PhD in Music

7 of the Best Music Schools For Getting Your Ph.D. in Music

For many people reading this website, the mere idea of further education beyond a bachelor’s, let alone a Ph.D. in anything is difficult to think about — but it might not be quite as far away as you’d imagine. Becoming a doctor in any field is the highest level of schooling possible and aside from certificates and secondary offerings, there is nothing else to accomplish after that…at least when it comes to academic degrees. (See our recent roundup of the best music schools for master’s degrees here.)

It’s never too early to think about advancing your career with a Ph.D. in Music or a D.M.A. (Doctor of Musical Arts). Whether you’re just beginning to search for undergrad options or you’re ready to begin applying to become a doctor in whatever musical field you work in, below is a list of some of the best schools in the U.S. where you can earn such a prize…if you’re willing to put in the work and the years.

1. Juilliard

Location: New York City, NY

Of all the schools on this list, Juilliard has to be placed first for a multitude of reasons. I could spend an entire article writing about why Juilliard is the best school, especially when considering Ph.D. programs, but because of the plethora of examples why it’s also perhaps the most difficult to get into and graduate from. So keep this in mind as you read on and look for the “apply” button online.

Juilliard is by far one of the most respected names in the art world, whether it be in dancing, acting, or music. The New York City-based school has churned out some of the greatest artists of all time and the flow of talent isn’t likely to stop anytime soon, especially considering how many doctoral programs are offered at Juilliard.

It seems like there’s something for everyone at the renowned institution and there are a surprising number of graduate degrees, which can typically be in shorter supply at most schools. Juilliard offers a D.M.A. diploma in over twenty fields and while the majority of those are only given to talented performers, there are other items available to those who want to study music beyond playing an instrument. D.M.A.s are offered for Composition and Voice, as well as over a dozen different instruments, including violin, trumpet, piano, horn, and many others.

2. Harvard

Location: Cambridge, MA

Juilliard may be the most respected name in higher education when it comes to music but Harvard is the most respected name in higher education…period. It is known the world over and not just for one program. At this point, the Cambridge, MA institution can afford to be picky and only the best of the best make it into those hallowed halls. That is, of course, especially true when it comes to Ph.D. programs and since there are only a few offered at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the competition can understandably be fierce.

Harvard currently offers the following five Ph.D.s in musical fields: Composition, Cross-Disciplinary Music Studies, Music Theory, Musicology/Ethnomusicology, and Musicology/Historical. Only five degrees might sound limited but by the time a student comes anywhere close to even considering a Ph.D., they likely already know which area of study they’re going to be interested in and Harvard’s menu is diverse enough to have something for everyone…or, almost everyone.

I could spend an entire article writing about why Juilliard is the best school, especially when considering Ph.D. programs, but because of the plethora of examples why it’s also perhaps the most difficult to get into and graduate from.

3. Yale

Location: New Haven, CT

Like Harvard, Yale is one of the best-known brand names in the world when it comes to education and while you do pay dearly for the experience and the privilege of adding that well-known moniker to your resume and your LinkedIn it can certainly pay off.

Yale offers D.M.A.s in Performance, Conducting, and Composition, and when it comes to the former, there are quite a few instruments an artist can select from. Those looking to attend the Connecticut university (which isn’t actually too close to either Boston or New York City, though it’s not so far from either that somewhat frequent visits wouldn’t be possible) should expect to be on campus for two years taking courses and working with Professors and then for the following three years they should plan on launching their careers — though there will still be a lot of work connected to Yale that ensures they eventually get their diploma.

Five years may sound like a long time (and it is, no doubt), but the degree a student will walk away with will certainly be worth it.

4. Columbia

Location: New York City, NY

Interestingly, while most colleges and universities offerings Ph.D.s in anything musical seem to focus mainly on performance, Columbia doesn’t offer a single degree that involves becoming the best performer possible…at least not at the highest level.

Instead, Columbia has only a handful of Ph.D. and D.M.A.s to give away in musical verticals, including Composition and Musicology, which is itself broken down into three different categories: Historical Musicology, Ethnomusicology, and Music Theory. Since the majority of Ph.D. students at other schools will be working solely on performing, the crowd at Columbia must be particularly interesting and it is surely responsible for turning out some of the most talented and the brightest people in musical higher education and writing.

A number of institutions offer Composition Ph.D.s but they are often traditional in nature and largely focused on working with an orchestra. Columbia has a state of the art lab where those working toward this degree can include electronic instruments into their creations, which makes the program particularly modern, and exactly what many contemporary Composers are looking for.

5. Northwestern

Location: Evanston, IL

Unlike so many other names in the educational field that offer Ph.D.s, Northwestern’s degree is actually a Doctor of Philosophy in Music. There are a number of diplomas given out which focus only on musical areas of study, even though the phrase “Doctor of Philosophy” doesn’t immediately bring to mind anything having to do with music.

The Chicago-adjacent Bienen School of Music offers Ph.D.s in the following categories: Composition and Music Technology, Music Theory and Cognition, Music Education, and Musicology. Those are four very broad topics and there’s something in there for most people.

Northwestern is a great school and while it might not have quite the name recognition of Harvard, Yale, or Juilliard (which is why those are at the top of the pile), it’s well-respected and a degree from the school is still highly coveted.

Los Angeles is a great city and it’s full of opportunity for those who want to make a living in entertainment. UCLA could be perfect for somebody who, say, wants to compose music for movies or perform for them.

6. New England Conservatory

Location: Boston, MA

When talking about musical colleges in Boston, Berklee is usually top of the list…except for this one. Surprisingly, while dozens of master’s degrees can be earned at the school — including via its online and international locations — there aren’t Ph.D.s offered at the well-known music industry favorite…at least not yet. That may come at some point in the future, but for now, when it comes to Beantown and the highest degree possible in music, the New England Conservatory rules.

This extremely selective institution is difficult to get into at any level but it becomes many times harder when it comes to doctoral studies. The program only accepts between eight and a dozen students in each field, depending on the year. Yes, that’s right, the conservatory might only allow fewer than ten applicants in at any one time — so you can imagine the rate of approval is minute.

It typically takes three years for students to finish their studies and collect their Doctor of Musical Arts diploma, and at first, everybody studies together, which is an interesting and eye-opening way of doing things. Like many collegiate options offering musical Ph.D.s and D.M.A.s, the New England Conservatory’s degrees are primarily all about performance, and students can focus on a number of woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone), strings (violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, harp, guitar), piano, and so on. Also available are degrees in Vocal Performance, Vocal Performance and Pedagogy (which is different enough to be listed separately), Composition, and Music Theory.

7. UCLA

Location: Los Angeles, CA

In making this list, I had a number of other options to choose from that deserved to be included, as their Ph.D. and D.M.A. programs are certainly worth attending. Of course, not everything can fit on here and I thought there needed to be some West Coast representation!

UCLA only offers a pair of degrees that fit onto this list — a D.M.A. in Performance and Conducting and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Composition — but those two fields cover a lot of ground and while they might not be a fit for everyone they’re certainly a good start. They may be perfect for someone whose interests lean more towards scoring music as a Film Composer or who just wants to live in Los Angeles and soak up the city’s growing classical scene.

One of the best things UCLA has going for it is the location, as it’s one of only a few well-known musical schools out that way. Los Angeles is a great city and it’s full of opportunity for those who want to make a living in entertainment. UCLA could be perfect for somebody who, say, wants to compose music for movies or perform for them.

It’s not all about the East Coast and schools like UCLA absolutely deserve a spot here.

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