If you’re interested in the performing arts, you probably think that the world consists of only two cities: New York on the east coast and Los Angeles on the west coast. But that type of thinking forgets about the third coast, the one on the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan.
Chicago may not be as glitzy as NY, and it is certainly not as sunny as LA, but it has everything you need if you want to be involved in the performing arts. The second city has a long history of artistic excellence and still houses a thriving cultural life, from artists to musicians to innovators of every stripe.
That’s especially true for those looking to go to music schools. Although the Windy City’s most famous intuitions, such as the University of Chicago or Columbia College, are well-known for their academic rigor and excellence in scholarly fields, they also have first-rate music programs.
While Chicago schools are often less expensive than those in New York or Los Angeles, the lesser fame does mean that you probably don’t know about the best music programs in the area.
Today, we’ve put together a ranking of the best music schools in Chicago, complete with all the information you need to make this midwestern city the next step of your music career.
7. Saint Xavier University
The Music Department at Saint Xavier University doesn’t just give students instruction in their instruments. They also emphasize the cultural context of music, connecting the study of an instrument to the school’s larger community.
To that end, students not only perform their music throughout Chicago but also find areas of outreach involving children and local music enthusiasts.
Saint Xavier offers three degree programs in music, including music education, a bachelor’s of arts in music, and a performance degree emphasizing jazz, piano, organ, voice, guitar, and orchestral instruments. The music education degree prepares students to teach music, with emphasis on instrumental music or vocal performance. Additionally, graduate programs in music education launch students in advanced research and study of the field.
Thanks to this communal approach, Saint Xavier has a proud history of graduating notable people from its music program. Alumni include the Grammy-nominated educator Justin Antos, who earned his Ph.D. from Saint Xavier in 2008. Additionally, Antos won the Man of the Year award from Blue Island in 2015.
6. University of Chicago
For over a century, the University of Chicago has established itself as one of the best schools in the nation, an institution devoted to respectable research and academic excellence.
It’s no surprise then that U Chicago has an impressive music department, with a very successful doctoral program. Ph.Ds. from U Chicago’s music program go on to teach in schools such as Northwestern, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
The U Chicago Department of Music focuses on the study and creation of historical and contemporary music. With degrees in composition, ethnomusicology, music history, and music theory, the school takes a scholarly approach to music.
That approach was built by the luminaries who taught at the school over its decades of existence, including Philip Gossett, Leonard Meyer, Ralph Shapey, and Howard Mayer Brown.
More than just performance, these teachers brought to the school a focus on every part of music, including philosophy, ethnography, and more.
For students looking to study music production, U Chicago has the Chicago Integrated Media Experimental Studio (CHIME). The studio features cutting-edge equipment, including a Mac complete with industry-standard programs, such as Reaper, Pro Tools, and Ableton Live.
5. University of Illinois at Chicago School of Theatre and Music
Where the University of Chicago emphasizes study and academics, the School of Theatre and Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago emphasizes the experience students bring to their studies. The personalized approach invites students to apply the passion they developed over their lives to their musical studies.
UIC offers four degrees in music, including bachelor of arts degrees in music or music business and bachelor of music degrees in performance or jazz studies. No matter which track they choose, students take two years of music theory and aural skills, five semesters of music history and literature, and several courses in analysis and ethnomusicology. Additionally, students can take classes in arranging, literature, history, and more.
One of the best learning opportunities for UIC students is the Bella Voce vocal ensemble, a professional group currently in residence at the school. UIC students have unprecedented access to Bella Voce, including the opportunity to attend all of their rehearsals and sometimes even perform with the group.
4. Columbia College Chicago
The School of Fine and Performance Arts at Columbia College Chicago takes a unique approach to the subject. More than most schools in the nation, Columbia takes seriously modern and popular music.
In addition to degrees in music production and music technology, Columbia students can earn a popular music performance degree called contemporary, urban, and popular music.
Students in the music technology degree program learn how modern computers and equipment allow practitioners to shape soundscapes to engage with audiences. Whether learning how to set up experimental live performances, design music for video games, or set up equipment for art installations, the music technology degree trains students in the science and aesthetics of sound.
Another program unique to Columbia is the music composition for the screen master’s degree, in which students learn how to integrate sound into modern media.
The two-year program gives students hands-on experience, collaborating with those in the film and production programs, as well as industry connections. The degree teaches students how to compose for film, tv, video games, and other forms of media.
3. Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University
The music conservatory in the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University has no intention of separating itself in an ivory tower. Instead, the school integrates itself into the local art scene, participating in an equal exchange of culture, interests, and experience.
That commitment to the community can be seen in the performances Chicago College hosts for the community. The school regularly puts on Jazz showcases and concerts as part of its International Music Institute program.
Those concerts are not just chances for the school to give back to the artistic community that fosters it. They also allow students to perform for a live audience as part of their training in ensembles.
Ensembles offered by Chicago College run the gamut of musical styles, from brass chamber music to a wind ensemble, from the university singers to multiple Jazz and contemporary music combos.
But the most important way that the school gives back to the world is with its unbelievable group of alumni.
Graduates of the school have gone on to join the Beijing Symphony, the Jacksonville Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera, the Seattle Opera, and more. Multiple alumni participate in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Lyrica Opera Orchestra.
2. DePaul University School of Music
There are many things that DePaul University’s School of Music could point to as evidence of their program’s quality.
One of those is the department’s faculty, which consists of 110 professional musicians. Teachers at DePaul spend their time not only mentoring the next generation of great musicians, but also working as performers, recording artists, composers, and conductors.
Faculty members are also members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and many local chamber and jazz ensembles.
Another point of pride for DePaul is the Holtschneider Performance Center, a 185,000 square foot building devoted to music education, practice, and performance. The $98 million building features the newly redesigned Jarvis Opera Hall and a historically notable chapel, complete with a restored steeple.
The Center also houses the 505-seat Gannon Concert Hall, the 140-seat Allen Recital Hall, the 80-seat Brennan Family Recital Hall, and the 75-seat Dempsey and Corboy Jazz Hall.
But the most striking evidence of DePaul’s success can be seen in the work of its students. Graduates from the music program go on to work with orchestras and ensembles across the world. They become teachers in universities and public schools. They do technical work, producing records and recording sound for film, television, and more.
Simply put, graduates of DePaul go on to shape the world of music.
1. Northwestern University Bienen School of Music
With so many programs schools already listed, the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern Music needs to be extra special to top them all. And as this brief description will show, Bienen is a truly remarkable school.
The distinction begins with the school’s facilities, including a main music school building with classrooms, teaching labs and studios, practice rooms, rehearsal rooms for chorus and opera, a black box theater, and a recital hall with 400 seats.
Additionally, Bienen features several performance spaces, including the Galvin Recital Hall, a 400-seat theater that features a 40-foot glass wall and opposing walls made of African moabi wood.
This design gives the Hall outstanding acoustics, which is why the Chicago Tribune called it the “most impressive new Chicago concert facility.”
Equally impressive is the Alice Millar Chapel & Religious Center, a neo-Gothic church with a 100-rank Aeolian-Skinner organ.
But Bienen’s real claim to fame is its unparalleled faculty. Students learn from some of the most respected performers, composers, and educators in the industry. That includes composers-in-residence who win the school’s Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize.
In addition to winning the National Medal of Arts, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Grammy Award, composer William Bolcom is the most recent winner of the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition from the Bienen School of Music.
Alumni of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music have found work in virtually every major symphony orchestra worldwide.