10 Best Music Composition Programs in the US
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10 Best Music Composition Programs in the US

Author: Tom Stein

Date: January 6, 2020

Reads: 1,432


Tom Stein is a Senior Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is a visionary musical entrepreneur, music producer, artist development consultant, arranger, bandleader and performer. He is an Administrator of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest and Multi-Media Tour Bus, and a member of the US State Department's Fulbright Specialist Roster for global entertainment and music industry.
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Which top US schools offer a degree in music composition?

Here’s a brief overview of 10 of the best schools where you can study composition. If you want to earn your degree in composition and conducting, consider the schools and colleges on this list. The 10 best schools are not listed in any particular order. At the end, I’ll mention several additional schools worth considering.

The best music composition programs include:

  • New England Conservatory of Music
  • Yale University
  • Boston Conservatory at Berklee
  • The Julliard School
  • Cleveland Institute of Music
  • Oberlin Conservatory
  • Florida State University
  • Manhattan School of Music
  • Columbia University
  • Curtis Institute of Music

Studying Music Composition

Musicians have been studying music composition for centuries, with the predominant model for learning being private lessons or the education offered at conservatories around the world. Studying and apprenticing under recognized master Composers, Conductors, and Teachers has been the accepted path to prominence as a successful Composer and Orchestra Conductor, and a conservatory degree or diploma has long been a badge of quality and proficiency.

Of course, musical styles change, and compositional techniques have evolved together with genres and tastes. Today’s professional musicians, Composers, and Conductors are not only proficient as instrumentalists and writers of music, but must crossover among a multitude of musical streams, from jazz and pop to classical, third stream, and new music. Professional Composers must also understand music production, music synthesis, and how to market themselves in the digital age.

While the conservatory has been and still is the predominant model, many colleges and universities offer degrees in composition. Some schools house their own conservatory, while others might offer a sequence of courses allowing students to earn their degree with a major concentration in composition.

All the schools included in my 10 best list have established programs with a record of producing successful alumni. In deciding where to earn your degree, begin by considering a number of schools, and then spend some time investigating each one. I recommend that you visit any school you’re seriously considering, and speak directly with the faculty and students. They can best give you a realistic perspective on what daily life is like, should you decide to attend.

Think about what is important to you in a program. Do you need access to a large orchestra to perform and record your works?

Some larger schools offer this, while a small conservatory setting might be more focused on chamber and jazz combos. If you write electro-acoustic music or like to perform in ensembles, that could be a consideration. You might want to have access to recording studios or be concerned about faculty-student ratio. You might want to be in one of the big cities, or prefer a more pastoral setting.

Many students choose a school based on the faculty teaching there, or the notable successes of the alumni. Location and cost are also a factor in choosing a school, as are scholarships. There’s a lot to consider when choosing your school. As you do your research, take careful notes to help you compare the different programs’ plusses and minuses.

Ultimately, choosing the right program for you shouldn’t depend on any single top 10 list. There are many good programs at state schools and community colleges. The important thing is the training you receive should prepare you to work in the field. Most schools have summer programs designed for younger musicians, and that’s also a great way to meet the faculty, learn about how they teach composition, and find out what it’s like to study there.

While you are at it, network with the people you meet. They will likely be your future collaborators. Keep track of who you speak with at each school, in case questions come up later on and you want to circle back to them. Listen to the opinions of Teachers and other professionals, but in the end, you should make the decision based on what feels right for you.

10 of the Top Schools for Composition

Organizing a “Top 10” list for anything is an incredibly difficult and complex undertaking. It’s really hard to decide which schools to include or leave out. For my list, I considered different factors, such as the size of the program, reputation, location, facilities, faculty, costs, alumni success, length of operation, affiliations, scholarships, degrees offered, and so on.

My goal was to provide a sample of outstanding programs as a starting point, to help with your initial research. Over time, programs can change, so I tried to make the information as up to date as possible if you are now applying for the upcoming academic year. At the end, I have included some additional schools not on my list, but worthy of consideration. The link to each school is also provided. Schools aren’t listed in any particular order.

New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)

NEC is located in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts, close to Symphony Hall, the home of the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops. With a focus on practice and performance, students learn to master techniques and theory and interact with professional Composers, guest artists, and talented faculty and students while they compose music constantly.

NEC students can earn dual degrees with Tufts University, such as a Bachelor of Music (BM) combined with either a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS), and can complete a Bachelor plus Masters of Music (MM) with Harvard College. Student Composers get to hear their works played by a variety of ensembles and orchestras in the beautiful and legendary Jordan Hall.

Yale School of Music (YSM)

In New Haven, Connecticut, Yale attracts students from around the world who study to be Composers while earning their degree at undergraduate or graduate levels. They offer a BA, MM, Master of Musical Arts (MMA), and Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA), as well as an Artist Diploma (AD) and several fellowships for postgraduates.

Composition students take courses in computer music, recording techniques, analysis of tonal and non-tonal music, and have their works played by ensembles and orchestras. Students are encouraged to hone their skills as instrumentalists and Conductors.

YSM Composition graduates have won many distinguished prizes, such as the Pulitzer Prize, Gaudeamus Prize, Nemmers Prize, GRAMMY® Awards, Berlin Prize, Emmy Awards, and honors from ASCAP and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Many YSM graduates are Composers-in-Residence at orchestras and festivals.

The Juilliard School

Located in New York City, Juilliard is renowned for its stellar faculty, diversity of musical styles, and world-class performing ensembles. Students are immersed in the vibrant arts culture of New York and can interact and sometimes work with top names in the field.

Juilliard offers a Bachelor of Music (BM), and Undergraduate Diploma, Master of Music, a Graduate Diploma, and a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA). A degree from Juilliard is perceived as the “gold standard” in most musical quarters, as it is one of the most famous music schools in the world.

At Juilliard, Composition students take classes in ear training, music theory and analysis, music history, and keyboard studies, along with private lessons on their instrument. Juilliard’s Center for Innovation in the Arts facilitates students’ improving composing and performing skills with new technology, and hands-on experience with state of the art equipment. There’s a strong foundation in liberal arts and the career center focuses on getting students gigs and honing their entrepreneurship abilities.

Boston Conservatory at Berklee

In Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Conservatory has merged with Berklee College of Music, so students can cross-register for courses and take liberal arts, writing, and performance classes in many contemporary styles. Though housed in a large urban college setting, Boston Conservatory at Berklee has a small conservatory vibe. Students can earn a BM and MM in Composition, and there is also a Graduate Performance Diploma (GPD) and a Professional Studies Certificate (PSC) in Composition.

At Boston Conservatory at Berklee, there is a wide range of performance and composing opportunities with hundreds of ensembles ranging from chamber groups to orchestra, dance, jazz, and musical theater performance groups. The Conservatory offers a strong foundation in all areas of music competency, literature, technology, and interdisciplinary practice. Students are encouraged to audition for local ensembles and often participate in local music festivals and competitions, building real-world experience and a strong professional network.

Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM)

Founded by Composer Ernest Bloch in 1920, CIM puts composition at the core of its programs. One of just seven independent conservatories of music in the US, CIM is devoted exclusively to classical music.

CIM offers a BM, MM, DMA, Professional Studies Diploma, and Artist’s Diploma, all in Composition and Performance. Students study with internationally recognized Composers in seminars, master classes, and studio. More than half the faculty are members of the Cleveland Orchestra, and students also take courses offered by CIM’s partner, Case Western Reserve University.

Oberlin Conservatory of Music

Located in Oberlin, Ohio, the campus is in a rural setting. Oberlin Conservatory is one of the oldest music schools in the US, opened in 1865. The Composition major is in the Division of Contemporary Music. Areas of study include composition, electronic and computer music, and contemporary chamber music. Students are also expected to build musical and technical skills by exploring contemporary music styles.

There is an emphasis on performance, with on-campus student recitals and opportunities for informal gigs. Oberlin is ranked highly as a liberal arts college by major publications such as U.S. News and World Report, and music students take liberal arts courses in the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin College.

Florida State University (FSU)

Located in Florida’s State Capitol, Tallahassee, FSU offers Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate Degrees in both Music Theory and Composition. The FSU College of Music has one of the largest and most distinguished theory and composition faculties in the US. For graduate students, there is a range of assistantships that offer experience teaching college music classes. The college sponsors student travel, funds visits from guest Composers and hosts the Festival of New Music, which plays student works.

Manhattan School of Music (MSM)

Situated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City, the Manhattan School of Music has a long-standing joint program with Barnard College of Columbia University allowing qualified students to cross-register for courses at each institution. The School of Music offers a BM, MM, DMA, and Professional Studies Certificate (PS) in Composition. Courses offered for Composers include counterpoint, instrumentation/orchestration, form and analysis, notation, score reading, operatic composition, and electronic music.

MSM has a reputation as a premier conservatory, with world-renowned artist-faculty, with an innovative curriculum centered on classical, jazz, and music theater. Composition students have opportunities to get feedback on their work in masterclasses by guest Composers and performers and hear their music performed by college ensembles.

Students also benefit from the vibrant arts culture in New York City. U.S. News and World Report has ranked the school as among the best private arts institutions.

Columbia University

Also in New York City, the Department of Music offers an MFA in Sound Art, plus a DMA in Composition. Columbia graduate students can cross-register for courses at Juilliard on an audition basis. The two-year MFA Sound Art Program is a highly selective interdepartmental program offered in association with the Visual Arts MFA program, the Department of Music and the Computer Music Center.

The only graduate sound art program in New York City, Columbia is close to the New York gallery scene, including long-established art institutions such as MoMA, the Guggenheim, and others. Sound Art students pursue creative work in a variety of genres and focus on the integration of sound with other media. Students also have access to the Computer Music Center and the Fritz Reiner Center at Columbia.

Curtis Institute of Music

Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Curtis Institute of Music offers a BM or a Diploma in Composition. Students learn by doing, and the Institute seeks to integrate new students into the musical life of the school by having students perform in and write for recitals from the time they first arrive.

Curtis is very small and selective, enrolling only about 175 students total, just enough to have an active symphony orchestra and other smaller ensembles. All students at Curtis receive full scholarships, so admission is highly selective. The Institute has a storied past and counts Leonard Bernstein as one of its graduates.

Also Worthy of Mention

The following schools are also notable for their music programs, and well worth a look.

New York University (NYU Steinhardt)

In New York City, NYU offers a BM in Music Theory and Composition with concentrations in Screen Scoring, and in Contemporary Production and Songwriting. The undergraduate degree has strong liberal arts requirements.

There is also an MM in Music Theory and Composition, with specialties in writing music for concerts, composing for film, music theater, and electronic composition. Other tracks of the MM in Theory and Composition include screen scoring and songwriting. Students complete course work in music research, music history/literature, and music composition, and choose from elective courses such as scoring techniques, advanced instrumental conducting, advanced computer music, and music synthesis.

Pomona College

A small private undergraduate liberal arts college, located in Claremont, California, 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Students enjoy proximity to Los Angeles’ art culture, mountains, desert, and beaches. The low student-to-faculty ratio, 8:1 means classes are small and students get plenty of individualized instruction. The student body is diverse and international, with students from nearly 60 countries and from all 50 US states.

Most students live on campus. Pomona is a founding member of The Claremont Colleges, a consortium of schools giving students the resources of a larger university. They offer generous aid packages and 56% of students receive financial aid. Students can earn a BA with a major in music. There’s an impressive number of performance opportunities on campus for such a small college.

Indiana University Bloomington

The Jacobs School of Music offers BM, MM, and DM degrees in Composition. They also offer a BS in Composition combined with an outside field. There are minors and certificates in Composition, Electronic Music, and Scoring for Visual Media.

There are about 50 students in the Composition Department, combined undergraduate and graduate. There are over 1,000 performances annually, so students have ample opportunity to have their music heard. The Jacobs School has a strong reputation for excellence in its programs, and for its accomplished faculty and alumni.

The New School - Mannes

In the heart of New York City, the Composition program emphasizes its faculty of prominent professional Composers, plus a focus on artist-mentorship, professional performance, and entrepreneurship. The New School encourages cross-disciplinary arts collaboration, and students can take classes at the Mannes School of Music, Parsons School of Design, and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

Degrees offered include a BM, MM, and the Professional Studies Diploma.

Students take private lessons along with courses in music theory, ear training, dictation, piano, and electives in arranging, composition, entrepreneurship, improvisation, pedagogy, and music technology. Their gig office helps students launch careers in New York City, and student ensembles often perform at legendary venues, parks, and theaters around the city.

Rice University

Located in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1975, the Shepherd School at Rice attracts talented young musicians from around the country and has built a solid reputation for training future music professionals.

Composition students take private lessons and core music classes, plus a range of electives in performance, musicology, and other subjects. They also participate in and write for the many school ensembles, and are encouraged to take courses in areas that interest them outside the music school. The school offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, including a doctorate in Composition and Music Theory.

In Conclusion

Remember that there are many outstanding schools that are not on my 10 Best list. Do your own research and then plan to visit the schools you are most interested in.

Speak with professional Composers and your Teachers to see what they advise. Talk to a graduate of any program you are considering, and ask them about the training they received. For gifted musicians, earning a degree in composition is an investment worth making in terms of learning, and to prepare for a career as a professional Composer and Conductor.

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