The 10 Best Music Schools in California

With a plethora of culture, favorable weather, and music scenes in major cities like Los Angeles, it is no wonder California is among the most desirable places to study music at the collegiate level. 

When people discuss the major music schools in America, they often name one of the many high-quality schools in the northeast. The most famous names the everyday person knows? Berklee and Juilliard.

While these are both great music programs, a student’s search need not stop in Boston and New York. Rather, the two major cities in California, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have tremendous music programs fitting the tastes of nearly any music student. Additionally, there are a number of excellent music programs in the suburbs of California’s major metropolises.

Today, we examine 10 incredible music programs in California. For this particular list, we are looking at excellent non-profit music programs at both conservatories and universities throughout the state of California. Collectively, these 10 schools are home to some of the world’s best faculty musicians, classical performance programs, jazz improvisation talents, and rising music songwriters and producers who will shape the world of music forever.

Here are 10 of the best music schools in California.

University of California at Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts (Irvine, CA)

UC Irvine
Allyunion, UC Irvine, CC BY-SA 4.0

Starting our list today is UC Irvine, a small, unique program situated in the heart of Southern California. For those unfamiliar with the geography, Irvine is within an hour or so to both Los Angeles and San Diego on the California coastline.

UC Irvine has produced many students who have gone onto unusual careers in music. One person, Miles Vinson, launched one of the most popular music practice apps in late 2020

On the theme of “unconventional,” UC Irvine is home to one of the most interesting Doctoral programs in the country in music, ICIT, an abbreviation for Integrated Composition, Improvisation, and Technology. In this department, students’ education blends traditional and contemporary practices, with the ultimate goal of becoming a modern artist capable of complex musical and software tools. 

However, UC Irvine is not only for graduate students. Several of its undergraduate programs have “big names” on faculty; one such program, jazz performance, features Kei Akagi on faculty, one of the most accomplished living jazz pianists who has worked with the likes of Al DiMeola and Joe Farrell.

Outside of music, UC Irvine is one of the country’s highest-ranked schools, placing at #35 on the US News Best National Universities list.

California State University, Long Beach Bob Cole Conservatory of Music (Long Beach, CA)

CSU Long Beach
Summum, Walter Pyramid, CC BY-SA 2.5

A true hidden gem tucked away in Southern California near Los Angeles, CSULB’s Bob Cole Conservatory of Music offers an education in both classical and jazz music styles. Named after a prolific Long Beach real estate investor, the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music received a substantial gift of $16.4 million in 2008 from Bob Cole himself.

Faculty members at Bob Cole represent an interesting mix of academicians and professionals alike. They include Chad Wackerman, former drummer for Frank Zappa’s band; John Proulx, a Grammy Award-winning vocalist; and Ted Atkatz, former Chicago Symphony Principal Percussionist turned alternative rock artist who formed the band NYCO.

Alumni from the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music have gone into the world’s great music ensembles. They include a New York Philharmonic Principal Tubist in Alan Baer, a leading jazz drummer in John Hollenbeck, and a virtuoso trombonist in Andy Martin who has performed in over 100 movie soundtracks.

CSULB’s tuition is among the most competitive of any music school in the country. It is an absolute steal for a California resident seeking a low-cost music education at a high-quality music school.

University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music (Stockton, CA)

University of the Pacific
GeneWright, UOP – Burns Tower, CC BY-SA 3.0

Established in 1928, the Pacific Conservatory of Music is the oldest accredited music school on the west coast. A small school comprising less than 300 total students, approximately 90% of the PCOM population is undergraduate, with the last 10% reserved for graduate student study. Although the majority of students are from California, musicians hail from all around the world, with some students coming from Japan, China, and Taiwan.

In an effort to bring in high-profile guest artists for students to study with, the University of the Pacific will feature a new artist-in-residence program, the Lynelle F. Wiens Master Class Series. This program brings to campus successful artists and musicians from around the world. Its inaugural artist is Irene Roberts, a vocalist who made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2012 and even graduated from the University of the Pacific herself in 2006.

In addition to the standard fare of traditional conservatory offerings in classical and jazz performance, PCOM is home to some less common music degrees. These include programs in music industry studies, which is the study of the music business, and music therapy, the study of using music as a healing modality. 

Azusa Pacific University School of Music (Azusa, CA)

Azusa Pacific University School of Music is widely recognized as a “hidden gem” music school housed in a highly-regarded Christian university. APU would be one of the very best choices for a student seeking a music school with a faith-based integration near a major city in Los Angeles.

The APU School of Music is home to many unusual programs found only in a handful of American music schools. One such program is “Music and Worship,” a degree designed to help musicians gain significant work in Churches and religious institutions. 

However, APU is an equally good option for students seeking a more traditional degree in performance or music education. Speaking of music education, APU has one of California’s most comprehensive programs, partnering with local public schools and organizations to give their students quality time to work with K-12 music students. 

Chapman University Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music (Orange, CA)

Chapman University
Bobak Ha’Eri, Chapman Attallah, CC BY 3.0

Chapman University’s Hall-Musco Conservatory of Music is unique among music schools in that it is only one of two or three schools offering an undergraduate degree in conducting. The only other schools offering an undergraduate in conducting are Mannes and Curtis, to our knowledge.

Students at Chapman enjoy performing in one of the nation’s finest performing arts facilities in any college, the aptly named Musco Center for the Arts. This center comprises 88,000 square feet and is home to a concert stage, classrooms, and more. 

Faculty at Chapman are among Southern California’s most accomplished artists. They include Dr. Robert Frelly, an accomplished conductor who founded the Southern California Youth Philharmonic, a program with multiple ensembles and over 200 young music students. Frelly has additionally served as a conductor for the 2012 Olympic Games.

With its proximity to Los Angeles, guest artists at Chapman University are some of Los Angeles’ best professionals. Graduates of Chapman are professors, performers, and music directors in Southern California and beyond.

California Institute of the Arts (Valencia, CA)

California Institute of the Arts
Bobak Ha’Eri, CalArts, CC BY 3.0

California Institute of the Arts may very well be the most “unique” music school in the world, where students can major not only in traditional disciplines of classical and jazz performance, but also in unusual majors like “Experimental Pop,” “African Music and Dance,” and “Balinese Music.” 

While it may be tempting to think of CalArts as a school offering only out-of-the-box majors, it indeed is home to many vital “mainstay” programs in jazz, composition, music technology, and more.

CalArts was founded in 1950 by a team of creatives, including Walt Disney, one of the school’s first faculty members. Although music is one of the school’s most notable programs, CalArts also specializes in acting, dance, and film. With so many creatives of varied interests existing under one roof, interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged at CalArts, with music students scoring films, accompanying dancers, and performing in multiple genres.

CalArts is perhaps the most unique school not only in California, but throughout the country. Eschewing a traditional “classical-only” conservatory model in favor of an inclusive, all-encompassing aesthetic, CalArts is the right choice for the curious student seeking an expansive education.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music (San Francisco, CA)

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Carlin Ma, San Francisco Conservatory of Music Building, CC BY-SA 4.0

Long regarded as one of the foremost classical music conservatories in the country, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music opened its doors to jazz performance four years ago with its Roots, Jazz, and American Music major. Faculty members of this prestigious program are some of jazz’s most prominent names, including saxophonist Joshua Redman, a jazz musician who has recorded for Warner Bros. Music, and Clairdee, a prominent Bay Area soloist.

SFCM’s classical music studies start with its longtime collaboration with many Bay Area artistic institutions. These include both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera, both of which have musicians who are on faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Having access to professional-caliber faculty in two of the nation’s most significant arts institutions is a primary benefit to these students’ studies.

UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music (Los Angeles, CA)

UCLA is the highest-ranking academic institution on this list, with US News ranking UCLA as the #20 best university in the country. For students interested in an elite music education with a high-quality university, UCLA may represent a smart option, especially for students interested in supplementing their studies with a dual major in academics.

UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music is home to many top-tier programs in the country, including jazz performance. For undergraduates, UCLA’s Global Jazz Studies program 

features many faculty members who are leaders in jazz education, including legendary trumpet player Terence Blanchard and Distinguished Professor Kenny Burrell. 

For older students, UCLA’s Herbie Hancock Institute, a tuition-free two-year residency featuring Herbie Hancock on faculty, is perhaps the most coveted jazz education program in the world.

UCLA’s Southern California connections include a relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In fact, several faculty members at UCLA hold a dual appointment with the LA Phil, giving classical performance students an edge by studying with professionals from one of America’s top orchestras.

The Colburn School (Los Angeles, CA)

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

Colburn is, alongside Juilliard and Curtis, the most desirable independent classical conservatory in the country. One reason may be its tuition, or should I say, lack thereof a tuition. 

Colburn is one of the few music schools that is completely free for accepted applicants. The others? Yale School of Music (graduate students only), Curtis Institute of Music, and the American Academy of Vocal Arts (graduate students only).

Before you start salivating at the opportunity to join this exclusive club, realize that Colburn only accepts classical instrumentalists. It does not have a program in vocal performance, jazz, pop music, or composition. The entire student body is less than 120 students, just enough to fill out an orchestra and with a few pianists on the side.

If accepted, the education is top-notch. Faculty members are some of the busiest names in their instruments. One faculty member, Jim Walker, is perhaps the most heard flutist of all time; not only was he the principal flutist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has performed in thousands of film soundtracks, including Ice Age, Monsters Inc., A Beautiful Mind, and Titanic. Another faculty member, Robert Lipsett, is one of the most important living violin teachers whose students have won major competitions and placements in top orchestras. 

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

USC’s Thornton School of Music not only tops our list for music schools in California, it may very well be the best music school in the entire country. 

USC has a program for practically every major interest a musician may have. Because of its high-quality programs, faculty who are Los Angeles’ top professionals, and desirable urban location, it is among the most selective schools in the world. USC’s Popular Music program, one of the school’s unique programs, has an acceptance rate of less than 5%. 

Jazz Performance at USC is perhaps its most riveting program. Imagine having a jazz legend show you the ropes of your instrument, and you can imagine what the USC experience is like. Faculty members like Bob Mintzer helped define a generation of jazz big band in the 70s, playing in Buddy Rich and Mel Lewis’s bands. Another jazz faculty member, Alan Pasqua, has toured with the likes of Bob Dylan, Santana, and Cher. 

Classical performance at USC rivals any conservatory in the world. With a strong affiliation to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, many classical performance faculty members at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music are not only pedagogues, they are also professional orchestral musicians. Some members of the faculty, like Midori Goto, have carved out significant solo careers before settling on a professorship.

The last two programs of note at USC Thornton are in music production and music business. USC Thornton’s music production program may very well be the most selective undergraduate program of its kind in the world, accepting less than a dozen students a year into its program. Students in the music business program get unprecedented access to internships throughout the entertainment mecca of Hollywood.