Top Music Schools on the West Coast

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Whether an oboist, bass player, or a soprano, serious musicians don't look for colleges or grad schools with a Division I football team and big marching band. They look at conservatories or universities with top-notch music programs. And just as universities are divided into tiers, with the Stanfords and Harvards of the world at the top, so, too, are music schools.

At the top of the stratification, you'll find the best conservatories in the country. For some musicians, the better fit is a conservatory within a college or a university with a stellar music department.

The best music schools all require auditions and performance resumes as part of the application process. The trick is to find a music program that's a good fit for your talent and level of passion.

Best Music Schools in California

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California boasts beautiful beaches, majestic mountains, and all that scenic jazz. But it also boasts actual jazz and extraordinary classical music programs. Many of the major universities—particularly UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, Berkeley, Stanford, San Jose State, and Cal State East Bay—have terrific music programs. If you want a true conservatory-within-a-university experience, check these out:

  • Thornton School of Music: The University of Southern California's Thornton School is one of the best conservatories in the country. It boasts top-notch faculty and its majors range from opera, jazz, and early music to scoring for television and motion pictures (no surprise there, as USC's film school is renowned, too). The school partners with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Opera, and the GRAMMY Foundation, among others. Getting in is the challenge—and kids who apply here also generally apply to the major conservatories, including Colburn in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Auditions are rigorous, and so are the academic requirements. Applicants must get into both the music school and the university, where the typical freshman comes in with a 3.8 unweighted GPA and SAT scores of 2020–2240 or an ACT score of 30–34.
  • Chapman University: A hop, skip, and a jump from Disneyland, the Conservatory of Music at Chapman University in the small town of Orange offers undergraduate degrees in composition, music education, conducting, instrumental performance, and—especially—vocal performance. Many musicians who apply here also apply to Redlands and the University of the Pacific.
  • University of the Pacific: This 130-year-old music conservatory in Stockton offers undergraduate degrees in music performance, composition, and music education (including a degree that gets you out with a teaching certificate in four years, not the typical four plus one). It's also home to the Brubeck Institute, a two-year program whose jazz quintet performs around the world. Many of the Brubeck Fellows finish their undergraduate education at The New School in New York.
  • University of Redlands: Based in California's Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, this small liberal arts college and its conservatory of music are just over a century old. Concerts are performed in the college chapel. Many of Redlands' music students take advantage of the school's Salzburg Semester: They live in the college's 450-year-old Austrian castle and study at the Mozarteum.

Music Schools in the Pacific Northwest: Washington

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Puget Sound and cosmopolitan Seattle aren't the only things the state of Washington has going for it. The Evergreen State is home to a number of excellent music programs.

In addition to Seattle's arts conservatory the Cornish College of the Arts, which offers music, dance, design, art and theater majors, be sure to check out the University of Puget Soundin nearby Tacoma. It's a small, private, liberal arts university with a terrific music program.

The University of Washington, Seattle, offers all the academic and athletic amenities of a big university, including a fine music department.

Music Schools in the Pacific Northwest: Oregon

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Any large state university will have a good music department, and Oregon has two—the University of Oregon and Oregon State. The school musicians flock to is Willamette, a small, private, liberal arts college with 20 music ensembles, a bachelor of music degree (as opposed to a bachelor of arts in music), and a jazz studies program that includes a major in improvisation.

Music Schools in Nevada

Reno, Nevada
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Sure, Reno has casinos, but the University of Nevada music department has the city's bigger claim to fame. It offers a jazz program that includes the annual Reno Jazz Festival.

Music Schools in Idaho

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Be sure to check out the University of Idaho in Moscow, where the Lionel Hampton School of Music boasts a full orchestra, four jazz bands, and the nation's largest collegiate jazz choir, with 200 voices. The school's annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival attracts about 20,000 concertgoers each year. 

Music Schools in South Dakota

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The University of South Dakota is home to a newly renovated performance hall—complete with pipe organ—as well as the National Music Museum, a 20,000-square-foot facility with nine galleries devoted to the history of musical instruments. It features displays of  more than 15,000 esoteric instruments from every country and culture.