Finally, a credible list of the best US music colleges

Finally, a credible list of the best US music colleges


norman lebrecht

October 02, 2014

There have been plenty of phony lists in magazines aimed at anxious parents of musical teenagers. This one, however, gets it pretty much right.

The top three choices are impeccable. Lower down, you might wonder whether the bottom three are worthy of inclusion, given their recent decline. Peabody is a glaring omission and Cleveland won’t be pleased.

Juilliard will have sleepless nights at being placed third.

But on the whole, this list is pretty good and Bill Zukerman’s descriptions are credible.

Click here for full list. The #1 school is pictured below.

jacobs school of music indiana

UPDATE: But see dissenting views here.


  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    I have always found these listings made by people unnecessary because, truth be told, in reality when applying to schools, one must apply due to many factors: a specific teacher, or degree program, or focus in specific area, location, tuition, etc. It is not anything that makes the school of learning on a numerical level.

    • Christine Chase says:

      As Jeffrey Biegel says above, ranking doesn’t matter at all when the teacher you want is in a specific place.

  • The list is largely random considering there is often much overlap with the faculty. But not putting Eastman in the top five, and even considering putting the Berklee School of Music on the list proves that this article was intended to be a joke.

  • David Pickett says:

    A listing such as this can only be taken seriously if it is based on objective criteria. Where are these criteria stated?

  • Mark says:

    As a proud student at IU, this list’s premise and criteria are laughable. Josh Bell pockets $50k a year, gives a single concert and half a dozen lessons a year, and should not be considered a remotely significant plus. The facilities are overcrowded and poorly maintained, and financial aid for out of state students (ie 70% of the student body) is nothing to be impressed by.

    It’s sheer size has its advantages and disadvantages, but I find it laughable to compare to Curtis because they are wholly different animals of schools – Curtis adds finess to the cream of the crop, while IU accepts students of wildly varying levels and gives them countless opportunities to improve their craft (through a trial by fire, since undergraduate students must meet the University’s stem curriculum at the same time).

    As other comments have stated, there are so many factors that make a school a good fit. This list ignores most of these factors, instead relying on name-dropping and arbitrary numbers. This mentality towards secondary musical education is unhealthy and unhelpful for prospective students.

  • Rachel says:

    While I appreciate the research and useful information on these programs, the notion of assigning them rankings (implying that there is a universal quantifiable standard against which all music programs can be measured) is not only absurd, but contributing to the unnecessarily competitive and cut throat nature of the music world.

    As they describe, these schools have different strengths and weaknesses. Is it really necessary to pit schools (and by extension, musicians) against each other? Isn’t there enough ego floating around this scene with out one more arbitrary ranking list? The arts have it hard enough without artists stepping all over each other too.

    A great music school will help a student cultivate their own unique musical voice. When it comes down to it, we live in a generation with an absurdly high technical standard in musicians. And a voice, an innovative perspective – these are the things that will truly help you stand out enough to make a successful career.

    The more we create universal standards of good playing, the more we crank out musicians that ALL SOUND THE SAME.

    – An alum of one of these schools

    • bbb ppp iiii says:

      I understand your point of view, but the purpose of a professional music school (BM, MM, DMA) is to prepare students for the profession of music making. “Unique” voice aside, the only criteria that matters – school to school, studio to studio – is: how professinally successful are their students? Are they supporting themselves as full-time performers or pedagogues? Music school is trade school. If you can’t get into the top 5 programs for your trade, you might consider another trade. Having gone to NWU for trumpet, I can tell you that every single year in our studio, multiple players were winning jobs in top 10 orchestras and DC bands. That just isn’t happening at other schools. Now Rice is the place to be for that instrument.

  • Tom says:

    How in the world can a subjective list compiled by a kid be taken seriously by this blog???

    He is comparing apples to oranges, and badly at that. Here are my reason for why I think the list stinks.

    Experience opportunity: It’s great if you get into Indiana or Juilliard in a masters program, but I wouldn’t want to be an undergraduate at either if I wanted to be a musician. There’s a difference between the attention you’re given at Oberlin or Curtis as an undergrad music student for the very simple reason that musicians – teachers or not – tend to gravitate towards the best. You’re not going to get the same opportunities to perform on stage, meet great musicians in a master class setting or excel within your environment in a music school which, say, has 1800 students, of which 400 are graduate level. The grad level students, being more advanced and having a relatively easier course load of non-instrumental paperwork are going to outcompete you unless you’re a Midori-level talent. Thus they, not you, will get to perform on stage the most, play in the school A orchestra and have their teacher devote attention to them (this does not hold true with all teachers, but since many of them still vie for fame qua teachers, they’ll be most interested in students who can win prizes at competitions or are good enough to land top jobs in top orchestras).

    Conducive to growth: I’m sure NYC is a great place to study music, but that’s the last place I’d want to start out in as an undergrad with ambitions. NYC is a city which is already packed with top talent, so it’s going to be much more difficult to become visible than in a music school in a mid-size city or a more rural setting. If you want to earn money on the side, but not by waiting on tables, good luck in a big city. A big city is full of advanced students, young talent just out of school and experienced musicians. So if you think you’re going to have an opportunity in area orchestras or show performances, you’d darn well better be Midori-level. And then there’s the big city overload factor. NYC is great for taking in museums, concerts, shows, restaurants enjoying nightlife, shopping and whatnot, all of which can distract students from their main purpose: learning and practicing. I mention all of the above distraction factors because you better already have money when you come to NYC or LA, since the cost of living in NYC is prohibitive. If you don’t have the money, enjoy paying back college debt for the rest of your life.

    Music styles: Not all school departments can be ranked along with their school. If you’re a jazz music student, Chicago may be better than an East Coast location. If you’re a composer, Harvard or LA may be better than music schools in other parts of California or the Midwest. In other words, don’t just look at the schools overall ranking in that “list,” but look at the track record of the faculty of the department you want to study in. As in how their students have done for themselves, not as in how well the faculty have done for themselves.

    Faculty fame: There’s an old adage among musicians that great soloists don’t always make the best teachers. It’s true. Great soloists may either still have their careers on the front burner, in which case, you’ll be studying with an “assistant to” instead of the professor him/herself if you’re an undergrad. Even if they’ve retired from a solo career, famous musicians often haven’t started teaching until later in life (I’m talking 40-50 years of age) than musicians who have devoted themselves to teaching after a slightly less glorious streak across the musical heavens. Furthermore – and there are many examples of that – great soloists don’t love teaching; they’ve come to it out of necessity as their career has waned or they simply see it as an extra, more stable base source of income. Also, a star soloist is unlikely to have orchestral experience, so s/he will hardly be the best person to turn to with orchestral excepts or information about how to adapt yourself in a career as an orchestra musician. If you want to get into a great orchestra, you’ll do better studying at Roosevelt or the Cleveland Institute of Music, say, than if you go to Harvard or Indiana. Just because your teacher is a famous soloist, don’t expect it to just rub off on you unless you’re a Midori-level undergrad.

    College rankings are and will remain stupid. They were invented by administrators and they’re for administrators to have benchmarks, not for you to have a great learning experience. Therefore, especially in music, look not so much at the college as for the teacher who:

    1. Has a good reputation among former students.
    2. Has students who’ve prizes not just in solo competitions but chamber music competitions as well.
    3. Has more students sitting in the most highly-ranked orchestras (then you’ll have more future networking opportunities).
    4. Has the most personal appeal to you during private lessons (remember, you’re going to be one-on-one with that person during lessons for 4 years, so you better like them. Yes, you should take time to have at least a couple of lessons with teachers you’re considering – it may be the best investment of your life, even better than your diploma. You’ll still have to audition for an orchestra job or be superb as a chamber musician/band player or soloist to get the gigs, at which time your college degree won’t be worth more than the piece of paper its printed on.)

    • Mike says:

      as a freshman at IU, I can say your comments on large music schools are very wrong. I’m playing in ensembles with masters students and meet every clinician with the same opportunity as them. I study with the same professors and get the same access to resources. Period.

      • Tom says:

        If you’re having that kind of experience, then your choice of a school where to get your undergraduate degree was obviously the right one. Congratulations, I’m very happy that you’re enjoying your learning experience. Exclamation mark.

  • Susan Spector says:

    I would echo Rachel and Tom’s sentiments wholeheartedly. All of the myriad of considerations you mention, Tom, are valid ones that cannot be considered in any such succinct ranking. Any prospective student who would make a decision to attend a school without giving due consideration to each of the criteria you mention will be doing themselves a great disservice. As a professional musician myself, I certainly weighed all of the pros and cons you mentioned—at least the ones I knew about before going to a music school. And now, as the mother of a high school senior with similar aspirations, I am—with her—weighing some of these same priorities and choices.

    I would add only a few things which I don’t think were touched upon here:

    1. The value of making a well-researched but ultimately personal decision:

    Because I grew up in a rural area, I did not have a lot of contacts to whom I could turn for advice on the decision of where to study music. With my daughter and I each knowing and working with so many professional musicians here in New York ourselves–she spent seven years performing in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus–I have found that opinions and suggestions are not hard to come by. While well intentioned, I have frankly been a bit surprised in some cases by the utter confidence and surety with which some of this advice, often unsolicited, is given. “Oh, DON’T go there,” might in fact be sound cautionary advice, relevant for others; however, it is more likely a reflection of the preferences and personal experiences—and related to the specific area of study or specialization within the music school—of the one person making that admonition.

    Such suggestions are meant to be helpful, of course, but at times the number of different suggestions can become overwhelming. I continue to remind my daughter that she would do well to listen to all the advice that is given, but that the decision should then be made by what ultimately feels like the right choice to her.

    2. The consideration of timing.

    Plenty of my colleagues at the Metropolitan Opera—in the Orchestra and Chorus–attended schools on this list. After much consideration, I chose the university route rather than a conservatory. The fine undergraduate teacher I studied with at Wichita State University now teaches at Indiana University; my teacher in my post-graduate studies taught simultaneously at Temple University–where I studied with him–as well as at the Curtis Institute.

    I’m not sure my eighteen-year-old self, not yet confident that music performance was something I should seriously pursue, would’ve thrived coming to Center City Philadelphia directly from a very small town in Oklahoma. But I do know that as a graduate student four years later, I was very much prepared for and ready for the urban environment as well as the more musically competitive environment in both the school itself and the city. I was also in a position at that (later) time to meet the extremely high expectations of my graduate teacher and, as an experienced student and player, was far more self-directed and -motivated, enabling me to focus on the goal, now much closer, of winning an orchestral audition. (See my guest post for Slipped Disc, posted earlier today:

    And herein is support for your point, Tom, that while any one program might be terrific, it might not be a proper match for any one student; OR it might not be a proper match for any one student AT THAT PARTICULAR TIME.

    While my husband and I continue to discuss with our daughter the merits of any one school over another and assist her in her preparation for the audition regimen, I will continue to remind her what I personally feel is the single most important basis upon which a student’s decision should be made—that contained in the last paragraph of your comment: the teacher.

    Susan Spector
    Oboist, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

    • Tom says:


      Your daughter is fortunate having grown up in a musical family if her goal is to become a performing musician herself.

      I grew up in a family like that as well, so I had already studied with my teacher privately for a year before becoming “official” by enrolling for a degree. No doubt that musicians who’re orchestra or other kinds of classical music professionals already know what I wrote.

      The people I worry about reading that “list” are kids who don’t come from musical families and their parents, because often, I’ve seen such kids make fairly clueless choices about their school and teacher. This can have unfortunate results for one’s studies and in the worst cases, for one’s entire career. For kids and parents like that, the “list” can be outright dangerous, so I felt duty bound to point out its deficiencies, lest someone take it at face value.

      It’s one thing to rank colleges and universities on degrees that all entail being in classrooms with 20-30 other kids throughout one’s undergraduate degree study, quite another to be studying a main subject where face-to-face interaction between student and teacher encompasses a fairly large chunk of one’s studies, obviously. Then again, even college administrators acknowledge that universal “college rankings” are an artificial construct which favors the largest and highest-ranking colleges and sells magazines and advertising for millions of dollars.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad someone agrees with me – I was getting seriously depressed about the disapproval I got from IU. =D

      • Myra says:

        I agree with your assessment of being a music major and the importance of having a family with a music background. My parents had no college background, and were less than enthusiastic about my chosen path in college – viola studies. Now I can look back with some humor involved, but at the time the only thing that mattered to me was attending IU Music School because I was a Hoosier for one thing, and I was captivated by the campus too. While I made many great friends, and the whole IU experience opened my eyes to a bigger world, the music school was a poor fit for me. I felt like I never found a true viola mentor, and the sheer size was just too intimidating for me. The good news is that I still play my viola as a free lancer, and even sing too!!

  • JAMA11 says:

    Did I miss the part where the author of this blog explains his credentials, or the criteria he used beyond his own opinions? (Oops, update: In the comments section, he admits that the list comes entirely from his own opinions. Side note, from his picture I would peg him at about 22.) Norman, are you seriously giving him your approval? Based on what? The fact that you happen to agree with his rankings, based on your own general impressions of these schools?

    Every time I visit this blog (which is less and less often) I am greeted with yet more evidence of its irrelevance.

  • Tom says:

    No doubt this is going to start an advertising war between CIM and Oberlin on Music School Central.

    Maybe this is what Bill Zuckerman had in mind…

  • Travis says:

    Credible? This list was assembled by a single young man who is about 30 years old and holds one degree in composition, albeit from a very fine school. One could argue that it’s really no more or less accurate than any other list, and of course all the schools on the list are quite wonderful, but the website is clickbait, a personal vanity project, or both—and really no more valid or credible than user1234’s comments at the end of a YouTube video. It’s important to try and figure out the sources of information like this and evaluate them critically.

  • Joshua Nannestad says:

    1. Lists are dumb.
    2. The list cited in this article is dumber than most.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    I was at IU in the late 90’s.

    The School of Music had its very strong points and is particularly good for aspiring string players and singers. It is also a beautiful campus with class facilities. Although, as an institution it is highly overatted.

    For one, it is far too big. There are far too many music students and the opportunities are hence limited. To take an example, I’m a half decent and very enthusiastic pianist. For the 2 years I was there, I struggled to find a piano professor who would develop my skills in accompaniment and chamber music. All the piano professors were too busy with their quota and I eventually struggled to have a few sessions with the very inspiring Emile Naumoff.

    I was actually there to study conducting and of that faculty- the least said the better. Although, I believe IU now employs Slatkin to give the odd masterclass- so maybe things are looking up.

    The Curtis Institute and Juilliard are far ahead of Indiana in terms of the individual attention they give to talented students. And for that matter so are most of the London music colleges.

  • Truethat says:

    Professionally speaking, in the eyes of people who make decisions of artists jobs:

    1 curtis, if you can get in
    2 Juilliard
    3 Yale
    4 NEC

    Then all the others are in a different level. People from the top 2 are rarely disappointing.

    Btw what about mannes, cim, Cleveland? Bard is the safety school when you apply. Berklee is a joke. Northern TX? C’mon.

  • Brian N says:

    How could a known music columnist like Norman Lebrecht believe in something like this? If this article is true, it’s a glaring misjudgment on his part. Oh, and the blogger, in a display of his very limited knowledge, completely missed an esteemed, top school: Northwestern Unuversity School of Music.

  • Brian N says:

    How could a known music columnist like Norman Lebrecht believe in something like this? A ranking based on one person’s opinion, with no methodology used is not credible, and certainly not ‘pretty good ‘ as Lebrecht describes it. If this article is true, it’s a glaring misjudgment on Lebrecht’s part. Oh, and the blogger, in a display of quite limited knowledge, completely missed an esteemed, top music school: Northwestern University School of Music.