Many students learn some kind of musical instrument in elementary school. Some continue through high school, and some even plan on continuing to do some kind of musical activity in college.
For a small fraction of students, though, music is not only something they want to continue studying, but it is the only thing they want to focus on studying in college.
If you're one of these students who wants to go to music school, then this article is for you. We'll go over what kind of experience you can expect to have at the best music schools and what you should look for in a top music school. We'll also introduce to you to our ranking of the best music schools in the US (for undergraduates).
What Is a Music School?
At the college or university level, music schools come in a couple of different forms. The most specialized of these is the music conservatory. Our list of best music schools is mostly comprised of a) conservatories that are part of larger institutions and b) standalone conservatories.
As a conservatory student, you will almost exclusively take music classes. You may have some required liberal arts core classes as well, but the expectation at a conservatory is that the vast majority (at least 95%) of your time will be devoted to music classes, studio lessons, performing, practicing, and composing (depending on your major).
Undergraduates at music conservatories generally graduate with a Bachelor of Music (BM) degree, although some conservatories may offer Bachelor of Musical Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music degrees. Additionally, if the conservatory is affiliated with a larger university or college, you may be able to get a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Music instead.
At conservatories that are part of a larger university, it's also possible to get dual degrees in music and a non-music field. For some of these schools, you must apply to both the conservatory and the non-music undergraduate program of your choice and be accepted to both to take classes at both; at other schools, you can apply to the regular college to begin with and then take courses in the conservatory, or vice versa.
Dual degree programs usually graduate students with a Bachelor of Music degree and a Bachelor of Arts degree (either in music or some other unrelated field), although other pairings do exist (e.g. BM/Bachelor of Science, or BA/Master of Music). Occasionally you can get this dual degree in the same four years you would take for a single degree, but more often dual degree programs take five or more years.
At many conservatories, it's also possible to get an undergraduate certificate or artist's diploma instead of a bachelor's degree. Undergraduate diploma programs are usually only offered to performance majors (although occasionally you may run into a composition undergraduate diploma) and are often restricted to students who already have a bachelor's degree in another subject but have decided to return to school to study music. These programs do not have the same liberal arts requirements or academic focus as other types of undergraduate music degrees.
Attending a conservatory of music is a good choice for students who are seriously considering pursuing a career in music and want their university experience to primarily center around music.
A second type of music school is a college or university that has a good music program but does not offer a specialized undergraduate music degree (BM). Students at these types of music schools graduate with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Music, rather than a Bachelor of Music. Rather than spending 95%+ of your time on music, you'll generally end up spending at most 50% of your time on music and 50% on other academic subjects.
Most top-ranked liberal arts colleges (and even some top-ranked universities) fall into this second category of music school. If you're a student who loves music but also wants to get a good non-music education, schools with good music programs (rather than conservatories) are the way to go.
This description fit me to a tee when I was in high school. I wanted to attend a school that had outstanding academics, including a good music program, rather than a school that had an outstanding music program and some good non-music courses. Because of this, I went to a liberal arts college for undergrad and only went to a conservatory for my Master's degree.
The trade-off when it comes to music schools is that most non-conservatories with good music programs won't have the same quality music programs as do the best conservatories in the country. That's why, out of all the schools on this list, the only school listed that does not have a conservatory program for undergraduate students is Yale.
Our Methodology for Choosing the Top Music Schools in the US
Because there are so many different kinds of programs within each music school, it's difficult to give a definitive ranking for how they compare to one another.
Take a look at this list of the different kinds of programs you might expect to find at a music school:
- general music (theory, musicology, ear training, etc)
- performance (instruments, conducting, early music, jazz/contemporary music)
- composition (including film music)
- music technology/audio engineering
- music education
- music industry
- musical theatre (usually in partnership with a theatre studies/drama program)
Many of these courses of study can be further divided up into different subprograms. For instance, under the "performance" umbrella, schools will have different programs for different families of instruments (brass, woodwinds, strings), which will each have different tracks for different instruments.
While it's great that music schools have such a wide breadth of programs, it also means that the quality of different programs can vary widely within the same school. Even if you assume a school is equally proficient at every performance major, for example, it's unlikely that it will be equally as strong in its performance majors as it is in its music industry program.
There's no guarantee that a music school's are even in the same tier of quality—for example, it's very likely a school could have a top-level music industry program but a below-average music education program.
Taking all this into consideration, for our list of the best music schools in the US we've chosen schools that provide students with the best overall music education for undergraduates. This assessment is based partially on rankings of student satisfaction and earnings and partially on the reputation of the school as a music school.
For our music school rankings, we've grouped schools into three different categories. Attending any one of the schools on this list will prepare you for future studies in music and give you a foundation on which to build a future music career.
First, we'll look at the best music programs within larger schools. Most of these are conservatories within a larger university or college setting.
Next, we'll consider the best music-only schools. These schools are all conservatories unattached to larger institutions, although cross-registration may be possible with other non-conservatories in the area.
Finally, we'll go through some honorable mention music schools. These are music schools that aren't quite at the level of the 15 schools in the other two categories but are still notable for various reasons, including affordability, overall reputation of the institution the music school is affiliated with, or promotion of interdisciplinary study.
Pictured above: the interdisciplinary study of music theory and why won't earbuds stay in my ears.
The Best University Music Programs in the US
The schools in this category are for the most part conservatories within larger universities. Many schools on this list offer dual degrees, or at the very least cross-registration between the music school and other undergraduate programs that are part of the same overarching university.
We've come up with a rough overall ranking order for these schools based on reputation, student satisfaction, affordability, breadth of offerings, and selectivity.
However, it's important to keep in mind that the difference in actual teaching quality among all the schools is pretty negligible and is more major-dependent than school-dependent, so judging Jacobs as better than, say, Eastman is more a matter of what you study and what kind of environment you want to be in than anything else.
|1||Jacobs School of Music||Indiana University—Bloomington||BM, BME, BS, Assoc. Sci.|
|2||Peabody Institute||Johns Hopkins University||BM, UD|
|3||School of Music, Theatre, and Dance||University of Michigan—Ann Arbor||BFA, BM, BMA, BS|
|5||Eastman School of Music||University of Rochester||BM|
|6||Thornton School of Music||University of Southern California||BA, BM, BS|
|7||Oberlin Conservatory of Music||Oberlin College||BM|
|8||Frost School of Music||University of Miami||BA, BM, UD, BS|
BM=Bachelor of Music; BME=Bachelor of Music Education; BS=Bachelor of Science; Assoc. Sci=Associate of Science; UD=some kind of non-degree diploma program open to undergraduates (specific terminology differs school to school); BMA=Bachelor of Musical Arts; BFA=Bachelor of Fine Arts; BA=Bachelor of Arts.
Below, we have a brief overview of each school on the above list. We also have more detailed information about acceptance rate and student body size (if available) and what you can get a degree in.
#1: Jacobs School of Music (Indiana University—Bloomington)
- Location: Bloomington, IN
- Acceptance rate: 25%
- Student body size: about 500 undergraduates
- Tuition and fees
- Indiana resident: $23,870/year
- Indiana non-resident: $49,434/year
The Jacobs School of Music is part of Indiana University—Bloomington, a public university in the Indiana University system. Although IU Bloomington is a relatively large school, with around 33,000 undergraduates overall, Jacobs School of Music only has about 500 undergrads; it's still on the larger side for a conservatory (it has roughly the same number of grad students as well), but it has a significantly more intimate feel than you'd expect to get from your average state university flagship school.
As an undergraduate applicant, you'll need to both apply to Indiana University and fill out an additional Jacobs School of Music supplemental application.
Because Jacobs is part of a larger university, you do have the benefit of being able to cross-register with different schools at IU and even get a dual degree in music and a non-music field (BM/BA or BM/BS).
Additionally, Jacobs itself offers a much wider variety of fields of study for undergraduates than most other music schools, including everything from standard instrument and composition majors to an Associate degree in string instrument technology. And for certain programs, Jacobs allows students to pursue dual music degrees so that you might, for instance, end up with a BM in composition and an Associate of Science degree in Audio Engineering and Sound Production.
Here is a complete list of all the different undergraduate degree programs offered at Jacobs School of Music:
|Historical Music Performance||Instrumental Emphasis||BM|
|Historical Music Performance||Vocal Emphasis||BM|
|Jazz Studies||Bass, guitar, percussion, piano, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, or voice||BM|
|Performance||Orchestral Instrument (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, percussion, violin, viola, violoncello, double bass)||BM|
|Performance||Woodwind Instruments (multiple)||BM|
|Music Education||Choral Teaching||Bachelor of Music Education|
|Music Education||General Music Teaching||Bachelor of Music Education|
|Music Education||Instrumental—Band||Bachelor of Music Education|
|Music Education||Instrumental—Strings||Bachelor of Music Education|
|Audio Engineering and Sound Production||Cinema and Media Production||BS|
|Audio Engineering and Sound Production||Game Design||BS|
|Audio Engineering and Sound Production||Business Informatics and Computing||BS|
|Audio Engineering and Sound Production||Arts Administration||BS|
|Audio Engineering and Sound Production||Music (General)||BS|
|Music and an Outside Field||—||BS|
|Music and an Outside Field||Composition Emphasis||BS|
|Music and an Outside Field||Jazz Studies Emphasis||BS|
|Audio Engineering||—||Associate of Science|
|String Instrument Technology||—||Associate of Science|
BM=Bachelor of Music; BS=Bachelor of Science.
#2: Peabody Institute (Johns Hopkins University)
- Location: Baltimore, MD
- Acceptance rate: varies by program; low
- Student body size: About 270 undergraduates
- Tuition: $53,630
The Peabody Institute falls under the academic umbrella of Johns Hopkins University, an extremely selective private university in Baltimore that has about 6,000 undergraduate students over all its programs.
Around 270 undergrad and 310 grad students attend the Peabody Conservatory, which means you'll have the chance not only to collaborate with your undergraduate peers but with other students more advanced in their studies (and get a glimpse into what life might be like if you go to grad school for music). Peabody offers both Bachelor of Music degrees and performance certificates (a non-academic undergraduate diploma) for undergraduate students.
To attend Peabody as an undergraduate, you only need to apply to the Peabody Institute (rather than to Johns Hopkins as well) unless you're planning on getting a dual degree, in which case you'll have to apply and be accepted to both Peabody and Johns Hopkins. Typically a minimum of five years, dual degree programs with the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences or the Whiting School of Engineering are even more intensive than a regular conservatory degree.
Fortunately, if all you want to do is take some non-Peabody classes while getting a conservatory education, you can cross-register with other undergraduate programs at Hopkins without having to go full-on dual degree. In fact, taking classes not offered at Peabody is mandatory for certain majors, like recording arts and sciences.
As an undergraduate student at Peabody, you can choose to major in any of the following areas:
|Brass Instruments||Trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba, euphonium||BM, PC|
|Historical Performance||Baroque flute, Baroque lute and theorbo, Baroque oboe, Baroque violin and viola, lute, recorder, viola da gamba and Baroque cello, harpsichord||BM, PC|
|Jazz||Bass, clarinet, flute, guitar, percussion, piano, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, violin, voice||BM, PC|
|Music Ed||Instrumental Certification||BM|
|Music Ed||Orchestral Instruments||BM|
|Music for New Media||—||BM|
|Recording Arts and Sciences||—||BM|
|Recording Arts and Sciences||Computer Music||BM|
|Recording Arts and Sciences||Music for New Media||BM|
|Strings||Violin, viola, cello, double bass||BM, PC|
|Voice & Opera||—||BM, PC|
|Woodwinds||Flute, piccolo, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon||BM, PC|
BM=Bachelor of Music; PC=Performance Certificate (an undergraduate diploma program).
#3: School of Music, Theatre, and Dance (University of Michigan—Ann Arbor)
- Location: Ann Arbor, MI
- Acceptance rate: around 7-16% (varies depending on major)
- Student body size: about 825 undergraduates (74% with music focus)
- Tuition (Michigan resident): $14,586 for freshmen/sophomores; $17,806 for juniors/seniors
- Tuition (Michigan non-resident): $51,552 for freshmen/sophomores; $55,140 for juniors/seniors
The School of Music, Theatre, and Dance is one of several different schools at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, a highly selective public university in the University of Michigan system. While UMich's Ann Arbor has around 32,000 undergraduates as a whole, SMTD has much more of a conservatory feel, with under 200 music students in each year.
As an alternative to doing a full-on dual degree, students at SMTD can also choose to get a Bachelor of Musical Arts, which combines a music performance (jazz or classical) concentration with non-music coursework. (At other schools like Frost, an equivalent degree might be a Bachelor of Arts in Music, rather than a Bachelor of Music degree).
SMTD has undergraduate programs in the following areas:
|Music Education||Choral Music Education||BM|
|Music Education||Instrumental Music Education||BM|
|Music Theory||Note: you can only apply to this program once you've already been accepted to SMTD||BM|
|Performing Arts Technology||Music & Technology||BM|
|Performance||Multiple Wind Instruments, Organ and Sacred Music, Piano, Strings, Voice, Winds and Percussion||BM|
|Performance||Classical performance and non-musical coursework||Bachelor of Musical Arts|
|Performance||Jazz performance and non-musical coursework||Bachelor of Musical Arts|
|Multidisciplinary Studies||Winds and Percussion, self-designed||Bachelor of Musical Arts|
|Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation||Jazz Studies||BFA, BM|
|Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation||Jazz and Contemplative Studies||BFA|
|Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation||Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation||BFA|
|Performing Arts Technology||—||BFA|
|Performing Arts Technology||Music and Technology||BM|
|Performing Arts Technology||Sound Engineering||BS|
BM=Bachelor of Music; BFA=Bachelor of Fine Arts; BS=Bachelor of Science.
#4: Yale University
- Location: New Haven, CT
- Acceptance rate: 6% overall
- Student body size: around 6,000 undergrads
- Tuition and fees: About $55,500/year
Part of the Ivy League, Yale University is an extremely selective private school in New Haven.
Yale is unique on this list of music schools because while it does have a separate music school (the Yale School of Music), this music school only grants degrees to graduate students. Thus, if you want to study music at Yale, you'll just major in music (through the Department of Music) and get a BA in music, just as you would for an academic subject like sociology or economics.
Despite not having a separate degree program for undergraduates, however, Yale is still one of the top music schools in the US (partly because it does have a separate school of music). Once you get into Yale, you can opt to get a performance certificate or an artist diploma on top of your BA; it's not quite the same as getting a BM, but it will show grad schools that you were dedicated enough to music to spend the time to get an additional diploma on top of your BA.
Yale also has a new 5-year BA/MM (or BS/MM) program through the Yale School of Music for instrumental musicians only; not much info is out yet about it, so we'll update as we get more information.
#5: Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester)
- Location: Rochester, NY
- Acceptance rate: around 13%
- Student body size: 500 undergraduates (400 grad students)
- Tuition: $57,420/year (with that caveat from Eastman that nearly 100% of students get some sort of merit scholarship)
The Eastman School of Music is part of the University of Rochester, a selective private university in Rochester, NY. The University of Rochester overall is medium-sized, with about 6,500 undergrads total, but with around 500 undergrads total, Eastman feels much smaller.
If you're just planning on getting a Bachelor of Music degree, you only need apply to Eastman; if you want to get a dual degree (BA/BM or BS/BM), though, you have to apply to both Eastman and the University of Rochester (30% acceptance rate).
In addition to allowing students to do a double major with a non-music subject or cross-register in non-music classes, Eastman also allows students to double-major within Eastman. This allows students who are interested in pursuing multiple musical areas (say, piano and composition) to pursue both interests equally.
Below is a chart with the different music degrees offered at Eastman:
|Applied Music (Performance)||Double Bass||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Guitar||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Harp||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Piano||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Organ||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Strings (violin, viola, cello)||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Voice||BM|
|Applied Music (Performance)||Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion (bassoon, clarinet, flute, oboe, saxophone, euphonium, horn, trombone, trumpet, tuba, percussion)||BM|
|Jazz Studies & Contemporary Media||Performance Skills (trumpet, saxophone, trombone, piano, guitar, double bass, drumset)||BM|
|Jazz Studies & Contemporary Media||Writing Skills||BM|
|Music Ed—General||Piano Primary Concentration||BM|
|Music Ed—General||Instrumental/Voice Primary Concentration||BM|
|Music Ed—Vocal||Voice Primary||BM|
|Music Ed—Vocal||Piano Primary||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#6: Thornton School of Music (USC)
- Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Acceptance rate: 20% (varies depending on program and year)
- Student body size: 450-500 undergrads
- Tuition: $57,256
The Thornton School of Music is part of the University of Southern California (USC), a highly selective private university in Los Angeles. The process of applying to Thornton is a little different than for other music schools that are part of larger universities—rather than applying to Thornton separately, you must apply to USC and select "music major" in the application (as well as including all required portfolio materials).
Even though you have to apply to USC (around 19,000 undergrads total), Thornton with its <1000 students (grad and undergrad) still has that conservatory vibe.
Like SMTD at UMich, Thornton allows undergrads to follow two different tracks: the BM track, which is essentially a conservatory degree, or the BA in Music track, which allows students to have a more liberal-arts focused degree (that still includes a good amount of music coursework).
Thornton's majors in Music Industry and Music Production are relatively unique among conservatories (which are usually more performance and theory-oriented), and the fact that Thornton is located in LA means that students in those majors can get some hands-on experience outside of the classroom.
Students can major in the following areas at Thornton:
|Music||Jazz Studies (Instrument or Voice)||BA|
|Performance||Jazz Studies (Instrument only)||BM|
|Performance||Violin, Viola, and Cello||BM|
|Music||Winds & Percussion (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion)||BA|
|Performance||Winds & Percussion (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, percussion)||BM|
|Music Technology||Music Production||BM|
BA=Bachelor of Arts; BM=Bachelor of Music; BS=Bachelor of Science.
#7: Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Oberlin College)
- Location: Oberlin, OH
- Acceptance rate: 25%
- Student body size: 580 conservatory students (mostly undergrads) and 180 dual degree students
- Tuition: $55,976
The Oberlin Conservatory of Music is part of Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college and the only non-university in this category of music schools. Because of Oberlin's commitment to providing all of its students with a solid liberal arts foundation, BM students must take 6-8 non-conservatory courses as part of their degree.
Oberlin's dual degree program allows students to graduate with a BA/BM in five years or fewer. Unlike some dual degree programs, Oberlin does not have any requirement that the two degrees be in any way connected. You could choose to pair majors as related as Early Music Performance and History or as disparate as Musicology and Biochemistry. Students must apply to both the College of Arts and the Conservatory to be accepted to the double degree program.
Oberlin Conservatory of Music offers the following undergraduate majors:
|Performance||Strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, harp)||BM|
|Performance||Woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon)||BM|
|Performance||Brass (trumpet, horn, trombone, tuba)||BM|
|Performance||Early Instruments (harpsichord, recorder, Baroque flute, Baroque oboe, Baroque violin, Baroque cello and viola da gamba)||BM|
|Piano Performance and Vocal Accompanying||Double major in piano performance and vocal accompanying||BM|
|Technology in Music and Related Arts||—||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#8: Frost School of Music (University of Miami)
- Location: Miami, FL
- Acceptance rate
- Frost: 40%
- University of Miami: 32%
- Student body size: 450 undergrads (300 grad students)
- Tuition: $50,400
The Frost School of Music is part of the University of Miami, a private university located in Miami, FL. While the University of Miami as a whole has around 10,800 undergrads, Frost only has about 450 undergrads total (or around 112 students in each year), so it feels much smaller. There are also around 300 grad students at Frost.
Unlike most of the schools in this category, you do in fact have to apply and get into both the Frost School of Music and the University of Miami in order to attend Frost. Because you will have already gotten into the University of Miami when you start Frost, however, this means that it's pretty easy to cross-register for classes outside of Frost.
When I spoke with the Frost admissions office about double-majoring/dual degrees, I was told that while it is possible to double-major in music and a non-music subject, it is not recommended, due to the intensity of requirements for the music degree. Instead, it's much more common for students to get a BA in Music and minor in a non-music subject.
Here's a table of the different areas you can choose to major in as a student at Frost:
|Composition||Theory and Composition||BM|
|Instrumental Performance||flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, tuba, percussion, violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, guitar, harp||BM, PC|
|Keyboard Performance||—||BM, PC|
|Vocal Performance||—||BM, PC|
|Studio Music and Jazz||Instrumental||BM, PC|
|Studio Music and Jazz||Vocal||BM, PC|
|Media Writing and Production||—||BM|
|Music Business and Entertainment Industries||—||BM|
|Musicianship, Artistry Development, and Entrepreneurship||—||BM|
|Music||Must also select a non-music minor||BA|
BM=Bachelor of Music; PC=Performance Certificate (an undergraduate diploma program); BS=Bachelor of Science; BA=Bachelor of Arts.
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The Best Standalone Music Schools in the US
All the schools on this list are conservatories. Some of the schools have non-music programs as well (dance, theatre, etc), but for our music school ranking purposes, we've only considered the quality of each school's music programs.
|1||The Juilliard School||New York, NY||BM, UD|
|2||Curtis Institute of Music||Philadelphia, PA||BM, UD|
|3||Berklee School of Music/Boston Conservatory at Berklee||Boston, MA||BM, UD/BM|
|4||New England Conservatory||Boston, MA||BM|
|5||San Francisco Conservatory of Music||San Francisco, CA||BM|
|6||Manhattan School of Music||New York, NY||BM, UD|
|7||Cleveland Institute of Music||Cleveland, OH||BM, UD|
BM=Bachelor of Music; UD=some kind of non-degree diploma program open to undergraduates (specific terminology differs from school to school).
Next, we'll go into a little more detail about each of the conservatories on this list.
#1: The Juilliard School
When one thinks of what the best music schools in the world (let alone the US) are, one of the names that is sure to come to everyone's mind is Juilliard. Located in Manhattan's Upper West Side, the Juilliard School is a world-renowned conservatory with undergraduate programs in dance, theatre, and music.
One of the premier schools in the world for instrumentalists and vocalists, Juilliard alums have gone on to launch careers as solo and chamber musicians and become members of top national and international orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic). One of the most difficult music schools to get into in the US, Juilliard is the conservatory equivalent of Harvard or Stanford—highly selective, famous faculty, name brand recognition, and with alums who go on to become leaders in their field.
As an undergraduate student at Juilliard, you can choose to get either an undergraduate diploma (almost entirely performance-focused) or a Bachelor of Music (includes more classwork and marginally less focus on your primary instrument). You can also apply to be one of the 10-12 students in each year who is able to cross-register for classes at Barnard College or Columbia University.
Juilliard does also offer a joint five-year bachelor's/MM degree in conjunction with Barnard and Columbia; however, in order to participate in this program, you need to be a student at Barnard or Columbia who's cross-registered at Juilliard for at least two years before applying. This program works best for students who are as strong academically as they are musically and have the dedication and time management skills to manage essentially an undergraduate and master's degree at the same time.
Juilliard offers the following majors to its undergraduates:
|Brass||Horn, trumpet, tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba||BM, UD|
|Classical Guitar||—||BM, UD|
|Strings||Violin, viola, cello, double bass||BM, UD|
|Woodwinds||Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon||BM, UD|
|Vocal Arts||—||BM, UD|
|Jazz Studies||—||BM, UD|
BM=Bachelor of Music; UD=Undergraduate Diploma.
#2: Curtis Institute of Music
- Location: Philadelphia, PA
- Acceptance rate: around 5%, depending on program
- Student body size: around 170 undergrads
- Tuition: $0
The Curtis Institute of Music is a private conservatory that is focused around performance (although it does have a composition program as well). Curtis is extremely difficult to get into, but when I spoke with Admissions I was told that you can always reapply if you're rejected and that, indeed, there are many students at Curtis who didn't get in the first time around.
The main reason for Curtis's exclusivity is its free tuition policy. All students accepted to Curtis are given a scholarship to cover the cost of tuition, with the aim of making sure that talented students are not held back from attending Curtis due to the price of admission. This policy has made Curtis as or more difficult to get into than Juilliard and the quality of students admitted is extremely high.
Curtis is almost exclusively an undergraduate school; the exception is the graduate vocal studies program, which usually has 12-15 students per year. That Curtis is so undergrad-focused means that all of your classes will be taught by professors (rather than having some taught by TAs), which gives it a very different feel from a school that is more equally divided among undergrads and grad students (or has a larger grad program than undergrad).
Students accepted to Curtis are automatically placed into the undergraduate diploma program; to get accepted to the BM program, you need to then provide additional information like your high school transcript. While at Curtis as a BM student, you also have the option to cross-register at the University of Pennsylvania, a top-tier national university also located in Philadelphia.
Here's a quick rundown of the different major programs at Curtis:
|Brass||Horn, trumpet, trombone/bass trombone, tuba||BM, D|
|Classical guitar||—||BM, D|
|Strings||Violin, viola, cello, double bass||BM, D|
|Timpani and Percussion||—||BM, D|
|Vocal Studies||—||BM, D|
|Woodwinds||Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon||BM, D|
BM=Bachelor of Music; D=Diploma (an undergraduate diploma program).
#3: Berklee College of Music/Boston Conservatory
- Location: Boston, MA
- Acceptance rate: 39% overall
- Student body size
- Berklee: 6,400 undergrads
- Boston Conservatory at Berklee: 190 music undergrads
- Tuition: $44,360 for BM; $38,220 for professional diploma
Berklee College of Music is a private conservatory located in Boston, MA. Berklee has long been known as one of the best contemporary music schools in the world, particularly when it comes to jazz, but it also has thriving classical and non-performance programs. It's also the largest undergraduate conservatory program on our list, with over 1500 students in each year.
In 2016, Berklee joined forces with the Boston Conservatory and become a single behemoth of a music school...sort of. Actually, you can still apply separately to the Boston Conservatory at Berklee if you're more interested in the BoCo curriculum than Berklee's. And you can always cross-register through the Pro Arts consortium for classes at Boston Architectural College, Emerson College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, New England Conservatory, or the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts.
Berklee also offers a uniquely challenging dual degree program with Harvard that allows you to get an Arts Bachelor degree from Harvard and a Master of Music degree from Berklee in just five years. To be accepted to this program, you need to apply and get into both Harvard and Berklee; if you are one of those who can handle both the academics of Harvard and the intense music focus of Berklee, then I salute you.
Here's a list of the undergraduate majors you can study at the Berklee College of Music:
|Contemporary Writing and Production||—||BM, PD|
|Electronic Production and Design||—||BM, PD|
|Film Scoring||—||BM, PD|
|Jazz Composition||—||BM, PD|
|Music Business/Management||—||BM, PD|
|Music Production and Engineering||—||BM, PD|
|Performance||Bass (acoustic bass, electric bass)||BM, PD|
|Performance||Brass (baritone horn, French horn, trombone, trombone(bass), trumpet, tuba)||BM, PD|
|Performance||Guitar (acoustic guitar, electric guitar)||BM, PD|
|Performance||Percussion (drum set, marimba, percussion, percussion (hand), steelpan, vibraphone)||BM, PD|
|Performance||Piano (acoustic)||BM, PD|
|Performance||String (banjo, cello, harp, mandolin, viola, violin)||BM, PD|
|Performance||Woodwinds (bass clarinet, bassoon, clarinet, flute, oboe, saxophone (alto), saxophone (baritone), saxophone (soprano), saxophone (tenor))||BM, PD|
BM=Bachelor of Music; PD=Professional Diploma (an undergraduate diploma program).
The smaller Boston Conservatory at Berklee undergraduate programs have slightly different curricula and structure and have more of an explicit classical conservatory focus. Here's a look at the undergraduate majors at BoCo at Berklee:
|Performance||Brass (trumpet, horn, trombone, bass trombone, euphonium, tuba)||BM|
|Performance||String (violin, viola, cello, double bass)||BM|
|Performance||Woodwind (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone)||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#4: The New England Conservatory of Music
The New England Conservatory of Music, or NEC, is located in Boston, MA. The convenient positioning of NEC just around the corner from Symphony Hall (home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra) makes it easy both for NEC students to get reduced price tickets to the orchestra and for the faculty of NEC to commute back and forth between teaching at NEC and playing in the BSO (as many of them do).
While NEC has both jazz and classical undergraduate majors, as a whole it falls decidedly more on the classical side of the spectrum (as opposed to nearby Berklee, which tends more towards the jazz/contemporary music persuasion).
In addition to having a top-notch conservatory program, NEC also boasts an impressive array of cross-registration options for undergraduates who want to challenge themselves with non-music academics as well.
Like Berklee/BoCo, NEC is part of the Pro-Arts consortium, and so NEC students can take classes at Boston Architectural College, Emerson College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, or the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. Additionally, NEC students can cross-register for classes at nearby Northeastern University or Tufts University.
NEC also offers a couple of dual degree programs with nearby schools. Undergraduates who are not satisfied with merely taking classes at Tufts can opt to do a joint Tufts BA (in a non-music field) or BS and NEC BM degree. For students who are even more advanced in their musical study, NEC offers a joint AB/MM degree with Harvard. Like the Berklee/Harvard AB/MM, the NEC/Harvard dual degree is even more selective than the rest of NEC, with perhaps one to two students per year okayed to go ahead.
As an NEC undergraduate, you can get a Bachelor of Music degree in the following areas:
|Brass||Horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba||BM|
|Strings||Violin, viola, cello, double bass, harp, guitar||BM|
|Woodwinds||Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#5: San Francisco Conservatory of Music
- Location: San Francisco, CA
- Acceptance rate: 42%
- Student body size: 205 undergraduates
- Tuition: $46,650
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is, as the name indicates, a private conservatory located in San Francisco. About equally divided between grad and undergrad students, SFCM is less selective than some of the schools on this list for undergraduates, although it varies depending on the degree.
Unlike most of the other conservatories mentioned in this article, SFCM does not have any kind of cross-registration (or if it does, that information is well-hidden), so as an SFCM undergrad you will only be able to take classes at SFCM. While SFCM does have general ed classes that you have to take as part of your core curriculum, the fact that there is no dual degree or partnership with a nearby university of any kind is a definite drawback if you're interested in taking non-conservatory classes while in college.
A couple of standout programs at SFCM are the Roots, Jazz, and American Music major and the Technology and Applied Composition major. Roots, Jazz, and American Music requires students to take classes in the Technology and Applied Composition and Composition departments, providing a jazz education that goes beyond performance and jazz theory. The Technology and Applied Composition major stands out as a composition program that is specifically geared towards composing for video games, film, and other media.
At SFCM, you can get a Bachelor of Music in any of the following areas:
|Brass||Horn, trombone, trumpet, tuba||BM|
|Keyboard||Harpsichord, organ, piano||BM|
|Roots, Jazz, and American Music||—||BM|
|Strings||Violin, viola, cello, double bass, harp||BM|
|Technology and Applied Composition||—||BM|
|Woodwinds||Bassoon, clarinet, flute, oboe||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#6: Manhattan School of Music
- Location: New York, NY
- Acceptance rate: around 45% (varies depending on major and year)
- Student body size: 490 undergrads
- Tuition: $48,280
The Manhattan School of Music is a private music conservatory located in Manhattan's Morningside Heights. Like Curtis, MSM has many more undergrad students than grad students, so the atmosphere is similar to what you'd find at a liberal arts college (albeit compressed down into less than 100 students per year).
Like many conservatories unattached to larger institutions, MSM is primarily performance-focused; however, within this performance focus there are a couple of programs that stand out. The first (which I discovered as I was researching schools) is that you can major in jazz harmonica at MSM. This is the only degree of its kind that I have seen at undergraduate schools anywhere, so if you are a harmonica virtuoso, MSM should be at the top of your list of schools to apply to.
The second unusual course of study at MSM is its Bachelor of Music in Musical Theatre. Most conservatories, if they do have theatre programs, only have general theatre degrees for undergraduates (usually BFAs), rather than musical-theatre-focused programs. The only other school in this article that has a separate degree in musical theatre is UMich's SMTD, which allows undergraduate students to get a BFA in musical theatre.
Aside from the humanities core classes offered as part of the MSM curriculum, MSM students have the option to cross-register for classes at Barnard (although they cannot get a dual degree). Oddly, while MSM students can cross-register at Barnard, they do not have the same privileges at Columbia (in contrast to Juilliard, which has cross-registration programs with both schools).
MSM allows students to major in the subjects in the chart below. (Note: Each instrument is listed separately because students at MSM major in specific instruments, rather than in Performance with a concentration in a particular instrument).
|Classical||Voice (Opera Theatre)||BM|
|Jazz Arts||Bass (Double Bass/Acoustic)||BM|
|Jazz Arts||Bass (Electric)||BM|
|Jazz Arts||Drum Set||BM|
|Jazz Arts||Saxophone (alto, baritone, tenor)||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
#7: Cleveland Institute of Music
The Cleveland Institute of Music is a private conservatory located in Cleveland, OH. Undergraduate students at CIM can either opt for an Artist Certificate (if they want to only focus on performance) or a Bachelor of Music.
The only undergraduate majors you can directly apply for at CIM are composition or performance (on a particular instrument). However, once you're attending CIM, you can also add on a double major in music theory or Eurythmics (a method of teaching rhythm and music through physical movement). The latter program is the only such program offered to undergraduates at any of the schools listed in this article, which makes CIM a top choice for any students interested in learning more about Eurythmics.
CIM students have cross-registration privileges at nearby Case Western Reserve University, where they must take their mandatory non-music electives and music history classes.
As a CIM student, you can also take part in the Case Western/CIM dual degree program, which allows you to graduate with a BM and a bachelor's degree from Case Western in a non-music subject. This five-year dual degree program is unique among others discussed in this article because you do not need to apply to both Case Western and CIM to qualify; instead, you need only apply to CIM.
Undergraduates at CIM can major in any of the areas listed below:
|Performance||Double Bass||BM, AC|
|Performance||Classical Guitar||BM, AC|
|Performance||Timpani and Percussion||BM, AC|
|Performance||Trombone/Bass Trombone||BM, AC|
BM=Bachelor of Music; AC=Artist Certificate (an undergraduate diploma program).
12 Honorable Mention US Music Schools
The schools we listed in the previous two sections are what we consider to be the top 15 music schools for undergraduates in the US, but there are some other great music schools that, while they didn't make that list, still deserve briefly mentioning.
Some of these schools are notable for their interdisciplinary opportunities or for having majors you'd normally only have access to as a grad student, while others are notable for being attached to highly selective national universities or lower-cost state schools.
The first honorable mention school we'll look at is a school that has multiple music programs across different undergraduate colleges: New York University.
NYU—Steinhardt and Tisch
- Location: New York, NY
- Acceptance rates: unknown for Steinhardt and Tisch individually but likely low; 30% for NYU as a whole
- Student body size
- Steinhardt: 2600 undergrads total
- Tisch (music programs): 60 undergrads in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music program, 50 in the Performance Studies program
One of the top private universities in the US, New York University (NYU) has two undergraduate colleges that allow students to study music.
The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development might seem like an unlikely place to find a music degree, but that's where NYU's main music department is located within. At Steinhardt, you'll be able to get a Bachelor of Music degree, just like you would at a conservatory, but you'll also get a strong liberal arts education as part of your major.
In addition to being cross-register at other NYU undergrad programs, students at Steinhardt have the option of doing a combined BM/Master of Arts in Music Education or a BM/Master of Music in Music Technology.
Here's a list of the different majors offered at NYU through Steinhardt:
|Instrumental Performance||String Studies||BM|
|Instrumental Performance||Woodwind Studies||BM|
|Music Performance||Brass Studies||BM|
|Music Performance||Jazz Studies||BM|
|Music Performance||Percussion Studies||BM|
|Vocal Performance||Classical Voice||BM|
|Vocal Performance||Music Theatre||BM|
|Music Theory and Composition||—||BM|
|Music Theory and Composition||Contemporary Production and Song Writing||BM|
|Scoring for Film and Multimedia||—||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
Besides Steinhardt, the other school at NYU that offers undergraduates a degree in music is the Tisch School of the Arts.
While Tisch is world-renowned as a conservatory for theatre, it does have a couple of undergraduate programs that are either music-focused or can include music.
Through the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Tisch students can get a BFA in Recorded Music, focusing their studies on various aspects of the recorded music industry. Alternatively, students who want to study the intersection of music and other fields would do well to consider Tisch's BA in Performance Studies, a degree unique among those offered to undergraduates for its diversity of approach and quality.
A note of caution: NYU as a whole is a highly selective school (with a 21% acceptance rate overall) but Tisch in particular is extremely difficult to get into (closer to Juilliard and SMTD in selectivity than to the rest of NYU).
Mannes School of Music (The New School)
- Location: New York, NY
- Acceptance rate: 35-60% (varies from program to program)
- Student body size: unknown; around 4,000 New School undergrads overall.
- Tuition: $48,760
The Mannes School of Music is part of The New School, located near Union Square in Manhattan. Smaller and less competitive than the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes is nonetheless a great option if you want to study music in a New York conservatory setting.
Because Mannes is part of The New School, students can also cross-register at other colleges at The New School. (Based upon my conversation with Admissions, this usually ends up meaning the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts or the Parsons School of Design.)
Most of the undergraduate programs at Mannes are performance-focused, but there is one major that stands out as unusual at the undergraduate level: conducting and theory. Most music schools do not allow undergraduates to major in conducting, so if that is your primary area of musical interest, Mannes is a good choice.
Here's a brief rundown of the undergraduate music majors available at Mannes:
|Orchestra Instruments (brass, woodwinds, percussion, strings)||BM|
BM=Bachelor of Music.
California Institute of the Arts
- Location: Santa Clarita, CA
- Acceptance rate: unknown; around 30% for CalArts undergrad overall
- Student body size: 220 undergrads
- Tuition: $50,850
The Herb Alpert School of Music is one of several programs at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). This is distinct from the nearby Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, so make sure you don't confuse the two schools.
CalArts' music program is notable because rather than getting a Bachelor of Music degree or Bachelor of Arts of Science in Music, you'll graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music. This distinction reflects the fact that the music education you get at CalArts will be less what you'd get at a traditional music conservatory and more of an interdisciplinary experience.
CalArts and NYU's interdisciplinary programs are comparable, but the schools have very different academic environments and cultures. NYU is located in the northeast in the heart of the most populous city in the US, while CalArts is in a suburban city in southern California. These cultural and geographic differences also mean that even nominally similar programs at the two schools (e.g. film scoring) are structured differently, with different extracurricular opportunities.
Here's a list of the undergraduate concentrations at CalArts' Herb Alpert School of Music:
|Composition and Experimental Sound Practices||BFA|
|InstrumentalArts (winds, brass, percussion, guitar, harp, piano, strings)||BFA|
|World Music Performance||BFA|
|Musical Arts/Experimental Pop||BFA|
BFA=Bachelor of Fine Arts.
Colburn Conservatory of Music
- Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Acceptance rate: low, varies by program; available upon request from admissions
- Student body size: 110 undergrads
- Tuition and fees: $13,000
Located in downtown LA, the Colburn School is a music school that offers everything from pre-college music lessons to graduate study.
All degree programs at Colburn are offered through the relatively new Colburn Conservatory of Music. While the undergraduate curriculum includes some required humanities courses, the bulk of your time will be spent on performance study.
Unlike most of the other conservatories in this article, Colburn only offers performance majors. In addition, because Colburn is so small, whether or not you can apply at all in a given year depends on whether or not the teachers of your instrument have room in their studios for new students.
Even though the conservatory program at Colburn is less than 20 years old and only has performance majors, we've included it on this list because it has one extremely notable (and laudable feature): free tuition for all admitted students and grants that cover on-campus housing and meal plan costs. This puts Colburn up there with Curtis as one of the most affordable music schools in the US.
Below is a table with the most recent list of degrees with openings at Colburn:
|Double Bass||BM, PD|
BM=Bachelor of Music; PD=Performance Diploma (an undergraduate diploma program).
Pictured in the photo above: conductor, principal cellist, third chair cellist, third chair cellist's surreptitious Concord All Star-clad foot.
4 Good Music Schools at Public Universities
While there are a couple of public schools in our best music schools rankings (IU and UMich), most of the top music schools in the country are either standalone conservatories or attached to private universities. There are, however, a few music schools at public universities that are deserving of an honorable mention.
The four schools below are notable music programs at public universities that provide undergraduates with a solid grounding for future graduate study in music. They are particularly good choices for students who live in-state because of the lowered price tag (especially in comparison to some of the lower-ranked conservatories, which still cost students a pretty penny).
College of Music (University of North Texas)
- Location: Denton, TX
- Acceptance rate: unknown
- Student body size: 4,000 undergrads
- Texas residents: $11,544
- Texas non-residents: $20,504
- Degree: BM or BA in Music; a double major with a non-music major is possible but very difficult due to the rigors of the music degree.
College-Conservatory of Music (University of Cincinnati)
- Location: Cincinnati, OH
- Acceptance rate: 12-15%
- Student body size: 746 undergraduates
- Ohio resident: $12,266
- Ohio non-resident: $27,600
- Degree: BM or BFA in Music.
School of Music (University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign)
- Location: Urbana, IL
- Acceptance rate: unknown
- Student body size: unknown
- Degree: BM, Bachelor of Musical Arts, Bachelor of Music Education, BA in Music, or BS in Music.
Conservatory of Music and Dance (University of Missouri Kansas City)
- Location: Kansas City, MO
- Acceptance rate: around 60%, but varies depending on the year and program.
- Student body size: 330 undergraduates
- Tuition (assuming 15 credit hours)
- Missouri resident: $9,884.86
- Kansas resident: $9,975.46
- Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, or Wisconsin residents: $14,232.46
- All other students: $25,011.46
- Degree: BM, BA in Music, BA in Music Therapy, Bachelor of Music Education, general ed degree with a performance focus; dual degrees are possible but usually take more than four years.
4 Top Universities with Good Music Programs
Aside from Yale, Peabody (at Johns Hopkins), USC, and NYU, most of the schools in this article are great for music but not necessarily top-ranked for academics overall.
In this section, however, we wanted to briefly mention four schools that are renowned for their academics with strong undergraduate music programs. These music schools aren't at the same level as the 15 ranked schools, but they're great options for students who want to pursue non-music and music majors at a high level.
Northwestern—Bienen School of Music
- Location: Evanston, IL
- Acceptance rate: around 10% (but there is a prescreening process, so that's 10% of students who pass through the prescreening process)
- Student body size: around 400 undergraduate students
- Tuition: $54,120
- Degree: BM, BA in Music, or BS in Music; can do a dual degree with another undergraduate program at Northwestern.
Vanderbilt—Blair School of Music
- Location: Nashville, TN
- Acceptance rate: around 20% (depending on major)
- Student body size: 200 undergraduates
- Tuition: $50,800
- Degree: BM, Bachelor of Musical Arts, 5-year BM/Master of Education dual degree, or 3+2 Bachelor of Musical Arts + MBA dual degree; can cross-register for non-Music Vanderbilt classes.
- Location: Houston, TX
- Acceptance rate: around 10%
- Student body size: 100-120 undergraduates
- Tuition and fees: $49,112
- Degree: BM; can cross-register for non-music Rice classes.
Carnegie Mellon—School of Music
- Location: Pittsburgh, PA
- Acceptance rate: unknown; 22% for all Carnegie Mellon undergrads
- Student body size: unknown; 16,700 Carnegie Mellon undergrads overall
- Tuition: $55,816
- Degree: BFA, BS, Music Ed certificate; can cross-register for non-music Carnegie Mellon classes.
Statue of Johann Strauss, Vienna.
4 Tips for Applying To the Top Music Schools in the US
As a finishing touch to this collection of music school rankings, we have assembled the four most important things to think about when it comes to choosing what music schools you want to apply to and attend.
Tip 1: Research the Programs At the School
Whether you want to study a particular instrument or learn how to do audio engineering and recording, you'll need to make sure the school you're applying to actually offers classes and teachers who specialize in your areas of interest.
If you'll be taking studio lessons as part of your music degree, you should also look up the teachers and see what you can find out about their teaching styles and philosophies. This can be anything from searching for their performances online to actually reaching out to them and asking if you can chat.
Getting to know what the teachers are like is helpful for any school, but it's especially important at a conservatory where the only thing you'll be doing is music. If you don't like your teacher or the school's teaching philosophy and environment, you'll be both miserable and wasting your money and time.
This research also applies to knowing what the deadlines and pre-screening audition processes are for the schools you're interested in. Most music schools have early December regular-decision deadlines, with some schools requiring pre-screening materials as early as September or October. If you're considering applying to a music school, make sure you've looked up what the audition/prescreening requirements are by the beginning of the summer before your senior year so that you're not caught off guard in September.
Tip 2: Only Apply to Conservatories If You Only Want to Study Music
Our second tip is to not apply to conservatories unless you're sure that the only thing you want to study is music (or, if you do have other subjects you want to take classes in, that they're not something you'd want to spend more than 5-10% of your time on).
For most high school students, music is an elective. The bulk of your school schedule is centered around academic subjects like math, history, science, and literature/language arts.
Being thrown into an environment where suddenly all you do in class is music and the bulk of your learning comes from self-study can be disorienting, even if you love music and know it's all you want to do. And for students with academic interests outside of music, attending a conservatory may feel so limiting that it ultimately ends up causing them to transfer or even driving them away from music for a time.
As an anecdotal example of the perils of going to a conservatory as an undergraduate, I always think about a high school friend of mine who sang, played the guitar and piano, and was extremely passionate about songwriting and performing. She got a guitar scholarship to Berklee College of Music and decided to go there...only to discover during her first year there that she wanted to be doing things besides music. After her freshman year, she transferred to a small liberal arts college where she could pursue both music and environmental studies. Currently, she is a singer/songwriter who regularly performs her own music at live shows.
All of this is to say that just because you don't go to a conservatory (or stay at one) doesn't mean that you can't later pursue a career as a musician.
Alternatively, there's always the option of becoming an artist's model for a statue of a musician.
Tip 3: Consider Location When Applying
The third tip we have for aspiring music school applicants is to think about where you want to go to school geography-wise.
Obviously, location is something you'll want to take into account for any college you apply to. For music schools, though, taking location into consideration is especially important because it can affect what kind of musical experiences you get while in college.
If you go to Oberlin, you're going to be in a rural setting where there's not as much opportunity to get performance gigs or go experience non-Oberlin music performances as there would be at a city (or even a suburban) school. However, if what you're looking for is an isolated school where you won't be distracted from practicing or writing music, then maybe this would be ideal for you.
If you go to school somewhere in New York, San Francisco, or Boston, on the other hand, you'll have plenty of access to musical culture outside of your school and many more gig opportunities (without needing a car to get there!).
While the cost of living in these cities (particularly in Manhattan, where all the NYC music schools in this article are located) is much higher than it is in most other places in the country, there are usually discount programs available for students to experience culture.
Of course, you may also run into more competition for gigs in cities, and finding somewhere to practice that's available when you are can be nightmarishly difficult, so urban areas aren't unequivocally the better choice for music school locations. Our best advice: think carefully about what you want to get from your music education, then consider school locations through that lens.
Tip 4: Compare Music School Costs
Our final tip when applying to music schools is to take costs into consideration when deciding where to apply.
A running cultural joke is that there are tons of students out there with expensive liberal arts educations who use their degrees as placemats or work jobs where a college degree isn't required. Epitomized in the Avenue Q song, "What Do I Do with a BA in English?" the general idea is that you don't learn any practical skills in college that will actually help you get a job after graduation and you'll be left with a whole of debt you have no way of paying off as a result.
Going to music school is a little different, because you are theoretically learning things that will be applicable to your post-school life, whether that's how to teach general music as a music educator or how to be a better performer and network so that you get gigs and auditions.
Still, the fact remains that the likely starting salary of a student who graduates from a music school for undergrad is in most cases lower than the cost of tuition for one year, let alone for the whole four-plus years of school.
When you're looking at music schools, be very clear to yourself about what the cost of tuition is vs. what the benefit you expect to get from attending the school.
For many of the schools on the list, there is some brand recognition of the school's name, which can boost your chances of getting a job at all. However, it won't necessarily boost your paycheck.
The cost of education/likely future salary ratio is why schools like Curtis are so incredibly competitive to get into—not only is the reputation and caliber of teaching high there, but the no-cost tuition means that students who are talented but otherwise might not be able to afford attending music school will apply and be able to start their post-undergraduate careers with low or no debt.
What's that I hear? Is it the sound of a music student not starting their post-college life with crushing debt?
Key Takeaways for the Best Music Schools in the USA
Becoming a professional musician requires dedication, training, and hard work. If you're sure that the only thing you want to do with the rest of your life is be a musician, then you should apply to music school.
The type of music you want to study, what aspect of music you want to study, and how intensely you want to study it all affect what schools you should apply to.
The schools in this article are a good start if you're looking for schools that are nationally (and in some cases internationally) renowned, but you may find that there are other less well-known music schools that better suit your future plans or have teachers you really want to study with.
Going to one of the best music schools in the country does give you a little bit of a name-recognition edge and a networking edge, but in the end your hard work and talent (in that order) are what will make you a successful musician, no matter where you end up going to school.
Music! It's pretty great. (Unofficial slogan for every music school)
Not sure how to figure out how to narrow down where to apply for school? Check out our guide to narrowing down a list of colleges to apply to.
Interested in schools that allow you to focus more on the theatre part of musical theatre? We've compiled a list of the best performing arts schools in the country here.
How much extra work is it to double major and why should you do it? Find out more about what goes into double majoring in this article.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.