The 10 Best Music Schools (and How to Find the Best One for You)
In this article, I give a brief overview of the top best U.S. music schools and some pointers on how to understand which school might be a good fit for you. As a music student, you must assess your learning styles and preferences together with your career and educational goals in order to identify the school where you would feel most at home. I provide a helpful introductory framework for doing this and mention some music schools worthy of consideration.
Our list of the best music schools includes:
- Juilliard School
- Berklee College of Music
- Eastman School of Music-University of Rochester
- Oberlin Conservatory of Music
- New England Conservatory of Music (NEC)
- California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
- Manhattan School of Music
- Full Sail University
- Frost School of Music, University of Miami
- Ithaca College
With the college admissions season about to ramp up once again, many students are considering their options for after high school. The question whether or not to attend music school is a big one if you’ve decided your career will be in music or that you will be attending college or university. The path to a successful music career is not as defined as some other careers, where attending college is a given. Many successful musicians did not attend music school, so it’s worth asking whether or not a music degree is worthwhile. If you’ve come to the conclusion that you do want to study music at a college or a university, the next big question will be where to study?
There are many great schools for music, and most, though not all, teach using the conservatory model. Some schools put music in with fine arts, or you could study music business in a business school with or without playing your instrument. Some choose to major in music at a liberal arts university program where they can take courses in other academic subjects. Music production and engineering is a very technical field. Not every college has a major in songwriting, or music therapy, for example, so your interests should guide you as you narrow down your choices.
There are many directions to look in, and it’s understandable that you might feel a bit overwhelmed by so many choices and decisions to make. You might seek the help of a qualified College Admissions Consultant who specializes in music and performing arts, but there aren’t too many of those. They can also be selective in who they take as clients, not to mention expensive.
The good news is that there is much you can do on your own, with a little bit of introspection and knowing what questions to ask. Start with the basics and expand outward from there.
Besides learning and career skill-building, the people you meet will also be important. It’s wise to think about the kind of networking opportunities attending a specific school would provide.
Why Do You Want a College Education?
There are many reasons to pursue higher education. First and foremost, I believe learning should be at the top of any list of reasons. After all, why would one enroll in and attend college if they didn’t want to learn? A desire for and love of learning should always be the top reason for schooling of any kind. College is also supposed to prepare you for the world of work by teaching you to think critically.
Beyond that, you should think about what you will do after school is over. What kind of a job do you want, and what will your career look like? What skills will you need to enter that career and get that first job? It’s impossible to know the future, and things will change, but it helps if you have a plan in mind for where you want to go in your career. Then you can use that plan to gauge whether a school can help you get there.
Besides learning and career skill-building, the people you meet will also be important. It’s wise to think about the kind of networking opportunities attending a specific school would provide. Organizing your thinking around what you hope to get out of school will help inform your choices going forward.
Degree or Diploma?
Some schools offer degrees, others offer diplomas, and some offer both. The main difference between the two is that a bachelor’s degree will include a strong component of liberal arts courses such as English Literature, Art History, History, Poetry, and maybe even a Science or Mathematics course. With degree programs, usually, a quarter of all required course credit comes from (non-music) liberal arts classes. The degree should be more academically rigorous than a diploma and is usually seen as the more valuable credential.
Some students choose to study for the 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 careers. Or, they just want to focus on studying music and nothing else. Some choose the diploma because they have already earned a degree in a different subject. 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 usually be better served by earning a degree instead of a diploma. Most, but not all graduate programs require applicants to have a degree.
There are also some jobs that require a college degree and may not accept a diploma. Some people feel that a degree offers a broader and more well-rounded education. Setting your goal of earning either a diploma or a degree may inform your decision on which school is best for you.
Top 10 Best Music Schools
It’s really tough to come up with a list of the 10 best schools because there are so many outstanding schools. Think of my list here as just a starting point, and definitely look further than just these schools in your search. In compiling the list, I tried to include some diversity of options. Some schools are big, others are small; some are independent, while others are part of a university system. I also tried to offer diversity of location, to include different parts of the country.
- Juilliard School. Known most for classical music performance and composition, located in New York City.
- Berklee College of Music. Berklee offers programs in contemporary music, with a wide choice of majors including music business, music production, songwriting, and music therapy. Berklee is located in Boston, Massachusetts, and is the largest independent music college in the U.S. with over 6,000 students.
- 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 and popular music, located in Rochester, NY.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Manhattan School of Music. Offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Is a well-regarded school in New York City also known for their musical theater program.
- Full Sail University. Known for their audio engineering and music business programs, located in Winter Park, Florida, next to Orlando.
- 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.
- Ithaca College. Originally Ithaca Conservatory, this school in rural upstate NY offers well-regarded programs in jazz, classical, and music business studies.
When it is time to decide, trust your gut feelings about a place. If it “feels” right, it probably is! If you have concerns of any kind, be sure to look into them before making a decision to attend.
Making Your List and Choosing
There are so many other schools that could have made this list, so regard it as just a starting point. One source where you can find out more is the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. Get the most recent version to make sure your information is up-to-date. Another useful tip is to look at the faculty bios on the websites of the top schools to see where the Professors went to school. You can get a wider range of schools on your radar this way.
You should consider the way you learn and the types of learning environments you tend to thrive in. For example, do you prefer more one-on-one individual attention from your teachers? Then look for programs with small classes where there is an emphasis on private instruction. If you like the atmosphere of a large university campus and want to take academic courses, then consider a school affiliated with a large university.
You might also consider whether you’d rather be in a big city or a smaller community, and even the climate might be something to think about. Do you ski? Come to New England! If you prefer hot weather, then you might prefer southern California or somewhere else in the south.
Ask around with your current Teachers to get their thoughts, and try to find out where your favorite musicians studied. Read any reviews you can find and study the schools’ websites. Finally, make contact with a real human at the school. Call them up and ask to speak with an Admissions Officer, or you could ask to speak with the department chair of your intended major. It’s part of their job to speak with prospective students, and how they respond to you should give you a fair indication of how you might be treated as a student. You can also inquire about financial aid options.
Once you’ve narrowed down your list to maybe your top 3-5 schools, then go visit them. Take a campus tour, observe a class in session if you can, and make sure to speak with some current students to find out how they like it and why. You should also ask them what they don’t like about their school. The students will often know more about what a school is really like than anyone working at the school. After all, their experience today will be similar to your own when you arrive as a matriculating freshman.
One additional thing to look for could be whether your intended school has any articulation agreements with other schools. These agreements allow you to complete your first two years at a local institution prior to moving to the school to finish with a 4-year degree. This is a way to save some money, although you won’t get to spend as much overall time at your graduating institution. For example, Berklee College of Music has an agreement like this with the Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. Berklee also has agreements with many schools overseas. This type of arrangement can be important for some international students who lack the resources to study for four years at an American university while paying high living costs in a U.S. city.
How to Know If it’s a Good Fit
When it is time to decide, trust your gut feelings about a place. If it “feels” right, it probably is! If you have concerns of any kind, be sure to look into them before making a decision to attend. Consider yourself the “consumer” of your education, and caveat emptor, or buyer beware. 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. Apply for scholarship assistance even if you don’t believe you’ll qualify. Schools compete for the best students, and you could use that to your advantage. If they award you a good scholarship, it’s not only a sign of prestige but also an indication of how badly they want you. (This doesn’t mean that if you don’t get a scholarship they don’t want you.)
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 which culminates in 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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