For most musicians, attending a college or conservatory is the start of a productive career in the arts.
Studying music in college comes with several discernible benefits. Among these benefits include 1-on-1 instruction with a faculty member in music. The opportunity to learn with a faculty member can significantly accelerate a student’s musical progress.
Additionally, many music schools serve as “microcosms” of the music industry. This means that students can participate in ensembles, concerts, and intellectual discussions in a way that would be hard to do without any prior established connections.
With over 600 music schools and departments in the US alone, it can be challenging to navigate what schools are worth a family’s hard-earned savings.
Treat this as a guide to starting your journey towards finding the best music schools. In this list, we only discuss undergraduate music programs.
Without further ado, here are our picks for the top 30 music schools in the country.
Oberlin College & Conservatory (Oberlin, OH)
Oberlin is a small liberal arts college based in Ohio. With less than 3,000 total students, the population at Oberlin is best described as left-leaning. The genres available for study at Oberlin are predominantly classical as well as jazz.
One thing that makes Oberlin interesting is its almost entirely undergraduate student population. This means nearly all the resources and funding are reserved for said undergrads.
Several notable classical musicians have called Oberlin their alma mater. Perhaps the most prominent one in recent years is the ensemble Eighth Blackbird, a new music tour de force who received their undergraduate educations at Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Oberlin is a decorated liberal arts college in and out of their conservatory, having graduated seven Pulitzer winners, 16 Rhodes Scholars, and three Nobel Laureates.
Bard College & Conservatory (Annandale-On-Hudson, NY)
Like Oberlin, Bard is a primarily undergraduate liberal arts college specializing in classical performance and composition.
Unlike Oberlin, all students in the Bard Conservatory program must double major in both music and an outside subject. Completing the program at Bard’s Conservatory takes typically five years to complete to account for the music and academic credits.
Bard shares faculty with other major music schools throughout the east coast. They include faculty who share concurrent teaching positions at Curtis and Juilliard.
This school is the perfect option for students seeking an undergraduate degree with the best music and academic education.
Lawrence University Conservatory of Music (Appleton, WI)
Fittingly starting our list with liberal arts colleges, Lawrence, like Oberlin, Bard, and Ithaca, are primarily undergraduate colleges.
Founded in 1894, Lawrence Conservatory of Music is among the oldest schools of music in the country. While the school may be over 125 years old, that does not mean they are not continuing to make news today.
Recently, one of their faculty members placed into the top 3 finalists of the hit NBC show The Voice. Vocalist and faculty member John Holiday is a rising star in music whose impressive resume includes appearances not only on television but also in major music festivals, including Spoleto and Glimmerglass music festivals.
Lawrence’s program excels in the arts and is a perfect fit for a student desiring an excellent music education in a premiere liberal arts setting.
UCLA – University of California at Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)
UCLA has a distinguished reputation for, of all things, musicology and ethnomusicology!
However, UCLA is far more than just a school for studying music history.
UCLA’s faculty lineup includes Richard Danielpour, a composer and longtime faculty member at the Curtis Institute of Music, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard, and distinguished voice professor Juliana Gondek.
UCLA is a smart option for California residents financially; in-state students get a significant tuition discount compared to out-of-state students, just like at any major university.
Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (Bloomington, IN)
Frequently ranked among the top music schools in the country, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music has three leading classical music, jazz, and music education programs.
Additionally, they are home to a well-established music production program.
Historically, IU has produced several influential musicians, including jazz educators Jamey Aebersold and David Baker, prominent cello teacher Paul Katz, violin soloist Joshua Bell, and 15-time Grammy-winning saxophonist Michael Brecker.
Students from the Jacobs School of Music have won many awards for their musicianship. These include at least 20 BMI Student Composer Awards and 33 grand winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
University of Miami Frost School of Music (Coral Gables, FL)
The University of Miami has made strides in recent years with its classical music faculty. Current appointments include violinist Charles Castleman, one of the most successful violin teachers who was previously on the Eastman School of Music faculty, and conductor Gerard Schwarz.
Outside of classical music, Frost has vital programs in contemporary and jazz music performance. It is also a widely recognized Music Business school, having been cited by Billboard magazine in 2018.
The New School (New York, NY)
Although named only once on this list, the New School has two music schools with different focuses.
For classical music, the New School is home to the Mannes College of Music. Formerly in uptown New York City, in the last decade Mannes moved downtown, upgrading its facilities and making it closer to the heart of the arts scene in New York City.
Once known as the college with a prestigious music theory reputation, Mannes has expanded in recent years as one of the best classical performance programs, particularly excelling in classical voice.
The other music school in The New School is aptly called The New School for Contemporary Music and Jazz.
Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music (Nashville, TN)
According to the Princeton Review, Vanderbilt University ranks among the top 5 “happiest schools” in the nation.
With its location in Nashville, students at Blair gain close contact with the music industry itself. Indeed, many of the nation’s top music companies and venues find themselves headquartered in the aptly named Music Row, a historic district of Nashville complete with record labels and music publishing houses.
One incredibly unique program of Vanderbilt is the BMI Composer-In-Residence program. Sponsored by Broadcast Music Incorporated, successful composers are brought to Vanderbilt every year to work with students. Past composers-in-residence include Pulitzer winners William Bolcom, John Harbison, and Joseph Schwantner.
Manhattan School of Music (New York, NY)
Manhattan School of Music is an urban conservatory; based in New York City, students at MSM have access to everything the Big Apple offers musically.
Although a “small” conservatory, MSM boasts several impressive performance and rehearsal facilities. They include the Ades Performance Space, which hosts all music genres, from operas to chamber music. MSM additionally is home to over a half dozen more performance spaces.
Some of MSM’s most iconic alumni include pianist and talk show host Harry Connick Jr., jazz vibraphone soloist Stefon Harris, and classical composer John Corigliano, who we listed recently as a legendary teacher teaching today.
Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, MD)
Ever since Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated nearly $2 billion to Johns Hopkins University, JHU has made significant changes to its programs, including, of course, its prestigious music conservatory.
In recent years, Peabody has allotted substantial money for scholarships, attracting top talent from around the globe.
Connected to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, many of Peabody’s faculty members hold appointments at both its conservatory of music and the orchestra itself.
Peabody is most well-known for its classical music performance program. However, they are additionally home to excellent music recording, jazz performance, and music composition programs.
Berklee & Boston Conservatory (Boston, MA)
Berklee and Boston Conservatory were once separate music institutions. However, in 2016 both schools merged to form one of the country’s most comprehensive music programs.
What makes these two schools so unique is their strengths. Berklee is famous for its jazz and popular music programs. Their alumni have imprinted their legacies throughout the entertainment industry, collectively winning 306 Grammy awards, significantly more than any other higher education institution.
On the other hand, Boston Conservatory is a top program for classical performance, musical theatre, and the performing arts, including acting and dancing.
With its favorable Boston location, students are surrounded by prominent performing arts institutions such as the Boston Symphony, Boston Lyric Opera, and Boston Ballet.
University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (Ann Arbor, MI)
One of the best public universities for studying music, the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance is home to approximately 1,100 students.
Although Michigan’s “bread and butter” programs are in traditional classical and jazz performance, they also are home to one of the most elite musical theatre schools. Alumni have starred in recent Broadway productions, including Frozen, Kiss Me, Kate, Carousel, and dozens more.
Besides traditional classes in performance, theory, and history, Michigan’s curriculum includes several unique programs, including Gamelan performance. Michigan’s School of Music is home to the longest active Gamelan ensembles, who have been in residence since 1966.
University of Southern California Thornton School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)
With its desirable Los Angeles location, USC Thornton is at the top of many student’s lists.
They are perhaps the best “all-around” music school; in addition to classical performance, they also have majors in every prominent musical discipline, including jazz, popular music, music production, and film scoring (Masters degree only).
Located in downtown Los Angeles, USC Thornton has a strong connection with the LA Philharmonic; many orchestra members hold faculty positions at USC.
Cleveland Institute of Music (Cleveland, OH)
An independent conservatory based in Cleveland, OH, the Cleveland Institute of Music is home to one of the country’s finest music programs.
One cannot mention the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) without their longtime tie to Severance Hall, the Cleveland Orchestra’s home. CIM and the Cleveland Orchestra’s partnership is profound; many musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra teach at CIM, and students gain close access to the Cleveland Orchestra resources.
Several rising stars in classical music have recently graduated from CIM. They include Daniil Trifonov, a pianist not even yet 30 years old who has had seven albums rank on the Billboard Classical Music charts.
Other alumni have taken positions in major orchestras and ensembles worldwide.
Chapman University Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music (Orange, CA)
Chapman is a rising star in the world of music schools: with its proximity to Los Angeles, Chapman’s faculty are some of the west coast’s top music professionals.
The Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music is home to an impressive facility, an 88,000 square foot center for the performing arts fittingly called the Musco Center for the Arts.
Chapman is one of the few schools on this list with a religious affiliation. Christianity is vital at Chapman, however, students of all religious affiliations and backgrounds can feel at home studying music regardless of personal faith.
Chapman is also an excellent liberal arts university, ranking number 124 in the recent US News National Universities list.
The Juilliard School (New York, NY)
Juilliard is one of the top music schools in the US and throughout the world.
Like several other conservatories on this list, Juilliard is associated with a major symphony orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. Additionally, Juilliard is tied to several other prominent ensembles, including the aptly titled Juilliard String Quartet, the in-residence quartet composed of Juilliard faculty.
The school is also tied to several other prominent NYC organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera & Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.
Admission to Juilliard is notoriously difficult: the school accepts less than 8% of all applicants. It is roughly equal to Harvard and Yale in terms of admissions difficulty.
With its international “name brand” status, Juilliard is perhaps the most desirable independent conservatory for classical and jazz performance and composition.
Although an independent conservatory, Juilliard does offer a 5-year dual degree with the Ivy-League Columbia University.
Rice University Shepherd School of Music (Houston, TX)
One of three Texas universities on this list, the Rice University Shepherd School of Music, is among the most selective university-based music programs in the country.
Rice University provides significant contacts and opportunities to top classical musicians connected to the Houston Symphony and the Houston Grand opera.
Alumni of Rice University have won orchestral positions in the nation’s top symphonies. These include the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, LA Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra, among several others.
University of North Texas School of Music (Denton, TX)
The University of North Texas, abbreviated as UNT, is known as the “big band” school; its legendary jazz history extends several Grammy awards and alumni who have found success as band members and soloists worldwide.
UNT is home to one of the most diverse symphony orchestras in any college, the aptly named University of North Texas Symphony Orchestra. In 2008, student musicians in the orchestra were from 25 different states and 12 different countries.
In a typical non-pandemic year, UNT hosts over 1,000 concerts a year, in part because of its large student body of more than 1,500 students!
UNT’s program breaks down into roughly 2/3 undergraduate students and ⅓ graduate students.
Eastman School of Music (Rochester, NY)
Eastman’s musicians are among the most talented in the country. Their acceptance rate is routinely as low as approximately 10%!
Eastman has had a tremendous influence on the world of classical music. Alumni have won appointments in every major orchestra across the globe. Several soloists who have achieved rarefied careers in music have also attended Eastman. They include opera stars Renee Fleming and Julia Bullock as well as jazz bass extraordinaire Ron Carter.
Although Eastman’s classical music and jazz programs teach in a traditional and rigorous curriculum, Eastman finds ways to adapt to a new century of musicians. This includes the Institute for Music Leadership, a curriculum designed to help students think about how classical musicians make a living in an evolving society.
Nearly every student who gets accepted to Eastman gets a significant merit-based scholarship, making it an attractive prospect for families seeking financial assistance.
Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia, PA)
Curtis is the most selective school in the entire country when including both music schools and traditional universities.
Accepting just 1 in every 25 applicants for an admissions rate of 4%, getting into Curtis is a dream for most musicians.
Curtis is as small and exclusive as it gets; on top of the low acceptance rate, the entire student body is less than 160 total students! Curtis only takes enough musicians to fill a single orchestra as well as a handful of composers, pianists, singers, and conductors.
What makes Curtis so selective? On top of the prestige, it is one of the few music schools with zero tuition.
Curtis has strong ties to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Many faculty members at Curtis perform in the Philadelphia Orchestra, as do many alumni.
Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)
Like Curtis before it, Colburn is one of the most prestigious small conservatories in the country for one primary reason: it’s free to attend!
Like Curtis, it is exclusive; less than 7% of all applicants are admitted to Colburn.
Colburn is perhaps the smallest independent music school in the entire world, having just enough students to fill one major orchestra.
Colburn is in downtown Los Angeles, just across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Colburn’s affiliation with the Los Angeles Philharmonic runs deep: several faculty members from Colburn also perform in the orchestra.
Prominent soloists who graduated from Colburn include classical pianist David Fung and violinists Anne Akiko Meyers and Leila Josefowicz.
Ithaca College School of Music (Ithaca, NY)
A premier liberal arts college based in New York, Ithaca College’s School of Music is well-associated with music education and musical theatre. Indeed, Ithaca has a high number of alumni who star in Broadway musicals. Additionally, Ithaca has a near 100% placement rate in public schools for music education majors.
Like other liberal arts colleges on this list, Ithaca is a primarily undergraduate institution, though their music school does serve graduate students.
Financial aid is abundant at Ithaca; many accepted students receive substantial merit-based scholarships.
California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)
CalArts has perhaps the broadest range of music majors available in any college in the country. While they have their traditional classical performance majors, they also have programs in African Music, Experimental Sound Practices, Experimental Pop, and North Indian Music, among dozens of other programs.
CalArts is excellent for the student with the open mind, who wants to study multiple musical fields in college.
It is also an excellent option for those who enjoy collaborating with other arts disciplines. Other prominent programs at CalArts include film, theatre, and dance.
New England Conservatory (Boston, MA)
Based in Boston, the New England Conservatory is among a handful of the elite independent conservatories in the US.
Home to one of the best concert halls in the country, Jordan Hall hosts hundreds of performances every year. Prominent touring classical musicians perform at Jordan Hall; many of them interact with NEC students through masterclasses.
NEC works with the 21st-century musician in mind, with their Entrepreneurial Musician division helping students looking for unique ways to boost their careers.
University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (Cincinnati, OH)
In 2017, the College-Conservatory of Music renovated five of their performance halls to the tune of 15 million dollars! This renovation resulted in an abundance of upgraded seating and technology for students and concertgoers alike.
This renovation represents an essential facet of the Cincinnati experience: a dedication to serving their students & community.
And, what a large part of the Cincinnati community CCM is! Few music schools are so deeply integrated with their city and arts organizations as CCM is. Several alumni of the University of Cincinnati became professional musicians in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
It’s worth noting that, although CCM has an excellent reputation in classical music, its musical theatre program may just be the very best in the country, consistently ranking in the top 3 of most represented schools on Broadway.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music (San Francisco, CA)
Fostering personal and professional connections are at the heart of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music experience. SFCM is connected with several Bay Area organizations, including the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera, and SFJazz.
While many of the most prestigious music schools are on the east coast and midwest, the San Francisco Conservatory is among the few highly selective west coast classical music institutions.
Faculty at SFCM include composer Mason Bates, guitarist Julian Lage, and legendary classical pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who we recently mentioned in a separate article about prestigious faculty members.
Boston University School of Music (Boston, MA)
BU has everything students want in a university music degree, a prestigious name with a quality music education.
BU’s academic life is so seamlessly integrated into their music school that many students choose to double major in music and an outside subject. Some students at BU’s School of Music have successfully triple majored in music and two academic subjects.
The facilities at Boston University’s School of Music are state of the art. Several of their practice rooms are outfitted with recording equipment and technology, allowing students to record themselves while rehearsing.
Like the other primary music schools in Boston, BU has a strong relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Hartt School of Music (Hartford, CT)
Hartt is a seasoned music institution, having existed for nearly 100 years. In that time frame, Hartt has made a tremendous impact on musical life throughout the US and beyond; their alumni have gone into significant ensembles, teaching positions, and even onto Broadway productions.
One of the Hartt School of Music’s signature programs is in Music Education. Their track record for graduating successful K-12 teachers is high, with a nearly 100% employment rate for their students.
The Hartt School of Music allows students to interact with professional local arts organizations. These include the Stamford Symphony, Goodspeed Opera House, and Hartford Stage.
Northwestern University Bienen School of Music (Evanston, IL)
Situated just outside Chicago in Evanston’s suburb, Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music is home to less than 450 total music students!
One primary reason to choose Northwestern is their faculty; students get the opportunity to learn with musicians in the Chicago Symphony and the Chicago Lyric Opera.
Another is an opportunity to meet with major international artists. To draw the most prominent names to their school, Northwestern biannually awards two major classical music prizes. The Nemmers Prize is a $100k award for a significant living American composer that includes a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These composers come to Northwestern and work with students for several weeks.
Additionally, the Jean Gimbel Lane Prize brings prominent international concert pianists to the school, including Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, and Garrick Ohlsson.
Shenandoah Conservatory (Winchester, VA)
Don’t let Shenandoah’s status as a “hidden gem” fool you; this liberal arts college deserves its spot among the top 30 music schools in the nation.
Shenandoah is home to several faculty members who have had extraordinary careers in classical music. Perhaps the most distinguished would be Irish pianist John O’Conor, formally the Royal Academy of Music’s director.
In 2019, alumni Daniel Shores won a Grammy award for engineering Songs of Orpheus, an album by Apollo’s Fire. Other alumni include Carl Tanner, an American operatic tenor, and young composer Richard Zarou.
In addition to a full suite of music performance and composition faculty, Shenandoah is among the few schools with a robust Arts Management program. This one-of-a-kind program teaches marketing, fundraising, and arts entrepreneurship.