An idiot’s guide to the world’s best music schools

An idiot’s guide to the world’s best music schools


norman lebrecht

February 12, 2014

Barely had the article gone online than Facebookers began hi-fiving one another on their alma mater appearing in a Spears list of the world’s seven best music schools.

What rubbish.

Firstly the seven schools are only US, UK and Holland.

So Vienna, St Petersburg, and Cologne don’t qualify? Makes you wonder why so many UK and US students go on to these top conservatories after failing to obtain what they need in London and New York.

Second, choosing both the RAM and RCM in London ahead of the Guildhall is, on present form, ridiculous.

royal academy of music

Third, Berklee is not a first-choice US school. After Juilliard and Curtis, students would look to the Colburn (LA) and Yale for full scholarships and to Bloomington, Cleveland and San Francisco for instrumental specialties.

This Spears list is utterly without foundation.




  • Leon Whitesell says:

    This list is absurd…I can think of 10 schools which have produced incredible performers, composers, conductors. I can think also of countless students and teachers who perform at higher levels of success.


  • Anonymous says:

    Shame that only London-based UK schools are mentioned here. What about the RNCM? It has more professional performing opportunities and partner orchestra’s than RAM, RCM and Guildhall combined! How ridiculous the it’s not even mentioned…

  • ed says:

    The list should have included many more schools- there are so many fine ones in Europe, as well as in the States (so, for Boston it’s Berklee?- ok, so it has jazz- but not the NEC?) and also some in Latin America and Asia that could have been mentioned; and Spears could have applied a systematic that was relevant- e.g., to rate the teachers, student body (e.g., size, proficiency, synergism and esprit de corps), the curriculum, facilities (practice, performing, recording and research) and ethos of the school, the activities and opportunities in the larger community, professional development, etc., etc., and……………… whether or not it has an affordable cafeteria with great food or serves institutional drivel at prices intended to subsidize “the rug”.

    Time to write up a new list.

  • ed says:

    meant to say: “….a rating system that is relevant….”

  • anonymous says:

    Vienna? Munich? Liszt Academy in Budapest? Sibelius Academy in Helsinki? Berlin Hanns Eisler? Madrid Reina Sofia? …..

  • MWnyc says:

    Berklee is a first-choice school for jazz students.

    But jazz is, at least arguably, a separate discipline from classical music and should probably have its own list.

    I can’t help thinking that Berklee was included so that the list-makers wouldn’t be accused of snubbing jazz.

    • chip says:

      Berklee’s inclusion irks me. One of my friends teaches there, so I know a few things. Berklee really isn’t even a jazz school any more. As I’ve heard, only a minority of the students there now focus on jazz. Besides many conservatories and University music departments have excellent jazz programs now. The enrollment numbers at BCM have exploded as it has transformed into a pop music and music industry school. Catering to the American Idol generation, it’s now rife with aspiring pop vocalists. It’s a factory for students and faculty alike. Any highly favorable Berklee ratings are the result of a very effective PR machine, and not actual outcomes or opinions of the cognoscenti .

      Berklee does actually offer a rather wide-ranging musical training. However…. While being very broad, it is also very, very… very shallow. It is trying to be a college of music in the broadest sense and not a jazz school now simply to attract more students/consumers.

      There are rumors that top administrators are pushing towards using more MOOCs to lower faculty costs and still admitting as many consumers (students) as possible. You should see the place. It’s a joke. Like “Lipstick on a pig”, the administration does what is minimally required to give the impression (mostly through PR) that Berklee is a “real” college in order to hook unwise music students as consumers and as potential customers-served. The types of students who wont even realize how low-achieving their expensive Berklee experience was. Because they took a “Turn-Tabling” course at Berklee, they mistake it as some label of supreme authenticity.

  • You only have to read the featured alumni to see how laughable the list is. In any case, everyone knows the RNCM is the best music college around…

  • Chrissy Kinsella says:

    Seriously guys, it’s a pointless website with random lists of someone’s Top 10 opinion. I really wouldn’t worry about it.

  • John G. Rizek says:

    By the way, what about the best music departments in colleges around the world? Would anyone try to point out? Where would you guess we can get the best training as a musicologist? After all music is not only about playing, conducting and composing. It would be great if someone could point them out.

  • In the past decade I have suspected that an unacknowledged, unofficial policy of a ‘tactical’ admissions procedure is responsible for the decline in the RAM & RCM. With applicants’ current reliance on superficial, misleading league tables, it appears that some music colleges may be unwilling to accept high-flyers, in case at the end of the course those students complain in student surveys that their course was not sufficiently demanding; it is therefore safer for the colleges to accept good (but not outstanding) musicians, who will be content with the course, than to risk admitting exceptional applicants, who will find that they soon outgrow the post-Grade-8 services on offer and who will subsequently express their dissatisfaction with consequent damage to the college’s ‘rating’.

    My experience is that the students with the highest potential are rejected at audition at the RAM & RCM, whilst those for whom a career as a performer is unrealistic are accepted, though of course, there have been exceptions to the rule. I should add that I am aware that there are many fine, experienced, dedicated teachers at both colleges and my comments do not apply to them, only to the admissions policies of the establishments themselves.

    On its reference form, the RAM used to ask tutors whether the applicant was suitable for ‘rigorous’ training, but the reality is that if a determined, ambitious student wants to submit to such training they need to go to Europe, where standards are sky-high above London. Quite recently the Conservatoire de Lyon was requiring Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ as an audition piece for pianists – a work which many London piano students wouldn’t know how to prepare adequately even after graduation, let alone before admission.

    • Let’s get some perspective on Lyon’s requirement. If you audition as a repetiteur at the Opéra de Paris, for example, you’ll be asked to prepare an eye-watering list of pieces and excerpts – including Chopin Studies; arbitrary contemporary Fliegenschiss-type compositions; stock organ parts such as in Faust or Manon, play and sing recitatives as well as coach in a handful of languages, none of which you’ll ever have to do as anything outside of standard repertoire is routinely farmed out to guest reps and staff pianists are never contractually required to coach as a seperate language coach is hired for every production. As for playing the organ, well; if you’re not an organist you just tell them and they’ll hire an organist. The job description is, after all, ‘Pianiste de scène’, not ‘Chef de chant’, even though you’re required to show your credentials as a rep…Much of the audition process is smoke and mirrors to enable the panel to pick the candidate they prefer according to their own agenda, not necessarily the one with the most musical potential.

      French institutions often just look for a young, malleable, fleet-fingered automaton who will ask no questions and make no problems. The Messiaen requirement merely furnishes a ready-made excuse to dismiss more multi-faceted candidates who could shine more obviously in the other rounds. Heirarchy in France must be respected, and those hired at the bottom of the ladder – beit at Conservatoires or in theatres – must learn to know their place from Day One.

  • Afan says:

    I’m glad to see that the writer of this article is a music specialist!

    Other of their stories include:

    Private islands: The ultimate status symbol

    Best spas in Kuala Lumpur

    Will Smith net worth

    What a beaut… 1955 Jaguar D-Type sells for a record £3m

    Definitely a trustworthy source……

  • Chris says:

    The fact that you think Guildhall is better than RAM or even RCM makes you an idiot

    • John says:


      The fact is, studying at GSMD is made better not because of league tables or standards but because of that attitude of yours. You’re turning the London ‘Royal’ conservatoires into a place of snobbery. It’s unfortunate, because I know some great musicians to have come from both College and Academy and they are great musicians to work with. Because of a sad minority who believe a school is made better because of it’s name, you give said colleges a bad reputation.

      If you’re choosing your place of study based on the name of the conservatoire and not for whom you want to study with, then you’re going about furthering your study all wrong.

      I wish you all the best,


  • Johnny says:

    I think it’s even more sad that you’d waste your time referencing an article like this. The journalistic pissing contest of ranking anything and everything is a total waste.

    Loved my time at CIM btw. I don’t need an article to let me know that it was a good school.

  • Roy Lisker says:

    Music did not originate in a school, and is not (professionally) performed in a school. Looking for a good conservatory should be a minor consideration (barring of course extremely bad places). The first consideration should be, “Am I a first-class student?” before “Is this a first-class school?”

    I am, of course, disgusted by the choice of Berklee as the representative for Boston. And a graduate of Curtis may be able to play Paganini, but probably can’t tell you where Afghanistan is.

  • Tom Isherwood says:

    I think the honest truth is that different conservatories specialize in different things, and it’s all subjective to the individual musicians and who they want to study with. To label just these 10 institutions as the ‘best in the world’ is just short sighted and very superficial.

  • londonjazz says:

    I visited the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth, and wrote a feature about it for The Arts Desk , I hope it brings forward the benefits of an educational institution deliberately envisaged on a small scale

  • baroque 'n' roll says:


  • Emily Salmon says:

    Ok, firstly, if you’re gonna look at Boston (Berkelee? Really??) you’re gonna have to give the medal to New England Conservatory. Hands down. And secondly, let’s not forget to recognize NEC has a fantastic jazz program. Lake Street Dive, featured last week on The Colbert Report and performing soon at Carnegie Hall? Went to NEC.

    What a freaking stupid list.

  • RalphW says:

    Nearly all orchestras have a musician (if not several) that studied at Moscow State Conservatory ‘P I Tchaikovsky’, yet it’s not even mentioned. Many soloists and leading conductors studied in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, yet none of those countries are listed in this list. BOGUS!

  • HB says:

    “Berklee” is a trade school for commercial-grade music. Its financial success rests on the realization that every teenager wants to be a rock star, and managing to convince them that that is something which must now be “studied.” To list that in a city with long-standing actual conservatories (plural – there’s also Longy) is truly absurd. Indeed, when locals see someone playing for loose change in the T stop they say “It’s a Berklee graduate recital.”

  • Al G says:

    I attended the Guildhall Junior, Royal Academy of Music, Juilliard and the Hochschule CMvW in Dresden, and I must say that nothing compares to the level of music making I enjoyed at the RAM. In my experience Guildhall doesn’t have much to offer other than the lower price of its UG programmes (or at least it was that way when I was a student there). Juilliard was fine, but at lof of it was image. Dresden was a waste of time (the school was highly unorganized), because my teacher was away a lot.

  • Ferret says:

    RNCM is amazing