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music may not be as much of a household brand as some of the schools on this list, but the names of alumni like Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber might be more familiar. Curtis provides a solid choice for vocalists interested in a rigorous Master’s program.

A stellar reputation and exceptional faculty have drawn top students to Curtis for decades. The program ranks highly overall among music programs throughout the world, and several individual degree tracks also stand out.

Curtis maintains a small student body—just enough musicians to make up a full symphony orchestra. Students perform over 200 public shows a year; performance anchors the program. Ensembles and soloists perform locally and tour around the world.

Curtis offers post-baccalaureate diploma programs in instrument performance, conducting, and composition. The Master of Music program track is in Opera only, and it requires extensive voice, acting, diction coaching, and liberal arts courses.

Curtis is a tuition-free conservatory. Students may take courses at the University of Pennsylvania under the schools’ reciprocal agreement.

Yale University School of Music (New Haven, CT)

The only Ivy League school with a separate school of music, Yale’s selective, tuition-free School of Music graduate program accepts only around 10% of applicants.

Yale offers a Master of Music and a Master of Music Arts degree, an extension of the Master of Music degree. The program focuses on performance, and each instrument division has its own annual competitions, workshops, conferences, and festivals, as well as numerous opportunities for solo and group performances throughout the year.

Historic Woolsey Hall hosts orchestral performances and organ recitals—the school offers one of the only graduate programs in Organ. The Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments provides invaluable resources for Early Music scholars and musicologists.

Proximity to Boston and New York allows students to perform and attend performances in both cities. Unparalleled professional mentorship and career placement opportunities can be found here. Yale’s intellectual and cultural environment make it one of the strongest arts programs of any kind.

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