The 10 Best Music Schools in California

3. 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.

2. 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. 

1. 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.

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