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With the college admissions season in full swing once again, student musicians are looking at their options after high school and many will decide to apply to music schools.

In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the best US music college and university programs and offer some pointers on how to figure out which might be a great fit for you. We’ll also look at what you will learn in music school, and how to apply.

I’ll list each top school with some brief info, such as where they are located, size, and what they are best known for. I’ll also give you a framework for considering which schools will best fit your educational and career goals along with your personal preferences and learning style, plus pointers on how to choose and apply.

The 10 Best US Music Schools

It’s tough to come up with a 10 best schools list, because there are so many outstanding schools. Think of my list here as a starting point and be sure to look at more than just these schools in your search. In compiling the list, I tried to include some diversity, such as size, location, stylistic focus, and whether they are independent or part of a university system.

What colleges have the best music programs?

Tom Stein

Our picks for the best college music programs:

  1. The Julliard School
  2. Berklee College of Music
  3. Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester
  4. Oberlin Conservatory of Music
  5. New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)
  6. California Institute of The Arts (CalArts)
  7. Manhattan School of Music
  8. Full Sail University
  9. Frost School of Music, University of Miami
  10. Curtis Institute of Music

Special Mention: Ithaca College

1. The Juilliard School

Known most for classical music performance and composition, located in New York City.

The Juilliard School

2. Berklee College of Music

Berklee offers programs in contemporary music, with a wide choice of majors including music business, music production, songwriting, film scoring, and music therapy. Berklee is in Boston, Massachusetts, and is the largest independent music college in the U.S. with over 6,000 students.

Berklee College of Music

3. Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

A true conservatory affiliated with a university so students can take academic courses alongside their music classes. Well regarded for jazz, classical, and popular music. Located in Rochester, a smaller city in western New York State.

Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

4. Oberlin Conservatory of Music

A small rigorous conservatory affiliated with Oberlin College. Students can earn a bachelor of arts, a bachelor of music, or both. Known for their programs in Baroque music, plus music technology programs. Located in rural Ohio, about an hour from Cleveland.

Oberlin Conservatory of Music

5. New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)

One of the oldest conservatories in the country, known for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, NEC offers undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

New England Conservatory of Music

6. California Institute of The Arts (CalArts)

Set up originally by Walt Disney, CalArts offers programs taught by prominent practitioners and has many opportunities for cross-collaboration with other performing and visual arts. Located in Los Angeles, students and graduates benefit from being close to major industry players.

California Institute of The Arts

7. Manhattan School of Music

Offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. It is a well-regarded school in New York City, also known for their musical theater program.

Manhattan School of Music

8. Full Sail University

Known for their audio engineering and music business programs, located in Winter Park, Florida, close to Orlando.

Full Sail University

9. Frost School of Music, University of Miami

Offers degrees in studio music and jazz for vocalists and instrumentalists, along with majors in music therapy, music education, engineering, performance, and composition. Located in Coral Gables, Florida.

Frost School of Music, University of Miami

10. Curtis Institute of Music

Small conservatory-style college with focus on classical music. Most accepted students receive full scholarships.

Curtis Institute of Music

Special Mention: Ithaca College

Originally Ithaca Conservatory, this school in rural upstate NY offers programs in jazz, classical, and music business.

Ithaca College

Attending Music School: What You Need to Know

What does music school teach you?

Tom Stein

Students must choose a principal instrument to study in school. They will take private lessons, instrumental labs, and perform on their instrument in ensembles, bands, or orchestra (voice is considered an instrument). Some students play other instruments, too, but must still choose one as the primary focus. Learning to play an instrument well is an important part of studying music in college.

Students also study core subjects, like music theory, ear-training (solfege), arranging, music notation, and music technology. In addition, students learn traditional music techniques such as counterpoint, conducting, and study music history. The concentrate for the major will have more specific and advanced courses in whatever major area the student chooses.

There are also minors. For example, a songwriting major might choose a minor in poetry, or a music production major might choose a minor in audio engineering or film scoring. There are also minors like Africana studies or gender studies. Minors don’t have to be music-oriented, but they can be.

For degree programs, there are liberal arts requirements (sometimes called “general studies” or similar) such as English literature, history, art history, plus hard and soft sciences. The liberal arts component is there to give students a more broad-based educational experience and prepare them for working and being in society by learning to think critically.

Finally, students can choose elective courses, which could be anything. Some students use their electives to deepen their understanding of a subject, or to explore other interests. Students also participate in extracurricular activities, such as performing groups or student clubs, to gain practical experience applying their knowledge and refine social and professional skills.

How hard is music school?

Tom Stein

This will depend on the school itself, and on how well you’ve prepared yourself. Graduating from a music college or university program is difficult, but so is everything else worth doing. This is just a fact of life.

There’s always homework. It will help if you can develop good time management skills. There’s also always help available. In college, many honors students go for extra tutoring in hard subjects. Most music students don’t spend a lot of time going to parties, because they are busy practicing and jamming.

Music schools are competitive, some more so than others. This could even be a reason to choose a school. You might want to challenge yourself to see how far you can go in music. If you are already good at music and have some formal training in your background, you should be well-prepared to compete in college.

It takes years to earn a diploma or a degree, but it’s done one day at a time. One big advantage of attending a school is that your work will be structured for you, and all laid out in advance. You will also have the chance to explore different facets of music and the music industry.

It’s true that it takes a lot of really hard work, perseverance, and time to finish college. Since most students love music and can’t see themselves doing anything else, the work doesn’t feel so burdensome. Working hard in school is a sure-fire way to improve yourself as a musician and prepare for a lifelong career in music.

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Why Go to A Music School?

The first reason to attend school is to learn, but there’s much more. Attending a top music school is a terrific way to meet like-minded young musicians who could have a big impact on your future music career. Many relationships and collaborations begin in school. School is also probably the best and quickest way to prepare for a career in music, by gaining important skills and knowledge while refining your natural talents and abilities.

It’s likely true that much of what you learn in school could be learned without going to school, but it would certainly take much, much longer. In four years at college, you will learn what would’ve taken you ten or twenty years to learn without school. College study is a way to vastly accelerate your learning. College also prepares you for the world of work by teaching you professional business skills and techniques.

It’s also important to see what it’s like to be immersed in music full-time. Being in school is nice because your main job is to learn, and there is a lot to learn. Being surrounded by talented musicians who share your ambitions for a career in music is an invigorating and unique life experience, as is being taught and mentored by world-class faculty.

Do You Want a Degree or Diploma?

This is a question that comes up frequently, especially with students from abroad who aren’t as familiar with our educational system. Some schools offer degrees, others offer diplomas, and some schools offer both.

The main difference between the two is that a bachelor’s degree adds a strong component of liberal arts, typically 30 credits of coursework, or about a quarter of all credits completed. A degree is considered more academically rigorous than a diploma and is seen as the more valuable credential.

There are also some jobs requiring a college degree that may not accept a diploma, such as teaching. Some people feel that a degree offers a broader and more well-rounded education.

Students might choose to study for a diploma because they feel unprepared or unwilling to tackle the academic courses. They may feel that the diploma is enough of a credential for what they want to do in their career. They might prefer to focus on studying music and nothing else.

Some choose the diploma because they have already earned a degree from another school. A diploma might also cost less than a degree, since there are fewer courses required. If you think you’d like to attend graduate school someday, or be a Teacher, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree.

You could also start out studying for a diploma and later switch to the degree if your school offers both credentials. Setting your goal of earning either a diploma or a degree may inform your decision on which school is best for you.

Want to become a Music Producer or Recording Engineer? Check out our picks for the best music production schools!

How To Apply to Music School

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of top-choice schools, based on your criteria, and prioritized the list in order of preference, the next step is to get organized! This means making note of the requirements for each school, and very importantly, the deadlines for each aspect of the application.

Every school does things differently, so you really need to pay close attention to what they ask for and when. Some schools use the Common Application or other platforms such as Slide Room or Get Accepted. They may have separate guidelines and deadlines for early action or early decision (they are not the same thing).

Make a separate file for each school with the link to the application page and all requirements and deadlines. Create a timeline for completing all the applications, and make sure to put aside enough time to do a good job applying. One college application could take as little as a few hours, or as much as 30-40 hours of your time to complete. Since every school is different, you want to understand fully what will be required for each application early in the process.

Most schools require an essay or essays, letters of recommendation, and some kind of music portfolio. This means you may need to make some recordings or videos, which can take time as well. You will most likely need to schedule an audition, too. Make a list of who will provide your letters of recommendation and start asking them if they are willing to write you a letter.

Filling out the forms carefully will also take time and care, and you might need help from your parents, especially for inputting the financial information. Most schools consider applicants for financial aid automatically, so you won’t need to file a separate application, though you will need to fill out the Federal forms required by all, known as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

If you run into problems, contact the school admissions office directly. You can also work with a College Consultant or Counselor at your school who can assist with filling out the forms and help guide you through the essay writing and creation of portfolio materials.

Applying to college can feel like an overwhelming chore, but I recommend you approach it with curiosity, real interest, and enthusiasm. This is about your music and career, so try to make it fun if possible. Get excited about your prospects and you’ll likely do a better job of presenting yourself.

"Colleges and universities need good students, and they want to accept you. It’s your job to present yourself in the best light possible and make it hard for them to say no."

Above all, be your authentic self. Be patient, thorough, and diligent throughout the college application process, and be sure to always put your best foot forward. All this will increase your likelihood of multiple acceptance.

How Much Does Music School Cost?

Music school is incredibly expensive, as is almost all college education in the US. But most students receive some sort of financial aid package, based on their ability to pay and their attractiveness to the school. Schools use financial aid to entice students to attend, and about 85% of students receive some aid.

There are grants available, which don’t need to be paid back, and loans, which do. Many students borrow money to pay for living expenses and work to pay for bills, books, gear, and supplies. It’s common for students to hold down a part-time or even full-time job while in school, and students also receive work-study opportunities, which is considered a grant.

State schools are often the least expensive, and private institutions the least affordable. Total costs per year, including living costs, range from around $20,000 to as high as $75,000 or even $80,000. Since most degree programs are four years, the costs really add up.

Many schools offer full scholarships to the most talented and deserving students. To qualify for the maximum aid, students need to be good students and get good grades. It’s not enough to just play your instrument well, though that also helps. There are also some ways to make it less expensive, such as attending during summers and living off-campus in shared accommodations.

Interested in attending school online? Check out our picks for the best online music schools.

Which School Is the Best Fit for You?

How do you know which school is going to be the best fit for you? This is not an easy or straightforward question, although some students just know the answer in their gut. Maybe you attended a summer program and felt right at home. Spending time on campus and talking to current students is always useful and could also happen in a school visit. What you learn this way might be a deciding factor.

You might be a huge fan of a famous musician who attended a certain school. While I don’t recommend attending school just to get famous, it’s true that in music success usually comes together with fame. This might skew your preference for a specific school, and that’s fine.

Beyond that, you should think about what you will do after school is done. What kind of a job do you want, and what do you want your career to look like? What skills will you need to launch that career and get that first job? Having a career plan in mind can help you to decide whether a school can help you get there.

The people you meet will also be important. Networking opportunities are another reason to choose to attend a school. Try to picture yourself going to class, practicing, performing, and living in a new location, keeping in mind what a typical day might look like. Organizing your thinking around what you hope to get out of school will help inform your choice.

Ask your Teachers what they think and look for online reviews of Professors at the school. Contact the admissions people and other staff at the school and evaluate how they respond to you. Financial aid offers from different schools can be compared. Schools must compete for the best students, and offering financial aid is one way they do that.

When it is time to decide, trust your gut feelings about a place. If it “feels” right, it probably is! If you have any concerns, be sure to investigate before deciding. You are the “consumer” of your education, and caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

Once you’ve made your choice and committed to it, if it turns out to not be all you hoped for it is sometimes possible to transfer your earned credits to another school, although this can be tricky. It’s not unusual for music students to attend multiple schools before finally graduating, although it may not be the most economical solution.

In any case, getting accepted is only the beginning of a long journey that culminates in your receiving your degree or diploma, and then moving to the next stage of your life. Take your time, do your research, and choose carefully and wisely.

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