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If you are planning to study music in California, the good news is there are many good options for earning a music degree.

When considering top music schools, we often think of the big names on the east coast such as Juilliard, Berklee, Curtis, and New York University, plus schools in America’s heartland, such as Oberlin, University of Cincinnati, and the University of Michigan. The south also has some good offerings, like the University of Texas, the University of Miami, and Full Sail University near Orlando, Florida.

However, there are also plenty of great schools on the west coast and especially in California, the most populous state in the nation. If you are a California resident, many of these schools offer an in-state tuition discount, which could save you and your family a lot of money. Whether you live in California or plan to move there to study, California offers some great options for earning music degrees.

Keep reading for our California top school picks and answers to the most-asked questions about music programs in California.

FAQs About the Best Music Schools in California

What colleges have the best music programs in California?

Tom Stein

There are about 50 college and university music programs in California, with about 3,500 students graduating with music degrees in the state each year. The most popular schools graduate as many as several hundred music students, while some other schools only graduate a handful of students.

In no particular order, our list of the best college music programs in California includes:

  • University of Southern California (USC) – Thornton School of Music
  • University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) – Herb Alpert School of Music
  • California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) – Herb Alpert School of Music
  • San Francisco Conservatory of Music
  • Stanford University
  • University of California San Diego
  • Azusa Pacific University School of Music
  • California State University, Long Beach – Bob Cole Conservatory of Music
  • University of California at Irvine – Claire Trevor School of the Arts
  • The Colburn School
  • California State University, Northridge

Is UCLA good for music?

Tom Stein

UCLA (The University of California, Los Angeles) has an excellent reputation for its music programs.

Benefits of attending include living and studying in Los Angeles which is the home to a burgeoning music industry in service to the film and TV industries. Faculty are practitioners in the field and can use their network to help graduates get their start in a competitive industry.

There are many other excellent music programs in Los Angeles you can check out, too. (See our listings below).

Which CSU school is best for music?

Tom Stein

Two CSU schools made our rankings for the best music colleges in California: the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at California State University, Long Beach and the Music Department at California State University, Northridge.

CSU Long Beach is known for its Performance programs and award-winning jazz and choral ensembles.

In addition to performance degrees, CSU Northridge is known for its Music Industry, Music Education, Music Therapy, and Composition programs.

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The Best Music Colleges in California [current year]

Here’s our full list of the most reputable programs offering degrees in music in California:

University of Southern California (USC) - Thornton School of Music

USC has a strong reputation for music and is one of the more selective schools in the country for admissions. Their programs are focused on interdisciplinary studies in the arts, such as composing music for film and art installations. The school also offers tracks for Classical Performance and Composition, Contemporary Music, and scholarly research.

Students benefit from proximity to the film and TV industries and they learn portfolio skills to help them find work in music. Many of the Professors are active professionals working in the field.

USC offers a range of graduate programs as well.

University of Southern California
Location: Los Angeles, CA

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) - Herb Alpert School of Music

UCLA’s Herb Alpert School offers programs in Music Performance, Composition, Conducting, Music Education, Musicology, Music Industry, and Global Jazz. Students study jazz, classical, popular, and traditional music styles while living and working in Los Angeles. It’s one of two schools in Los Angeles with the Herb Alpert name; the other is at CalArts.

University of California Los Angeles
Location: Los Angeles, CA

California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) - Herb Alpert School of Music

CalArts also has an Herb Alpert School of Music, so be certain to distinguish it as different from the one at UCLA. Also near Los Angeles, CalArts offers a wide range of specialties beyond Performance, such as Composition and Experimental Sound, Experimental Pop Music, Music Technology, Voice Arts, Jazz, World Music Performance, and Instrumental Arts. They offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) as opposed to many other schools that offer a Bachelor of Music (BM or BMus).

California Institute of the Arts
Location: Valencia, CA

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Offering undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate study opportunities such as the Artist Diploma, the San Francisco Conservatory also has programs in Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM), Historical Performance, Technology and Applied Composition (TAC), Conducting, and Instrumental Studies. More than 100 years old, they pride themselves on the quality of their facilities and instruction.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Location: San Francisco, CA

Stanford University

Located thirty-five miles south of San Francisco and twenty miles north of San Jose, Stanford University is in the heart of Northern California’s “Silicon Valley,” home to many tech companies. Stanford’s Department of Music combines Instrumental Studies (including Voice) and scholarly research in Performance, Composition, Conducting, Music History, Ethnomusicology, Music Theory, Cognitive Science, Intermedia, and Computer-based Technologies.

Ensembles include a variety of world cultures plus orchestras, jazz and chamber ensembles, taiko, guzheng, steelpan, and choral groups.

There is a focus on interdisciplinary studies with other programs and centers at the university.

Stanford University
Location: Stanford, CA

University of California San Diego

Music Majors at UCSD can choose a course track with an emphasis in Composition, Performance, Jazz, Technology and Literature, and audition for ensembles. There is a Music Humanities major and an Interdisciplinary Computing and the Arts Computer Music and Music Technology (ICAM) major.

There are also well-respected graduate programs on offer.

University of California San Diego
Location: San Diego, CA

Azusa Pacific University School of Music

Close to Los Angeles, undergraduates earn a Bachelor of Music (B.M.) while majoring in Commercial Music, Composition, Music Education, Music and Worship, and Performance. Students can also choose to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) with an emphasis in either Music Theory or Performance, while performing and writing for vocal and instrumental ensemble groups.

The school offers master’s degrees and states that their community is grounded in the Christian faith.

Azusa Pacific University
Location: Azusa, CA

California State University, Long Beach - Bob Cole Conservatory of Music

Students at the Cole Conservatory study Jazz, Choral Conducting, Instrumental and Vocal Music, as well as Opera and Musical Theater.

Cole is home to award-winning ensembles, choral and chamber groups, and an orchestra.

Many graduates go on to graduate studies at major universities, make acclaimed recordings, or perform and tour globally with major popular artists. Students enjoy major cultural attractions and professional opportunities in the greater Los Angeles region.

California State University, Long Beach
Location: Long Beach, CA

University of California at Irvine - Claire Trevor School of the Arts

UCI Claire Trevor School houses the Department of Music, along with departments of Dance, Drama, Art, and Research and Innovation. The Music area focuses heavily on classical music and jazz, with performing groups ranging from small ensembles and chamber groups up to full orchestra and a large chorus.

They are a well-regarded research institution recognized as a hub for the scholarly study of the life and works of Clara Schumann.

Alumni consistently place in competitions, and they house their own jazz festival along with many concerts.

(Note: Other University of California System schools worth looking at for music include the programs at Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Barbara.)

University of California at Irvine
Location: Irvine, CA

The Colburn School

Besides offering a college degree, the Colburn School has a community school and a pre-college academy offering private and group lessons, ensembles, dance, and drama classes to students of all ages.

Their Colburn Artists program prepares students for careers in the music industry.

The Colburn School
Location: Los Angeles, CA

California State University, Northridge

CSUN’s Department of Music is housed in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication. They offer both Bachelor of Music (B.M.) and Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees in music.

Students major in Music Education, Music Industry Studies, Music Therapy, Commercial Writing, Composition, Jazz Studies, Vocal Arts, and other Instrumental Studies such as Guitar, Strings, Woodwinds, or Brass. The Breadth Studies emphasis allows students to combine music with other fields of interest aligned with their career direction.

Northridge is part of the San Fernando Valley region of the City of Los Angeles.

California State University, Northridge
Location: Northridge, CA

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Further Options for Music Colleges in CA

Other California music programs worth a look:

(Note that there may be some good California music schools not included on this list as it is not meant to be exhaustive. Most reputable programs will be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.)

Wrapping Up

Now that you have an idea of which schools in California have the strongest music programs, you can begin to narrow it down to which would be the best fit for you. Visit their websites and campuses, if possible. Look at the list of famous graduates to see what opportunities may exist for alumni.

Talk to the faculty, students, and staff and ask questions to learn more about each place. Consider what might be the most important aspects of a school and whether you’d feel comfortable studying there. Build your network up while you do this, and you will be well on your way towards finding the right school for you to study, learn, and grow as a musician.

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