You can study music at conservatories, schools of music and music departments within liberal arts colleges and universities. Though you may study and major in performance in any of these settings, you may also be interested in having a primary or secondary emphasis in composition, music history, theory, ethnomusicology, popular music, music business, music technology or music education. You should consider your personal preferences and abilities before applying, and you should also be aware that music schools, like other college programs, are ranked.

About Ranking Methodologies

Most music school rankings focus on undergraduate programs. U.S. News and World Report identifies strong music schools, but leaves them unranked. U.S. College Rankings, whose top 10-ranked music schools include conservatories or large music schools, takes other factors besides music studies into consideration. Similar to U.S. News and World Report, U.S. College Rankings considers the music college and its parent institution’s faculty ratings, faculty-to-student ratio, median salary of graduates, students’ standardized test scores, graduation rate, undergraduate academic reputation, student selectivity, alumni contribution and popularity. NPR Music questions the basis of these rankings, pointing out their focus on performance majors and not taking into account the merit of other kinds of music studies.


Noted for their high selectivity and rigorous audition requirements, conservatories are often identified as top music schools on rankings lists. Students attending conservatories are often preparing to become professional musicians or teachers. Both U.S. College Rankings and identify Eastman School of Music, New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music as top schools. Aside from performance, Eastman, for example, has departments in composition, jazz studies, music education, musicology and music theory, among others, and specialized department programs such as early music and new music. Regardless of your emphasis, conservatories nevertheless require you to commit some of your studies to performance.

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Schools of Music

Schools of music may demand rigorous performance study, but this is often within a balanced curriculum, allowing you to consider taking fewer courses in performance and more courses in other music areas such as education, theory and history. Both U.S. College Rankings and list large schools of music such as Indiana University, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the University of Cincinnati at the top. All three schools offer the bachelor's of music, as well as the bachelor's of music education. In addition, you can study music within the context of liberal arts by earning a bachelor's of arts in music. Depending on your program, performing requirements may or may not exist throughout your academic career at a school of music. Most schools of music require undergraduates to participate in several performance groups. Generally, schools of music have the largest number of students, as well as best course and program variety.

Liberal Arts Colleges

Sometimes the most serious and accomplished musicians opt for music studies in departments that have a less intense focus on performance than conservatories and schools of music. Liberal arts schools rarely hold auditions for entering students in their music programs; however, you may have to audition to be allowed to take music lessons. Faculty-to-student ratios are generally smaller at liberal arts college music departments than at schools of music, which means you will receive more individualized attention during your music and other academic studies. A weakness in the rankings is that neither U.S. College Rankings nor includes liberal arts colleges with strong music programs in their top-ranked schools. This occurs despite there being some excellent programs, such as Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. It has strong programs in ethnomusicology, and offers a bachelor's of arts in music.

About the Author

A musicologist and librarian, Melissa Goldsmith earned her PhD in musicology and Certificate in Advanced Studies in library and information science in 2002 from Louisiana State University. Her academic articles and reviews have also been published since that year. Goldsmith enjoys teaching tap dancing, music, film studies, embroidery and gardening.