The Best Music Programs for Strong Students


The Best Music Programs for Strong Students

Deciding to audition for music conservatory programs can be really daunting, especially if you’re also a strong student in academics. It’s undoubtedly a big decision. When I was in high school, I was really torn: I absolutely loved performing as a musician and thought I wanted to make it my career, but at the same time, I knew that I wanted to attend an academically rigorous and competitive college. Since strong musicians also tend to be strong students, this dilemma may sound really familiar to you. You want to know, what are the best music programs out there.  If so, you’re in luck! I’ll walk you through some of the top schools which offer music in varying forms so that you’re on the right track.

Different Options for Studying Music in College

Before I get to the best music programs around the country, let’s break down the different options for studying music at the college level to help you get a better idea of which path might suit your interests. 

  • Music Performance: A music performance degree (which will always be in a specific instrument or voice) is the most pre-professional music degree you can earn. This degree is most often a “Bachelor of Music” or “Bachelor of Fine Arts,” only offered at colleges which have a music school or conservatory. If you decide to go on this path, you’ll be taking almost all music courses, like Music Theory, Chamber Music, Aural Skills, Music History, and most importantly, your lesson requirement. When you apply for a Music Performance major, you will almost certainly need to audition in your instrument (most schools also require a pre-screening audition tape before you audition in person at the school). Your application will need to be just as strong musically as academically to be accepted to these programs. This means finding a teacher you can build a meaningful and cooperative relationship with, participating actively in music-related extracurricular activities, and most importantly, practicing as zealously as you can.
  • Music Business/Theory/Composition/Engineering/Musicology: If you have another passion besides music - such as business or engineering - you naturally wonder about the interdisciplinary options out there at the best music programs. These non-performance degrees will also likely be a “Bachelor of Music” at a music school within a university that will focus specifically on the interdisciplinary field. Some of these programs require an audition, although it is less important for your application than it would be for a performance degree. Like the music performance degree, you’ll be taking almost all music department courses. If you’re a music whiz who doesn’t actually like being on stage, this might be the place for you. Some families will feel more comfortable with their kids choosing these tracks because they prepare you specifically for a music career that may not be quite as competitive as a performance track would be. 
  • Music major: This degree is offered in the College of Arts and Sciences at almost any comprehensive university. You will likely receive a “Bachelor of Arts” with a major in music, and this degree emphasizes the “book learning” side of music. Your professors may not be active performers, and you likely won’t need to audition to be a music major. In a music performance program, every classroom probably has a piano in action, but as a music major in a BA degree program, you’ll be reading and talking about music more than performing it.

If you’re curious about which option is right for you, take a look at the audition requirements at any music school. Are these repertoire choices far too advanced for your technique and skill level at this time? Then a BA as a music major may be the way to go for you. It’s important to think about how many music classes you want to take when considering your options. If you are pursuing a BA in Music, you’ll have to take classes in other departments as well in order to fulfill distribution requirements, whereas if you’re doing an interdisciplinary degree, you’ll be doing all music courses. 

Check out there table below for a summary of the main differences:

Criteria Music Performance Music Interdisciplinary Degree
Material covered Skills, concepts, and methodology to reach a high level of proficiency in voice or instrument of choice Private lessons, music theory and history Depends on second degree. For a dual-degree in music and business, material covered includes philanthropy, legal issues, management, marketing, grant writing, and finance as applied to the field of music
Audition requirements Demonstrate knowledge and practice in principal instrument, usually requires audition No audition required No audition required
Degree awarded BM or BFA BA BM

Top Schools with the Best Music Programs

Now, on to looking at the schools which offer the best music programs. Some top schools offer one of these options but not the others, and that’s essential to know before coming up with your school list. Here are some of the top academic institutions for students who are strong musicians as well as academically successful.

Yale: Of all of the Ivy League schools, Yale has the most robust music culture. Although its School of Music (which offers performance degrees) is only open to Master’s students, the trickle-down effect to overall campus opportunities is significant. You might consider the joint Bachelor of Arts/Master of Music 5-year program open only to instrumentalists - not vocalists, composers, or conductors. You can apply to this program as a prospective undergraduate or once you are a student at Yale. However, because Yale is so competitive to begin with, applying to this program is not normally something that will “help get you in.” In fact, the joint program is even more competitive. As an undergraduate at Yale, your most likely option is being a music major (category three above) and getting very involved in musical life on campus. 

Johns Hopkins: The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins is essentially a conservatory that is located within the overall Johns Hopkins administrative structure. If you get a degree here, it’s one of the top two categories listed above. Something to keep in mind for those searching for the best music programs: the school does offer a compelling double degree program, which gives you the option of studying both an academic field as well as a rigorous performance area. This track is normally at least five years long, but you will leave with two separate degrees: a Bachelor of Music from the Peabody Institute and a Bachelor of Art/Science/Engineering from Johns Hopkins itself.

Northwestern: Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music offers a very similar program and music atmosphere to Johns Hopkins. You can receive a dual degree from the music school and any of the other five undergraduate schools at Northwestern, also in five years. For students seeking the best music programs but wanting to incorporate other disciplines, Northwestern’s other schools offer some niche areas of study ⁠— Communications, Journalism, Education & Social Policy, and Engineering, along with a more conventional Liberal Arts option. It’s important to note that very few students complete the dual degree in the less common fields because the requirements at each school is so challenging.

Vanderbilt: Who wouldn’t want to study music in Nashville, also known as “Music City, USA?” While Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music does not offer a dual or double degree program, they offer the opportunity to double major outside of the school of music, either through their Bachelor of Musical Arts or the double major option with any other degree in the school. This is a great option for students who want flexibility, and to complete the degree in less than five years.  If you’re interested in business and might be contemplating an MBA, consider Vanderbilt’s unique 3+2 Bachelor of Music/MBA degree. While this program is extremely competitive and does take five years to complete, it’s one of the only options of its kind out there.

Vanderbilt is also unique among these options because it is the only one on this list that does NOT have a graduate music program. It may not seem important, but receiving dedicated attention from faculty as an undergraduate can be rare. This focus may contribute to your future career as a musician because Vanderbilt prioritizes teaching undergraduates, giving them all the roles in operas and solos in orchestral performances. You might not get these opportunities at a school which also has graduate students. 

Rice: Rice’s Shepherd School of Music is the most “typical” music program of those I’ve mentioned here. While they don’t offer any double degree programs, they do have undergraduate and graduate programs. You can pursue a “Bachelor of Music,” receiving lessons, coaching, and conducting research. You’ll also have access to Rice’s performance opportunities - such as large ensembles, chamber groups, and solo performances. If you’re interested in studying opera, connections to the nearby Houston Grand Opera are hard to pass up. 

To expand your search, look through other top music program such as the ones offered by UCLA, USC, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan, NYU, and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.

Now that you know the basic vocabulary and programs to look for on websites, I hope your search for the best music programs is easier and a little bit more transparent. While there are many prestigious schools to choose from, it’s important to find the right balance between music and academics that suits your goals. When narrowing down your search, consider which type of program you’re looking for, what each school offers, and how you’ll be able to take advantage of the resources at each school. Good luck!

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