From New York to Nashville (not to mention Seoul and London), a new generation of film scorers, songwriters and music industry execs will come out of these top-ranked schools.
Art vs. commerce continues to be an issue in a world where students studying music hope someday to make a living.
Traditional conservatories such as Juilliard still rank high in the overall picture, even in a world in which many big-name composers and musicians make an impact without any formal training at all. For those who do want a traditional music education, a conservatory is still an effective way to develop skills without the pressures of the business side of the industry.
"I think the school of music was formative for me in that respect," says film composer Marco Beltrami (The Homesman) of his experience at Yale's conservatory. "It was a very academic institution rather than a trade school — it's more about expanding the creative processes of the brain." But composer Jeff Beal, who recently won an Emmy for his work on House of Cards and is creating a program for the Eastman School of Music, says the key to making a living as a musician lies in diversifying.
"I've met so many young composers who've come straight out of Juilliard, and so many of them are wonderful concert composers, but [they] have an interest in doing film. My sense of the future of music-making is that's a line that's going to continue to be blurred."
New York’s prestigious institution maintains its bragging rights as the go-to music school, with a stingy 8.4 percent acceptance rate that has crept up just slightly in recent years (and don’t forget you have to audition). Not only has the school produced legendary composers and musicians like Bernard Herrmann, Marvin Hamlisch, Barry Manilow, Wynton Marsalis and Philip Glass, but its equally renowned drama department has unleashed talents like William Hurt, Laura Linney, Jessica Chastain and Kevin Spacey on the world.
Its music, dance and drama classrooms are all housed in the same building, exposing students to a variety of disciplines and inspirations. And 77 percent of full-time undergrads receive financial aid averaging $28,000. “Nothing compares to the intense creative energy that radiates from the Juilliard School the moment you enter,” says alumnus and composer Adam Schoenberg, whose music has been performed by the Kansas City Symphony, the IRIS Chamber Orchestra and the American Brass Quintet. “It is that very energy that pushes and inspires you during your countless hours of training. You end up working harder than you've ever worked, but you leave a better musician than you could have ever imagined.”
With a more generous 35 percent acceptance rate and an average class size of 11 students, Berklee ranks closely to Juilliard in terms of prestige but embraces more mainstream popular music disciplines, jazz and music production, including student-run record labels and concert venues. Composer and orchestrator Kevin Kaska found the school’s connections with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops helped him work with conductor John Williams and later establish his career in Hollywood.
"When I attended the school in the early '90s they had all the leading technology of the day,” Kaska says. “No other music school in the world could hold a candle to Berklee's dedication to film scoring, music synthesis, contemporary writing concepts, and music production and engineering. I studied film scoring but it was also very exciting to learn about microphones, recording consoles, reverb and mixing from the seven different recording studios they owned."
Established in 1884, USC’s Thornton School of Music is older by 20 years than Juilliard, but its proximity to the Los Angeles movie and music scene has allowed it to flip the script from the classical canon (which it has dominated with one of the finest composition programs in the nation, and one of the few to offer classes in early music) to the modern music business and technology possibilities.
Record producer Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop producer Dr. Dre launched the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation with a $70 million cash infusion at the school last year in an effort to smooth out the synergy between technology and liberal arts. Meanwhile there are few better places to learn the discipline of film and television scoring. “I think SC is to my mind the preeminent school in terms of their program after you get your B.A. and going into their film and television music scoring, they’re the preeminent one. It’s hard to beat them if you’re interested in music for media,” says film composer John Debney.
The National Research Council gave UCLA’s Department of Musicology the highest rating of any non-performance music program. The Herb Alpert School of Music, an outgrowth of the school’s vaunted ethnomusicology program that was established in 2007 with a $30 million grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation, has been so successful that UCLA has asked the University of California to allow its establishment as the UC system’s first independent music school, with its own dean and academic departments — the proposal could be approved by early 2016.
With courses in jazz, techno, musical theater, even heavy metal (and an acceptance rate of 20 percent), the school offers instruction from a respected faculty and high-profile guest instructors. “I was a guitar performance major and studied with a great guitarist there named Peter Yates,” says Buck Sanders, who has worked as a composer with Marco Beltrami on a number of films including The Hurt Locker and 3:10 to Yuma.
“I was much more interested in Peter’s sense of exploration and sound on the guitar; he did lots of composing and stuff with prepared guitar, and that just blew my mind because I’ve always been interested in sound and exploring that and just to hear something as traditional as classical guitar being turned into an instrument that sounds like it’s coming from a completely different place was mind-blowing to me. The eye-opening experience of [learning from] someone like Peter was one of the main things I got out of UCLA.”
Founded in 1833, Oberlin is the oldest conservatory in the U.S. and shares a unique association with Oberlin College, a liberal bastion in northeast Ohio. With only around 600 students and an admission rate of 25 percent, the school offers a cloistered, rural setting and small class sizes.
The school is for undergrads only, which limits competition for placement in the school’s ensembles and opera productions. If you’re ambitious enough to pursue a double major, the school offers a 5-year double-degree program between the music school and the main campus. Ninety percent of students admitted are offered financial aid, and the school’s students wind up in some of the nation’s best orchestras and ensembles.
Founded in 1867, with a setting in the historical and cultural epicenter of Boston, the New England Conservatory benefits from the city’s extensive music community, including the famed Boston Symphony Orchestra.
At a 30 percent admission rate, the Conservatory is competitive but not exclusive; students can study classical, jazz, contemporary improvisation, world and early music, and the school also offers training and performance study for children from kindergarten to high school age as well as adults and seniors in its Preparatory School, Continuing Education and Community Performances and Partnership programs.
And if you’re less interested in the lofty ideals of musicianship and more interested in making a living, the Entrepreneurial Musicianship program helps students looking for careers in the music industry.
With a student population of around 150 and an acceptance rate of between 4 and 11 percent, Curtis is one of the toughest conservatories to get into — and live auditions are very much required. But if you make the cut you’ll receive a free ride with tuition costs completely covered — an advantage that Curtis has over Juilliard, its closest competitor in the field and a school to which Curtis is frequently compared.
Established in 1924 by an heir to the Curtis Publishing family, the school counts Leopold Stokowski as one of its early patrons. If you’re a player, you’ll have excellent prospects of being placed in a symphony orchestra after graduation; violin virtuoso Hilary Hahn is a good example of the kind of talent the school nurtures.
Although it ranks among the top conservatories in the country and accepts only 13 percent of applicants, the Eastman School of Music also boasts a surprising connection to Hollywood — it was originally formed by George Eastman of Eastman Kodak as an institution to create music for silent films.
It’s an expensive school but also generous with financial aid, with virtually every student attending the school receiving some form of scholarship. “It’s an amazing school,” says composer Jeff Beal (Emmy winner for Netflix’s House of Cards). “You can’t go through a place like Eastman without really being trained in the mechanics of orchestration and production. Eastman has always had some sort of a media component — they had a jazz program, a film scoring class, so I got my feet wet in that — but the skill I’m most happy about is a general sense of music literacy. The idea of being a film composer is so eclectic and it is such a deadline-driven business that you have to be able to do anything.”
Beal was so impressed by what he got out of his experience at Eastman that he and his wife Joan recently donated $2 million to the school, launching the Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media. “It’s a small school and I wanted to be a part of it and be involved with the institute, mentor and do some master classes for these students.”
Located in the heart of New York City, NYU can take advantage of the city’s enormous range of top-flight concert halls and other performing spaces, with many classes centered around performances in these venues as well as internships with performing arts organizations, music periodicals and record labels located within the Big Apple.
Guest composers in the last few years have included Steve Reich, Bruce Broughton, Mark Isham and Carter Burwell, and the faculty includes Ira Newborn and Mark Snow. The Greenwich Village campus is catnip to students looking for the classic Manhattan college experience.
Conveniently located opposite Royal Albert Hall, the RCM boasts a Hogwarts-sized student body of about 1,000 undergraduates and postgraduates, and a Students’ Film Orchestra that has performed the film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Sir William Walton and even Alan Silvestri’s music from Back to the Future. Alumnus James Horner, who passed away in June, was also given a special tribute recently with a performance of his score for A Beautiful Mind.
The school boasts a huge library of recorded music and films, written scores and manuscripts, and a museum of ancient musical instruments. The school also made a deal to acquire the English National Ballet headquarters in order to expand its campus quota of rehearsal and performance spaces.
The school also has programs that train much younger students, including the one attended by composer Edward Shearmur (Diary of a Wimpy Kid, She’s Funny That Way) from age 9 to 13. “The Saturday morning school they run is a general music course,” says Shearmur. “There’s a little bit of history, a little bit of analysis, some exploration of repertoire, and it’s designed more as a tool to round out your musical knowledge at that age in conjunction with your instrumental studies.”
Although the school recently weathered a controversy over the presence of jazz in its curriculum, with Dean Robert Blocker evidently wanting less of it and some vocal students wanting more, Yale’s programs (for graduate students only) are as respected as any in the country, and the school is second to none in placing its students into professional positions in music all over the world.
The school’s acceptance rate of 8 percent is 59 percent lower than the overall average but a staggering $100 million donation made by billionaire alumnus Stephen Adams and his wife Denise allows accepted students to attend the school with their tuition fully paid. “At a graduate level, I think one of the most important things is the people you’re studying and working with, because that’s who you’re getting most of your knowledge from,” Oscar-nominated alumnus Marco Beltrami (The Hurt Locker, 3:10 to Yuma) says. “When I attended Jacob Druckman was there, and he really opened my eyes to the importance of orchestral timbres, orchestration and working with the colors of the orchestra, and that’s something that stuck with me and evolved as a great starting point. Even with everything we’ve done with synthesizer and electronics it’s all in the same vein of expanding the palette in ways that are interesting to the ear and that you haven’t heard before. So it all goes back to working with him and having a curiosity about the orchestra.”
Although it couldn’t be located farther from Hollywood, U of M’s Frost School of Music maintains strong connections to both the L.A. movie scene and the world of contemporary music through the Henry Mancini Institute, a program that boasts its own orchestra that has performed in three PBS specials involving talents like Dave Grusin and Gloria Estefan.
The Mancini institute trains classical and jazz students in disciplines that prepare them for the variety of both film and popular music performance: traditional classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, Latin, Cuban, Asian and other world music approaches in an attempt to reach out to a younger and more diverse audience. This year composer James Newton Howard (The Fugitive, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay —Part 2) was named artistic director of the Institute, succeeding performer and composer Terence Blanchard. Newton Howard’s tenure will begin in January 2016.
The school’s jazz faculty includes Pat Metheny, and alumni Bruce Hornsby helped found the Creative American Music Program in partnership with the school as a training ground for new American songwriters.
If you’re studying jazz, you could do worse than to attend the first university to offer a degree in this distinctly American musical genre. Since first offering the degree in 1947, UNT has become known as one of the leading institutions in the study of jazz, and music study itself was part of the school’s founding core of educational disciplines as far back as 1890.
The school established a Center for Electronic Music and Intermedia in 1983 and it boasts one of the largest music libraries in the country, as well as eight performance halls. With 100 full-time faculty members, 1,100 undergraduate and 500 graduate students enrolled each year, it’s one of the largest music schools in the country.
Composer Christopher Young (The Single Moms Club, Deliver Us From Evil) attended the school before moving to Los Angeles to work in film. “It was the only school I was accepted to, and I have to say it was the most important year of my education in terms of acquiring knowledge that I didn’t have before that,” he says. "The thing that made North Texas a unique music school was that it’s one of the few places in the United States where both a legit, classically oriented department was able to exist on the same campus under the same roof with a popular music department, in this case a jazz department, and not kill each other. It was the perfect academic environment, truly removed from what was going on in the real world. Denton Texas is in the middle of nowhere — it’s north of Dallas but it’s in a small town, so there were no distractions.”
One of the top conservatories in the U.K., Guildhall’s Silk Street campus serves over 800 students from more than 40 countries around the world, and is the only conservatory to teach music, drama and theater in one location.
The school offers courses in strings, harp and guitar; vocal and opera studies, chamber music, electronic music, jazz and composition. Its administration also highlights the school’s connections to the music industry and its partnerships with the Barbican Centre, the London Symphony and BBC Symphony Orchestras, the Royal Opera House and the Academy of Ancient Music. And if you’re concerned about its environmental footprint, rest easy — the school was recently ranked the No. 1 specialist performing arts institution in the U.K. for sustainability by the People & Planet University League.
Composer Harry Gregson-Williams (The Martian) studied at the school. “I specialized and studied singing, piano and violin, all of which have stood me in very good stead as a composer. I studied intensely all other aspects of music at Guildhall, but strangely not composition — musical theory, musical harmony, and it was only when I realized I was going to chase after being a film composer that I realized I should use my very thorough musical knowledge and education to try and expand my horizons in terms of orchestration. I listened and studied very hard in the school of life as I started working with Hans Zimmer — I really wanted to orchestrate my own music and I knew I would be able to.”
Gregson-Williams recently continued his association with the college as an educator. “About three years ago I took a sabbatical and went back to the U.K. and did a year’s teaching myself, and Guildhall made me a fellow of their college, which is very exciting for me, and they’ve recently enrolled me as a professor of their electronic music department. I work in Santa Monica but they send me pieces of film and I work with the students over Skype and visit whenever I’m in London.”
The longest-standing conservatory on the West Coast since its founding in 1917, the Conservatory offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in composition, instrumental and vocal performance to around 400 students, precollege training to 200 students and community outreach programs to more than 6,000 Bay Area residents. And despite its venerable reputation as a conservatory, the school offers one of the finest music-for-media programs in the country in its Technology and Applied Composition program, training students to work in both concert music, film and video game scoring and sound design.
Composer Larry Groupé spent the last three years touring conservatories and music schools all over the country while lecturing on film scoring work, and he rates SFCM at the very top of conservatories in the U.S.
“SF Conservatory is top drawer on all counts,” he says. "Their performance school is knocking out solo caliber careers faster than anybody. Their new president just dropped millions into their Technology and Applied Composition dept, with state-of-the-art technology and a real integration of media and new music composition. Most other schools have strict separation of church and state in this area. SF also provides full orchestra recordings of composer demos that are now being exclusively submitted to Sony PlayStation. They totally get it as far as media, business, and quality composition.”
Located in an unprepossessing corner of the San Fernando Valley, Northridge University might not seem the most romantic place to seek a music education in a region that boasts big-name colleges much closer to Tinseltown.
But on a good traffic day Hollywood is only about 40 minutes away and Northridge’s $8,208 tuition for California residents is 23 percent less expensive than the average for the nation’s music schools, and with a 61 percent admission rate you’ve got a good chance of being accepted — at least until the university engages its announced plans to limit admissions due to recent overcrowding.
Northridge’s ability to compete with more vaunted, private institutions helps keep enrollment strong, and its programs in music industry, media/film composition, jazz and classical performance are lauded around the country.
Located tantalizingly near to Music City in Nashville, MTSU isn’t ashamed to boast about its focus on the practical side of the music industry with its major in music business in the Department of Recording Industry. With faculty members hailing from every corner of the music business, students get the opportunity to hobnob with industry professionals and gain experience in working on and around major record and performance projects happening right on their doorstep in Nashville.
The university recently appointed Beverly Keel, former senior vp media and artist relations for Universal Music Group Nashville, as chair of their department of recording industry, and Odie Blackman as head of their commercial songwriting concentration.
If you’re sure your destiny lies somewhere along the Great White Way, you might want to start down that path at the Manhattan School of Music: In the fall of 2016 the school will join the Boston Conservatory as the only two conservatories offering a degree in musical theater.
Like most schools in the Manhattan area, attendance at MSM is costly: over $60,000 including tuition and lodging; around 36 percent of students receive financial aid averaging $21,352. The school admits around 40 percent of applicants to its undergraduate population of around 400 students.
Popular majors include voice and opera, stringed instruments, keyboard instruments, general music and woodwind instruments, but in addition to the expected classical disciplines the school also offers a unique contemporary music performance program modeled on the styles of groups like the Kronos Quartet.
If you have the ability to focus on your musical education and ignore the potential distractions of Big Ten sports, the Jacobs School of Music boasts one of the top 10 voice schools in the U.S. and a student body that includes representatives of every state in the Union as well as over 55 countries.
But getting into the school is a challenge: Admission is by live or recorded audition only and the acceptance rate for undergrads is only 25 percent. The school stages over a thousand performances each year including seven operas and three ballets, and it attracts high-profile guest lecturers and musicians for its master classes.
Although it might be better known for the design and animation programs that loosed Tim Burton, John Lasseter and Brad Bird on the world, CalArts has also developed a reputation for its exclusive Herb Alpert School of Music, which prides itself on its small classes, individual instruction and courses of study designed “by artists for artists.”
Its exclusivity is enhanced by an acceptance rate of 27 percent, 40 percent lower than the average music school. Opportunities for study and performance involve tonal and atonal music, hip-hop, jazz, pop, voice arts and rock, with instructors including jazz guitarist Larry Koonse and tenor Timur Bekbosunov.
With animation students right next door, music students can always be on the lookout to score student films and make their connections with the people who might form the next Pixar.
Founded in 1795 and operated under the supervision of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, the Conservatoire de Paris has been responsible for a few names that should be familiar to classical music buffs — Camille Saint-Saens, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Edgard Varese, Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, Claude Debussy — even Japanese Godzilla composer Takayuki Hattori.
Music conservatories don’t get much more renowned — or tougher to get into. With a brutal three-round, competitive selection process, the school’s admission rate is a punishing 2 to 3 percent, which works out to around 30 students for the conservatory’s total population of around 120 students.
Syracuse was the first university in the U.S. to offer a degree in music, and its Crouse College campus building is a fantastical, magic castle-like edifice that looks like something out of a Harry Potter film and boasts a 3,823-pipe organ built in 1889.
It’s a setting that radiates tradition, but the Setnor School of Music has set its sights on readying students for “portfolio careers” that not only include skills in performance, composition and arranging but also teaching and business acumen. You have to audition for admission to the school and you have around a 50-50 chance of being accepted.
Established by Chi Jin Yoo in 1962, the SIA is one of the most prestigious arts conservatories in Asia, and foreign students can qualify for scholarships that will reduce their tuition by 50 percent.
The school offers courses and degrees in applied music, Korean traditional music, creative media broadcasting, dance, creative advertising and creative performance, and its Namsan Center features a high-tech proscenium and black-box theater, a sound stage, recording studios as well as classroom and rehearsal space.
With its location in the heart of Music City, two miles southwest of Nashville, it’s not surprising that Belmont University is a common entry point into the country music industry for graduates. It’s also served as a springboard for quite a few American Idol and America’s Got Talent finalists.
But students say neither the area’s country music legacy nor the school’s status as a Christian school bring any undue influence to the atmosphere or curriculum, and graduates often find their way to the L.A. and New York music scenes. The Curb College of Entertainment & Music Business accepts students who are nonmusicians — no auditions necessary! — for those interested exclusively in business and management.
If you’re more interested in making a living in the music business than absorbing every nook and cranny of the classical canon, for-profit Full Sail University offers a degree in The Recording Arts that trains students in the ins and outs of current studio technology used to record, mix and edit music.
The Show Production Bachelor’s degree program offers an extensive grounding in live audio and lighting production for concerts and music tours, while the Music Business Bachelor’s degree program focuses on accounting, law, managing artists and even distribution. Mitt Romney visited the school in 2012 to promote the idea of for-profit universities, later declaring that Full Sail holds down its costs by embracing competition with other schools.