Succeeding in a career in music requires the perfect combination of talent, hard work, perseverance and luck.
One of the ways to hone that raw talent is to attend one of the top universities for the performing arts. Whether it’s a highly rated department of a multidiscipline campus or a small private school devoted exclusively to the arts, these institutions of higher learning provide the training, experience and collaboration opportunities that help prepare you for a successful future in music.
The list of schools below offers a variety of learning environments, course offerings and teaching styles, so, hopefully, you can find one that’s the right fit. Even if you’re not entirely sure what exact career you want to pursue, there are several music programmes that allow you to adapt your class selections each year to suit your developing interests. Some offer dual degrees that allow you to expand your career options beyond the musical realm.
So, let’s take a look at what your options are for the highest quality musical education available. Based on the latest data from the QS World University Rankings, there are the 10 best music schools in the world.
10. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, US
This prestigious Ivy League school, located just three miles northwest of Boston, is the oldest higher education institution in the US and one of the hardest unis to get into. The campus includes two theatres, a concert hall, three music labs, five museums and an enormous library system boasting 18 million books in addition to vast collections of manuscripts, serials, photos and other materials.
Harvard offers a Bachelor of Arts degree with a concentration of music. The lure of the programme is that it’s highly customisable to a student’s interests, with only a small selection of universally required classes. Though the coursework is typically more academic, Harvard provides plenty of performance opportunities with dozens of student music groups available, including choirs, glee clubs, orchestras, a cappella and opera groups.
The Harvard music department also offers five-year integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes with the New England Conservatory of Music and the Berklee College of Music.
9. Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Location: Glasgow, UK
Founded in 1847 as part of the Glasgow Athenaeum, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) has become one of the most prestigious performance art institutions in the world.
RCS offers students the opportunity to undertake a Bachelor of Music, a four-year programme that fuses practical experience with creative challenges. Through this BMus course, you can focus on anything from composition and jazz to traditional music and vocal studies to strings and many more specialisations! In addition to the core curriculum, you’ll also have the chance to explore other areas such as classical improvisation, music psychology, music technology and acting.
As for postgraduates, they can enrol in RCS’s MMus/MA programme, which is designed for anyone determined to pursue a career in music, be it as an opera singer, concert artist, composer or conductor. The course offers numerous specialisms to choose from, and you can either do a two-year MMus or a one-year MA. The programme also prepares individuals who want to pursue doctoral studies or RCS’s Advanced Postgraduate Diploma in Performance.
7. Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts (tie)
Location: Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Based in the bustling city of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts enables students to major in Chinese music (such as gaohu, erhu or Chinese percussion), western music (like cello, clarinet, bass or oboe), voice, composition and electronic music.
As an undergrad, you can pursue a four-year Bachelor of Music programme where you will receive professional music training and study musical history and theory as well as other cultures and art forms. Meanwhile, prospective postgraduate students can earn a Master of Music and pick between a performance major (Western and Chinese music), a conducting major (Chinese or Western orchestras) or a composition major.
The academy also offers a Music Foundations programme that is designed to give school leavers the musical foundations they need before enrolling in an undergraduate programme.
7. Curtis Institute of Music (tie)
Location: Philadelphia, US
The Curtis Institute of Music is the definition of elite. With an acceptance rate of around 4%, the school offers you education and collaboration with only the best of the best. The typical enrolment of 175 students allows for a full symphony orchestra, opera programme, string quartet and select programmes in conducting, composition, piano, organ and guitar.
The students collectively perform in about 200 concerts every year, as Curtis operates on the belief that aspiring musicians learn best ‘by doing’.
If you’re concerned about how to pay tuition for such a selective, intensive programme, keep in mind that every person accepted to Curtis receives merit-based full-tuition scholarships. This includes international students, who make up about 40% of attendees.
6. Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Location: London, England
Unlike the huge universities on this list that educate 20,000 or more students at a time, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama enrolment hovers around 800.
As a leader in teaching the performing arts, Guildhall nevertheless attracts students from 60 different countries around the world. Students get the benefit of the school’s state-of-the-art performance spaces as well as London’s culturally rich environment that includes Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, the Tate Modern and the West End theatres.
The undergraduate programmes feature intensive one-on-one teaching sessions in subjects like composition, chamber music, electronic music, music therapy, strings, harp and guitar. While many schools focus on composition and orchestra coursework, Guildhall is also a great choice for students who hope to pursue a singing career. A master’s in vocal studies is available in addition to the BMus.
5. New York University
Location: New York City, US
Founded in the first half of the 19th Century, New York University (NYU) currently educates 50,000 students at its 19 schools and colleges and 11 international classroom sites as well as degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
In addition to music, NYU ranks highly in accounting, mathematics and law, and those concerned about their employability fresh out of school can be assured that NYU graduates are highly favoured by recruiters. Famous alumni include actor Alec Baldwin, pop star Lady Gaga and playwright Tony Kushner.
NYU offers programmes in all degree levels for a variety of music career paths, including music theory, composition, education, theatre, music therapy and musical theatre writing. The university suggests students take advantage of the vast array of New York City concerts, opera, theatre and other performing arts attractions as well as pursue internships with those organisations, recording companies or local music magazines.
4. Royal Academy of Music
Location: London, England
A constituent college of the University of London, the Royal Academy of Music is Britain’s oldest degree-granting music school. Dedicated to all facets of performance, composition and academic study, the academy offers degree programmes for undergraduates, postgraduates and those seeking additional professional development.
In addition to providing opportunities for performance experience on campus and throughout London, the Royal Academy of Music prides itself on fully preparing students for their career in music. The school offers coursework, events and activities related to understanding the music business, studio recording, editing techniques, self-promotion and marketing, writing CVs, making funding applications, and more.
3. Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien
Location: Vienna, Austria
One of the largest performing arts schools in the world, the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien, also known as the MDW, provides training to 3,000 students in 105 degree programmes and 68 supplementary programmes run by 24 departments. The MDW is dedicated to cultivating the unique talents and perspectives of each individual artist.
Students can pursue a range of music careers, including coursework for composition, conducting, keyboard instruments, church music, ethnomusicology and five forms of music education. Additional performing arts degrees are available in acting, film, digital art and directing. The university also offers classes on learning the German language, as students must be proficient in both German and English to be accepted to the degree programmes.
2. Royal College of Music
Location: London, England
Founded in 1882 by the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, the Royal College of Music has a lengthy history of training gifted performers, conductors and composers. Located in South Kensington, directly across from the Royal Albert Hall, the campus includes a concert hall, theatre, library and a 100-seat recital hall.
The college offers students a flexible path of coursework on the way to a BMus in their chosen speciality. Advanced degrees are also available.
Students have access to modern studios, rehearsal and performance spaces, a library containing 400,000 items of printed music, a selection of instruments that includes 140 pianos and 60 grand pianos, as well as the opportunity to study or play historical instruments dating as far back as the 15th Century.
1. The Juilliard School
Location: New York City, US
As much as other universities shuffle for a position on this top 10 list of performing arts schools, the Juilliard School consistently appears at the top of the heap. This world-famous institution continues to excel in its mission to ‘provide the highest [calibre] of artistic education for gifted musicians, dancers and actors from around the world so that they may achieve their fullest potential as artists, leaders and global citizens’.
Juilliard offers its carefully selected music students undergraduate and graduate degrees in classical music, jazz, historical performance and vocal arts. Like the Curtis School of Music, Juilliard believes practice makes perfect. Its roster of 800 students appears in over 700 performances every year, utilising the school’s five theatres as well as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully and David Geffen halls, and other local, national and international venues.
Juilliard believes in a well-rounded and collaborative education for its music students. The Bachelor of Music degree incorporates liberal arts coursework (such as language study, ethics, politics and culture) with more specialised music classes. Students perform not just with their fellow musicians but also in productions with actors and dancers enrolled at the school.
The best schools in the world are constantly striving to improve their curriculums, resources, the calibre of faculty, the diversity of their student selection, and more. Some universities that didn’t quite make the top 10 list this year have ranked highly in previous years and are worth looking into – particularly if they’re more conveniently located to your current residence – and include:
- Northwestern University in Evanston, US
- University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK
- University of Oxford in Oxford, UK
- Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts in Helsinki, Finland
- Royal Holloway University of London in London, UK
When and where to attend university are at the top of the list of decisions most school leavers’ need to make. We hope that this list helps inform your choice of school, giving you a peek at what types of music education are available and that interest you, even if you ultimately choose a uni that’s elsewhere in the rankings.
Are you considering studying music at one of these top schools? Which schools are you surprised didn’t make the cut in this year’s top 10 rankings? Join the discussion in the comments section below and let us know!
This is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 3 November 2019 and was written in collaboration with staff writer Melina Theodorou.