The Top 10 Music Conservatories in the U.S.

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Top 10 Music Conservatories

Teenage schoolgirl practises playing her flute.
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Serious bassoonists, violinists, vocalists and jazz devotees don't look for colleges or grad schools with a top-notch marching band. They look at conservatories or universities with top music programs - and those can be hard to find and even harder to get into. These schools require auditions, performance resumes and an entirely different application process from the usual college apps rigamarole.

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Music Conservatories & Juilliard

New York City's Lincoln Center is home to the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School. Photo by Jackie Burrell

Conservatories are not good choices for teens who merely like music and are thinking about declaring a music major. If that's your kid, he should be looking at universities with a good music program - and good everything else too. Students who attend music conservatories are obsessively, passionately devoted to music. They can't imagine doing anything else. They warble arias in the shower, discuss Bartok (or Bach or Coltrane) over dinner, and then, having spent the entire day immersed in music studies, catch a chamber concert or recital in the evening. Saying they "like" music is like saying humans like breathing oxygen.

But there are varying tiers of music conservatories in the U.S. The best are also the most competitive - and the fact that Juilliard's 6.4% acceptance rate is lower than Harvard's 7.2% doesn't tell the whole story. Your musician is competing against musicians from all over the world. (Juilliard's students, for example, hail from 40 different countries.) The age range spans late teens to 30-somethings. And it takes more than dreams and ambition to get into these schools. It takes mastery of extremely challenging audition repertoire. These schools don't ask trumpet applicants, for example, to play two etudes of their choice. They want the Arutunian, Haydn or Hummel concerto.

So here's the lowdown on some of the top music conservatories in the U.S., along with links to find more information for each.

  • The Juilliard School: One of the world's most highly regarded conservatories for music, dance and drama, this New York City-based school is also one of the most competitive, both during admissions and after enrollment. There is no hand-holding here. The school, which is located at Lincoln Center, is known for its stringent requirements, incredibly high expectations, ​and high stress. Some 600 of its 650 students are enrolled in the music program, which includes jazz and classical music. And the faculty roster reads like a who's who of Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, and Oscar-winners. But be aware - here and at other schools - that many of those professors are professional, gigging musicians. It's thrilling when your kid's private teacher is a legendary jazz artist. It's not so thrilling when the guy's on yet another global tour.

But New York City is actually home to three major music conservatories, and Juilliard is just one of them...

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Manhattan, Mannes & More

Founded in 1916, the Mannes School of Music is one of New York City's trio of highly respected music conservatories. Photo by Jackie Burrell

Along with Juilliard, New York is home to two other major music conservatories, as well as New York University, which is also known for its music and arts programs. Here's the scoop:

  • The Manhattan School of Music: MSM is located in Morningside Heights - on New York's Upper-Upper West Side, near Columbia and Barnard. This is a large conservatory with 900 students, including some 400 undergraduates studying voice, composition or performance. MSM's faculty includes members of the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The school is one of seven conservatories that use the Unified Application, which is similar to a Common App for conservatories. If your teen or 20something is using this online application, don't get too self-congratulatory about speedy completion! The Unified App is only part of what's required. MSM, like every other conservatory, requires additional essays, auditions and music theory exams.
  • Mannes College and the New School for Music: The third conservatory in the New York City triumvirate offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in classical music performance, voice and composition at Mannes on the Upper West Side, and jazz at the New School in Greenwich Village. The New School is a consortium of colleges that also includes Parsons. Founded in 1916, Mannes joined the New School consortium in 1989. The classical music program includes 314 undergraduates and grad students, and the faculty includes members of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, as well as some of the preeminent composers of the day. The New School for jazz and contemporary music offers bachelor's degrees. (The Unified App is accepted here, as well.)

(Of course, independent conservatories are not the only East Coast options. New York, Boston, and other cities have terrific conservatories-on-university-campuses too.)

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Conservatories in Boston & Beyond

Composer Howard Shore conducts a commencement concert at his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The city is home to four major music schools, including the New England Conservatory of Music. Photo by Mary Schwalm/Getty Images

New York City doesn't hold a monopoly on music conservatories, of course...

  • New England Conservatory of Music: Founded in 1867, Boston's famous conservatory and its Jordan Hall are National Historic Landmarks. The school's 750 undergraduate and grad students perform in five different performance halls, including the 1,013-seat Jordan Hall, which has been called "one of the world's most acoustically perfect performance spaces." Half the members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra have ties to this conservatory. (P.S. This school also accepts the Unified App.)
  • Berklee College of Music: Classical violinists may want to just skip this paragraph, because the focus at Boston's Berklee is on the study and practice of contemporary music, with programs in jazz, blues, hip-hop, songwriting and all the places where music and technology intersect. Founded in 1945 by an MIT engineer, Berklee calls itself "the world's premier learning lab for the music of today — and tomorrow." It's a big school, with 4,131 students, and its alumni include Quincy Jones, composer Howard Shore and a seemingly endless list of Grammy and Oscar winners.
  • Boston Conservatory: Founded the same year and in the same city, the Boston Conservatory offers undergrad and graduate degrees in music, musical theater, ballet and other dance, and music education. About a third of its 730 students are undergraduate music majors. This school also accepts the Unified App. (P.S. If you're touring music schools in the Boston area, make sure you also check out the Longy School at Cambridge's Bard College too.)
  • Cleveland Institute of Music: This prestigious conservatory, with its 450 undergraduate and grad students, has close ties to the Cleveland Orchestra. Half the faculty is or was a member of that symphony orchestra and 40 members of the orchestra are CIM alumni. Students here may take courses at nearby Case Western Reserve University, including pursuing a double major or minor. And yes, this school accepts the Unified App.
  • Curtis Institute of Music: This Philadelphia conservatory has, as you might guess, a lengthy and close relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Founded in 1924, Curtis may be small - it has just 165 students - but the school has made an enormous impact on the music world. Its orchestral alumni include principal chairs in every American symphony of note, and its vocal music majors have gone on to sing at the Met, La Scala and other major opera houses.
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California's Major Music Conservatories

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Anytime one talks about music conservatories, the talk inevitably turns to the East Coast and especially New York's concert scene. But the West Coast boasts a thriving music scene, as well - hello, Hollywood! And California is home to two exceptional music conservatories, as well as a number of very strong university music programs.

  • Colburn School: This music conservatory in downtown Los Angeles started life as a small music prep school in 1950 for USC, the University of Southern California. But what began in an army barracks building went independent in the '80s, moved to considerably swankier quarters and began expanding. By 2003, the Colburn conservatory had begun offering full rides, including room and board, to all its students. The Trudl Zipper Dance Institute was added in 2008.
  • San Francisco Conservatory of Music: Founded in 1917, San Francisco's conservatory moved to the heart of the city's Civic Center, a heartbeat from the Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall, in 2006. Today, a third of the faculty hail from the San Francisco Symphony ranks and its 390 music students pursue undergraduate and master's degrees. This school uses the Unified App for admissions, by the way.
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Burrell, Jackie. "The Top 10 Music Conservatories in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Burrell, Jackie. (2021, February 16). The Top 10 Music Conservatories in the U.S. Retrieved from Burrell, Jackie. "The Top 10 Music Conservatories in the U.S." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).