The Hollywood Reporter polled more than 600 entertainment pros to compile the annual ranking of the world's elite music programs, from London to Los Angeles.
Every year, when THR surveys key figures in the entertainment industry to determine the most-in-demand music schools in the world, a debate ensues: Are traditional music institutions more valuable than the school of hard knocks? To be sure, the institutions on this annual list offer students the benefits of rigorous instruction and valuable industry access. But one venue that should almost rank as a music school is Hans Zimmer's Remote Control Productions, which has probably mentored more A-list composers — from John Powell (Solo: A Star Wars Story) to Harry Gregson-Williams (The Meg) — than most top-ranked conservatories.
Composer Henry Jackman studied everywhere from St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School to Eton College and Oxford, and worked on record production with Trevor Horn, but he credits Remote Control with honing the skills he’s put to work on movie projects like Kong: Skull Island and Captain America: Civil War.
“The thing about Hans is it’s more like a medieval [apprenticeship]," he says. "if you wanted to be a goldsmith and you’re lucky enough that your dad knows the goldsmith, you get thrown in and there they all are with a big furnace doing all these intricate things, and you start pouring water in the furnace on day one and at the end of the year if you’re any good you might be working on some gold pieces — and if you’re not you get thrown out.”
The only problem: The odds of landing a spot at Remote Control are slim without some solid industry connections. For aspiring composers without friends in high places, the best bet is still an established music school. To compile the annual ranking of the world's elite music programs, THR weighed various factors — alumni, facilities, overall reputation — and relied on the results of a survey sent to more than 600 industry professionals, including members of the Society of Composers & Lyricists, and the music branches of AMPAS and the TV Academy. Tuition figures are for one year and, unless stated otherwise, apply to undergrad degrees.
Juilliard retakes its top position on the list, as this prestigious conservatory continues to earn its name recognition and peerless standards year after year, graduating students who go on to become some of the world's best-known performers and composers. “What Juilliard is about to me is not only a great education in every possible way, but the unspoken goal of that school is to put as many superstar artists into the world as they can,” says veteran composer Robert Folk (Boat Trip, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls). “They’re probably the single most well-funded top music and arts school in the world. The private funding of that school is absolutely extraordinary and it allows them to do something extremely high-level and unique compared to the other schools out there.“ But prestige comes at a price, and Juilliard is not for the faint of heart. Twenty-nine-year-old Kris Bowers (Green Book) likens the experience to a stint in the Army. “It’s a sink or swim environment where you really want to execute on the level that everyone else is," he says. "In the Army, when you go through training they purposely put you through these extreme tests so you’re ready for anything, and I felt that’s what Juilliard did.”
NOTABLE ALUM Philip Glass
Running virtually neck-and-neck with Juilliard is USC, with its direct access to the region's bustling film and music industries — making it a destination not only for local music students, but also for anyone seeking a path toward working in Hollywood.
“It’s probably one of the best in the country,” says legendary Motown songwriter and record producer Lamont Dozier, who taught classes in contemporary music at the school for over six years. “It has so many applicants and the people that come there are really talented. We turn away hundreds of people every year because they’re very strict about who they [accept], and their teaching is very rigid, [so] the people who want to be there have to be there talent-wise and have to have love and dedication.”
Director and chair of the screen scoring department Daniel Carlin brought a master’s degree to the program that gives students a pathway into academia as well as film and media scoring. Students in the screen scoring program collaborate with film students and video game designers to create music for over 100 yearly film, television and game projects, either generating music digitally or with acoustic scoring at the university’s John Williams Scoring Stage with student musicians. Students also have the opportunity to work on 10 projects with Los Angeles musicians and technicians on scoring stages in Hollywood, and a recording session of 64 players at the Warner Bros. Clint Eastwood Scoring Stage.
NOTABLE ALUM James Horner
Berklee offers a cutting-edge curriculum that emphasizes production, engineering and recording technology, giving students the skill sets they need to get into the music business quickly and evolve along with changing techniques and applications.
Songwriter and musician Taura Stinson earned Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her work on Mudbound, and she’s self-taught — but she’s looking to enhance her music education and has high praise for institutions like Berklee. “At Berklee you learn everything from composition to marketing, so you come here and your discipline is in order. I feel like it gives you a safety net where if you go to one of these prestigious schools you might not be able to live like Sean Combs but you will be able to make a steady living at what you’re gifted in, and that’s beating half the game.”
Composer Marcelo Zarvos (Ray Donovan) notes that Berklee's focus on preparing students to work with technology gives it a leg up. "That's a side that I think academia can sometimes leave behind," he says.
NOTABLE ALUM Ramin Djawadi
UCLA Herb Alpert's renowned ethnomusicology department and its determinedly multicultural approach to music education and performance make it as much a world music epicenter as a school, with concerts and lectures from A-list performers and artists from the Los Angeles area, while the school’s musical theater and opera productions draw in audiences from all over Southern California.
Composer Peter Golub (Con Man, The Great Debaters) teaches a seminar, Music for Visual Media, at the school. "I have [students] writing cues and we discuss them and revise them," he says. "I bring in guests and we do some more analytical work where we look at film music of the masters and the leading contemporary film composers and we analyze what makes this work, what makes it effective.”
The school has added new B.A. programs in global jazz studies and music education and will soon add a new minor in Iranian music, and students can participate in or enjoy 45 ensembles in over 350 performances per year.
NOTABLE ALUM John Williams
NEC is a mainstay in terms of providing players for the Boston Symphony, and also offers an entrepreneurial musicianship program for students looking for more practical instruction about the music business. The school does not offer a music in media concentration, but Golub nonetheless ranks the conservatory at the top of schools he's been involved with. "New England Conservatory is the best music school in the country," he says. “They walk the walk on valuing different kinds of music, like their jazz program, their improvising, the classical music, contemporary music — I think it’s a very open-minded approach and students are really encouraged to experiment, cross boundaries and categories, and they have a really well-rounded faculty in both jazz and classical.”
NOTABLE ALUM Sean Callery
Eastman's Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media offers a two-year graduate program established in 2015 by Emmy-winning composer and Eastman alumni Jeff Beal (House of Cards) and his wife, Joan. Currently run by composer Mark Watters, the highly selective program allows only six students to participate a year, limiting the entire program to only a dozen students. The intent is to graduate composers who are not only proficient and familiar with music recording and production technology, but are also well-rounded in music and experienced in working with and conducting live musicians.
TUITION $51,440 (graduate program $37,910)
NOTABLE ALUM Laurence Rosenthal
London’s Royal College of Music has spawned some of the most legendary names in music, including Leopold Stokowski, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and if you're talented enough to make the cut at London's legendary music institution (the British school's 25 percent acceptance rate is surprisingly generous), you'll be in the company of 750 students training for potential performances in Royal Albert Hall, the Britten Theatre and the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall.
The school offers a bachelor's degree in music and master's degrees in music, music performance, and composition (as well as a 12-month fast-track program in same); artist diplomas in performance, composition, and chamber music; a graduate diploma in vocal performance; a master's in vocal performance; artist diploma in opera; and a master's in performance science — as well as a master of education and doctoral programs.
TUITION Between $21,238 and $40,704, depending on degree program
NOTABLE ALUM Leopold Stokowski
In recent years, SFC's proximity to Silicon Valley has resulted in a growing synergy with the video game business, which has increased the conservatory's funding and growth considerably and given it a cutting-edge cachet to go along with its old-school bona fides.
With a total undergrad enrollment of under 200 on its 2-acre urban campus, students can take advantage of a 6-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio and an average class size of 20 students — and the school’s 47 percent acceptance rate means applicants have an excellent chance of getting in should SFC be their school of choice.
SFC takes a holistic approach to educating students with an interconnected curriculum and proximity to the Bay Area’s rich artistic and cultural community and institutions including the San Francisco Symphony.
NOTABLE ALUM Isaac Stern
Founded in 1833, Ohio-based Oberlin bears the distinction of being the oldest co-ed liberal arts college in the United States, and it offers students the opportunity to get a joint degree with an education in liberal arts and sciences along with musical education at the Oberlin Conservatory (180 students per year pursue double-degrees to earn bachelor of music and bachelor of arts). With its core music curriculum tracing back over 185 years, Oberlin has balanced its reputation as a venerable music school with a forward-thinking program in media music.
NOTABLE ALUM James McBride
Yale's acceptance rate is a miserly 10 percent, but if you get in, you can take advantage of financial aid and work programs to reduce your costs and potentially pursue a joint degree with Yale College and the school of music.
"Yale is another school I like a lot,” Robert Folk says. “Marco Beltrami (A Quiet Place) comes from the Yale School of Music, and he’s another guy who I think has really benefited from his use of technology and modern, cutting-edge disciplines along with a really terrific formal education.”
NOTABLE ALUM John Mauceri
Jacobs' master's program in film scoring is run by visiting professor of composition Larry Groupe, who assigns students to create scores for eight or nine student film productions per year, with the works performed live in the school's performance spaces.
Courses are available in music editing and "synthestration" — which instructs students in creating Midi realizations of concert music, media and film music, and the use of sample libraries and DAW techniques to create audio demos, as well as signal processing techniques, demo mixing and current industry-standard workflows.
TUITION In-state $12,721, out-of-state $37,495
NOTABLE ALUM Joshua Bell
If you make it through Curtis' rigorous application program (acceptance is a severe 5 percent), you can take advantage of the school's free tuition (room and board runs $14,363) and commune with a student population of just 150. A composer-in-residence program that was introduced in 2009 allows students to work directly with guest musicians like Chinese violinist Chen Yi and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.
TUITION Free; $14,363 room and board
NOTABLE ALUM Leonard Bernstein
Columbia offers a deep dive into film music education with a unique residency program that brings high-profile composers to the school for seven-week workshops with MFA students in the school's Music Composition for the Screen Program, with an intimate artist-to-student ratio that allows substantial face time with these visiting luminaries, which currently include Peter Golub, Brandon Campbell (Westworld, Game of Thrones) and Ronit Kirchman (The Sinner).
“I’m very impressed with the film music program at Columbia College,” Golub says. “They have a master's in film music, the students are fantastic, and the program is excellent.”
Marcelo Zarvos adds that by focusing on master's students, the program leaves students free to concentrate on skill sets specific to film scoring rather than music as a whole. “People come in with a little more water under the bridge, musically speaking," he says. "Then they can learn the more direct things that apply to film scoring.”
Students ultimately spend five weeks in Los Angeles working with industry veterans on a final thesis project with the opportunity to see their music recorded by a full studio orchestra.
NOTABLE ALUM Paul Broucek
Located in the heart of New York City, Columbia University’s Music Performance Program immerses students in both study and performance across a range of musical styles and disciplines including classical, pop, jazz and others. In addition to a grounding in music theory, Columbia looks for applicants with a strong foundation in the humanities, social and natural sciences, languages and mathematics, in keeping with the school's goals of preparing students for potential employment in a wide variety of possible fields.
NOTABLE ALUM Oscar Hammerstein
Pushing against the grain of the East Coast conservatory mentality, NYU Steinhardt gives students the same hard-core grounding in the fundamentals of classical music and performance while boasting a well-funded and progressive Music in Media program, with a faculty that has contributed to over 250 feature films as performers, composers, orchestrators, arrangers and in other capacities. The school’s Scoring for Film and Multi-Media program offers a master's degree in film and media composition, and offers both graduate and undergraduate students training in virtual, traditional and hybrid orchestration, score preparation, music editing, Midi and audio cues, and creating sample libraries.
With its own record label, Village Records, and a music business program for 160 undergraduates and 80 master's students through NYU's Stern School of Business, NYU Steinhardt prepares students to market and produce records, and otherwise operate on the commercial side of the ledger.
NOTABLE ALUM Alan Menken
The Seattle Film Institute's Master of Music in Film Composition is a one-year, four-quarter program led by Emmy-winning composer Hummie Mann (Moonlighting), dedicated to preparing students to hit the ground running in virtually any discipline of film and media music work. Mann takes a small group of students and personally mentors them through nine different recording sessions that range from electronics and soloists to 50-plus piece orchestras, with a particular focus in the tools and applications necessary for students to create effective mockups and demos and otherwise lend production value and presentation to their music.
NOTABLE ALUM Brendon Williams
Frost boasts its own trademark approach — the Frost Method — which integrates a broad spectrum of skills including improvisation, arranging, composing, critical thinking and even contract negotiations. The approach has achieved impressive results, with almost 90 percent of students going on to achieve working careers in music.
TUITION $60,900 master's
NOTABLE ALUM Ben Folds
UNCSA's master's program offers weekly lessons with a faculty mentor to hone technical and compositional skills, classes on the movie postproduction process, and collaboration with film crews, all in a seminar format that lets students share their work with their peers.
Classes on electronic technology and recording software train students in digital audio workstations, samplers and synthesizers, notation software, orchestral sample libraries and mockup and demo creation. Students also analyze film music and the history of the medium at screenings and seminars, study orchestration and write music for undergraduate film productions, getting valuable expeience working directly with student directors, producers and editors.
In the second year of the program students create main title themes, run scoring sessions and conduct their works, learn jazz arranging and study the business end of the industry, while completing a thesis project and scoring fourth-year-undergraduate film and animation projects.
TUITION In-state $8,796, out-of-state $22,803
NOTABLE ALUM Eddie Barbash
U of NT's 61 percent acceptance rate matches its wealth of degree programs, and its eight performance halls, 300 practice rooms and 26 ensembles afford students the opportunity to hear their own works performed by skilled student players. The school's tuition consistently ranks among the lowest in the nation compared to similar institutions.
TUITION $11,169 (graduate program $10,878)
NOTABLE ALUM Christopher Young
Located a stone's throw from the prestigious Lincoln Center, the Manhattan School of Music (celebrating its centennial this school year) offers almost 1,000 students bachelor degrees in voice, instrumental performance and musical theater, and a student-to-teacher ratio that grants extensive face time with instructors.
NOTABLE ALUM Herbie Hancock
If you're into doing your own thing, you might want to attend CalArts and walk in the footsteps of alumni like Tim Burton. CalArts' Herb Alpert School of Music offers master's degrees in music technology and experimental sound practices.
Marcelo Zarvos recommends the school as an excellent place for budding composers to discover their voice. “CalArts is a school that is very much about self-expression,” Zarvos says. “There was a lot of talk about who you are, what does your music sound like, and a lot of incentive to explore what was unique about your voice.”
NOTABLE ALUM Ravi Coltrane
A mere 30 students a year make it through the French program's hoops (the acceptance rate is 3 percent) to join a student population of 1,300. If you make it in, you're in for a tuition-free ride and considerable face time with the school's highly accessible group of 410 instructors.
NOTABLE ALUM Claude Debussy
Composer Peter Golub has instituted a Film Scoring Program that benefits from the prestigious reputation of the Sundance Institute. Golub cites the program's secluded location in Park City and its access to industry professionals as its chief advantages.
“We’re a residential program: it’s two weeks and people live and work together," he says. "I’m able to bring in mentors who are among the top film composers working today and they spend time working individually and as a group with our fellows, so they get personalized attention and they have the benefit of working with filmmakers and sound designers. It’s difficult to talk about music, so it gives people a chance to hone their skills as communicators.”
Golub was inspired to relaunch and modernize the program that had originated at Sundance in the 1980s.“The technology had changed significantly from the last time they had the lab in 1989, and that was one part of the puzzle for me, but also wanting to involve the filmmakers from the Sundance Director’s Lab and have them work with our composers.”
NOTABLE ALUM Tyler Bates
Colburn focuses on preparing students to be performers, and consequently does not offer degrees in composition, technology or music production that other schools in the Los Angeles area are known for, making the school primarily a performance-based conservatory.
NOTABLE ALUM Leila Josefowicz
While it doesn’t offer a master's, Cal State Northridge’s Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication does offer a very affordable bachelor's degree in commercial & media composiiton with a focus on film scoring as well as training in songwriting and vocal arranging and their commercial applications. The facilities feature a large scoring lab with 24 stations including iMacs with Logic, ProTools LE and Finale, and a smaller lab with extensive software and sample libraries.
TUITION In-state $6,888
NOTABLE ALUM David Fung
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.