Polygence blog / Education and College Admissions

10 Best Schools for Music in the U.S.

7 minute read

When I was in high school, I didn’t think I wanted to major in music in college. Despite being passionate about music, and regularly performing in orchestras, jazz combos, and rock bands, I couldn’t imagine dropping all of my other academic interests to study music full-time. I found it easier to picture myself pursuing a degree in science like my older sister did. 

By my junior year of high school, I had gotten to telling people that I hoped to minor in music while pursuing a major in something quantitative. I wasn’t exactly sure which quantitative subject (I had many interests, and still do), so when I was applying to colleges, I made it a priority to keep my options open.

Keeping that in mind, I have compiled a list of what I consider to be some of the best music colleges in the United States. While this is not a definitive list, the following institutions consistently produce successful music graduates. Each of them is worth considering if you are thinking about studying music at the undergraduate (bachelor’s) level. 

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Best Music Schools in the U.S. 

Bard College Conservatory of Music

Location: Red Hook, NY
Tuition: $62,790
Type: Conservatory within a Liberal Arts College

Bard is a Liberal Arts College that houses a world-renowned Conservatory. A close friend of mine, who is in high demand as a composer, earned his bachelor’s degree from Bard and had a very positive experience there. He studied music composition, cello performance, and political studies, making Bard one of the best colleges for musical interdisciplinary coursework.

Notable faculty: 

  • Jindong Cai (conducting): Director of US-China Music Institute

  • Christopher H. Gibbs (music history): Co-Author of The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition

Curtis Institute of Music

Location: Philadelphia, PA
Tuition: $0 ($3,500 fees)
Type: Conservatory

Curtis is a small music Conservatory in downtown Philadelphia. All students receive full-tuition scholarships. Admission to the Curtis Institute is extremely competitive thanks to its reputation and star-studded alumni list. Well-known graduates include Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, and Hilary Hahn, to name just a few.

Notable faculty: 

  • Imani Winds in residence as Curtis’ first-ever faculty wind quintet

  • Pamela Frank (violin): soloist with Philadelphia Orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

Eastman School of Music

Location: Rochester, NY
Tuition: $63,150
Type: Conservatory within a university

Eastman is the music school of the University of Rochester. Fun fact: at the top of the university’s library is the 50-bell Hopeman Memorial Carillon. Interested students can take lessons and learn how to play the instrument for the entire campus to enjoy.

Notable faculty: 

  • Kerfala Bangoura (musicology): Guinean percussionist and dancer 

  • Douglas Humpherys (piano): known in North America and Asia for solos and lecture-recitals

The Juilliard School

Location: New York, New York
Tuition: $53,300
Type: Conservatory

Juilliard is a Conservatory of music, dance, and drama located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Approximately 600 undergraduate students are enrolled at the Manhattan school. The institution is extraordinarily well connected to the performing arts in New York City (its location is right next to the Lincoln Center) and around the world: it even has a music program campus in China.

Notable faculty: 

  • Amy Beth Kirsten (composition): celebrated composer of theatrical works

  • John Corigliano (composition): Grammy Award winner and Pulitzer Prize winner

Northwestern University

Location: Evanston, Illinois
Tuition: $64,887
Type: university

Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music offers undergraduate programs leading to the Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Arts in Music, or Bachelor of Science in Music degrees. Current students are free to enroll in classes throughout the university. In fact, one of my friends double majored between the music school and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Polygence research program mentors:

Lucien: I am a mathematician interested in the theory of cyber-physical systems, which include large-scale networks like the power grid and the Internet of Things. Outside of mathematics, I have a career as a cellist and continue to perform around the world–often with my three sisters who are all also musicians and mathematicians. Prior to joining Caltech, I received degrees in mathematics, music, and politics from Northwestern University, Harvard University, and Montana State University.

Samantha: I'm currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Bionic Ear Lab at USC. I got my PhD in Psychology in 2021 and am now gaining more experience to one day run my own research lab at a university. I study how hearing can be improved through a cochlear implant. My academic background is at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and music. I have also done research studying how music training improves the way we hear and think about the world and how our musical experiences shape our desire to move to music. When not in the lab, I am an active violinist in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. I am a member of the Santa Monica Symphony and play weddings and parties all across the LA area.

Notable faculty:

  • Gavin Chuck (music cognition): known for his research connecting music cognition to linguistics

  • Dover Quartet: Grammy-nominated string quartet in residence through 2024

Oberlin Conservatory of Music 

Location: Oberlin, OH
Tuition: $63,700
Type: Conservatory attached to a Liberal Arts College

Similar to Bard (also on this list), Oberlin Conservatory offers a Conservatory experience within a Liberal Arts setting, offering undergraduate degrees and five-year dual-degree programs. (Oberlin offers very few graduate programs.) It is the oldest continually operating music Conservatory in the United States.

Notable faculty:

  • Salvatore Champagne (voice): known for his work with Leonard Bernstein and as a soloist in Europe

  • William Grant Naboré (piano): celebrated across Switzerland and Italy as a chamber musician and festival director

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Top Public Universities and State Schools for Music

University of California, Los Angeles

Location: Los Angeles, CA
Tuition: $14,478 in-state, $47,052 out-of-state
Type: University

UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music is relatively new to its campus map, having been founded in 2016. (Previously, UCLA’s music faculty was part of the fine arts school). The school produces world-class graduates in performance, composition, musicology, and ethnomusicology. They also offer a special program in Global Jazz Studies.

University of Michigan

Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Tuition: $17,228 in-state, $58,072 out-of-state
Type: University

The University of Michigan is one of the top universities for music in the United States. Many of my high-achieving music colleagues are associated with the school in one way or another. Undergraduate students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance have four options for their degree path: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Musical Arts, and dual-degree. The paths differ primarily in the number of required music and non-music classes.

Lesser-Known Top Schools for Music

DePauw University

Location: Greencastle, IN
Tuition: $56,030
Type: Liberal Arts College

DePauw is one of the oldest music schools in the U.S., but their facilities are state-of-the-art. In addition to multiple concert halls, the university operates its own record label (DePauw University Recordings), giving students music production experience and access to the recording studio under the guidance of the staff recording engineer.

Why I Decided to Go to School for Music

In the end, the best music school for me was the one that let me choose my own musical and academic path. I decided to attend a medium-sized university with a Liberal Arts College that offered access to many strong departments. In addition, advanced undergraduate students could access professors and resources at the university’s renowned graduate schools, which happened to include their music school, without official graduate admission. My first year of university-level studies was wildly inspiring, including classes in physics, cognitive science, writing, and music theory. Eventually, I began drawing connections across my various classes, developing interests in musical acoustics and music cognition, and writing about musical performances and recordings.

In my second year, I gave up the idea of minoring in music and officially declared myself a music major. Because of how my school’s requirements worked, I was still able to take many classes in other departments, including some that were cross-listed between music and engineering. In my current career as a contemporary music composer, I constantly draw on what I learned through my non-music classes.

The Best Music Industry School for You

Despite what some people claim, there is no definitive list of the best music schools. Every institution has strengths and weaknesses, even prestigious institutions like Rice University, Princeton University, and Berklee College, so deciding what you want to get out of your experience is an important part of the decision. Depending on your needs and interests, the right music school for you may be the one that is close to home, the one close to a national association of interest, or the one that gives you a scholarship. In my case, it was a Liberal Arts College where I could continue pursuing my other academic interests while working towards a music degree.

In the United States, the three most common settings for higher education in music are: 

  • Universities,

  • Liberal arts colleges, and

  • Conservatories, like the New England Conservatory, the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College, or the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University. 

Each setting comes with pros and cons, and some institutions offer crossovers between two types of settings. 

In general, smaller Liberal Arts Colleges tend to have lower student-to-faculty ratios, leading to more opportunities for individual instruction. In addition to individual lessons, these programs often include a number of discussion-based music theory seminars, complete with frequent writing assignments. Beyond the academic atmosphere, some students choose to attend a Liberal Arts College because they prefer being in a smaller, closer-knit group of students. 

Larger Universities have the upper hand when it comes to mustering the forces for large ensembles and marching bands. They also tend to have the resources to offer a wider range of classes, majors, and student organizations. 

At a Conservatory, meanwhile, you’ll find an environment that is almost entirely dedicated to the performing arts as a practice instead of other roads like music business or music education. As a music student at a Conservatory, you’ll immediately specialize and spend the majority of your time preparing for recitals, with few or no general education requirements. 

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