After weathering more than a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, most music schools in the U.S. are getting back to in-person classes and ensemble performances with vaccine requirements for students, faculty and staff.
While instructors and students alike are breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of a return to relative normality, Patrick Kirst, interim director of the USC Thornton School of Music, points out that a full school year incorporating remote classes via Zoom actually resulted in some permanent changes that were advantageous. “I felt for sure that I could show certain things on Zoom that I couldn’t show otherwise in the classroom, things that are very studio-specific,” he says. “I think overall, we gave them at least the same experience as we have given in pre-pandemic classes. Now we are actually going into a hybrid model if needed, so we learned from Zoom that we could actually use this as a positive thing.”
To achieve this year’s music school rankings, THR polled the members of Hollywood’s Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Composers Diversity Collective, the Alliance of Women Film Composers, and the music branches of the Motion Picture Academy and Television Academy.
1. USC Thornton School of Music
USC’s access to Hollywood composers, directors and soundstages has made it the go-to destination for striving composers and placed it at the top of the list this year. The school’s 20-student master’s degree program in screen scoring is now run by interim director Kirst, who took over for Daniel Carlin earlier this year. “We really have the location advantage that no other school has,” Kirst says. “Because we are in L.A. and because we are so connected, we can have Thomas Newman  talk, we had Hans Zimmer [Dune], and they share their knowledge, they share their careers. And the faculty is all working composers.”
A new diversity scholarship offered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Bleeding Fingers Music aims to sponsor one or two Black students per school year. “It’s a full ride: housing, everything paid for,” says Kirst, adding that half of the students in the program are now women — up from six last year — making it one of the most inclusive programs in the country. Additionally, student composers work directly with film students from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “We had 50 directors pitch their projects to our students. That’s a big tent.”
NOTABLE ALUMNI Christopher Lennertz (The Boys), Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)
2. Columbia College Chicago
Columbia offers a two-year master of fine arts program in music composition for the screen headed by Kubilay Uner, focusing on film, television, advertising, video games and other interactive media. Students attend a five-week semester in Los Angeles, interning with professional composers and employing professional musicians and engineers in studio recording and mixing sessions. Emmy-winning composer and Columbia Chicago alum Joel Goodman (ESPN’s 30 for 30) notes that the program is not offered to undergrads — ensuring that students have a strong composition background before studying film scoring — and also boasts three composers-in-residence, each specializing in a different area. Goodman also has special praise for the program’s director: “Kubi is a professional composer working now, and to have someone of his ability and experience running this program is a gift. He’s also super talented, open-minded, highly creative, exciting to be around and loves what he does — whether it’s making music or teaching music.”
NOTABLE ALUMNI Paul Broucek, Kanye West
3. The Juilliard School
New York City
Juilliard offers a world-renowned conservatory education in pure music as well as its Center for Innovation in the Arts, which includes media scoring classes such as composing for visual media (offered in the fall), a scoring to picture workshop (in the spring) and independent study in emerging and collaborative arts (i.e., using technology in composition, offered in both fall and spring semesters), taught by CFIITA director Edward Bilous. The school’s vaccination requirements for student, faculty and staff have allowed it to restore its traditional on-campus learning and performance experiences, where music students mingle with those pursuing other disciplines, including drama and dance.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Laura Karpman (What if …), Bernard Herrmann
4. Berklee College of Music
Berklee earned a pivotal movie role in 2021, as it was featured in writer-director Sian Heder’s CODA, in which Emilia Jones plays Ruby, a child of deaf adults (hence the title) torn between remaining with her family or pursuing a music degree at the prestigious university. “Growing up near Boston, Berklee was the school to go [to] if you wanted to be a serious musician,” Heder says. “When I was choosing a conservatory to feature in CODA, I knew it had to feel aspirational, an environment that Ruby would dream about. Berklee felt hip and eclectic, like a place you go to discover who you are as an artist.”
Adds composer Marius de Vries, who scored the film and supervised its live vocal performances: “The choir that we cast in CODA came almost entirely from Berklee. They’re a Berklee a cappella group that we found. It was such a godsend to be able to work with them because they were able to help contribute to the vocal arrangements, and we were able to go in and shoot all of those scenes live because of the level of competence they had.” The school offers a bachelor of music in film scoring degree that helps students even after they’ve left the campus for Hollywood. “I really appreciated how Berklee has a really strong alumni program,” says alum Joy Ngiaw, composer of Apple TV+’s animated short Blush. “[For] students who moved to L.A. after graduating, there’s a lot of events here and really good resources to help us get started. Whether it’s to find our first internship or find our first job, I feel that the community is really helpful in bridging that connection.”
For international students, Berklee’s campus in Valencia, Spain, boasts its own scoring program and facilities, a boon to composers like Amie Doherty (Untamed Spirit). “I come from a small town in the west of Ireland, so how does one get to Hollywood? Tech moves so quickly that I needed to get up to date with the tech and get my foot in the door. I would say the technology side of things was where I really felt like I got the most thorough education.”
NOTABLE ALUMNI Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Quincy Jones
5. Oberlin Conservatory of Music
Oberlin boasts both a liberal arts education and conservatory training in a wide range of instrumental performance as well as composition, conducting, ethnomusicology, jazz composition, recording arts and production, voice, and opera theater. The school’s bachelor of music, technology in music and related arts degree prepares students for graduate study in electroacoustic music, interdisciplinary performance and digital media. The program combines music technology studies with conservatory classes in music theory, aural skills such as sight reading, musicology, and extracurricular projects including dance and theater performance.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Robert Spano (conductor), James Paul (conductor)
6. New England Conservatory of Music
NEC’s long-standing working relationships with the Boston Symphony, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Emmanuel Music and the Boston Chamber Music Society continue to make the 254-year-old institution one of the most prestigious in the country. The school now offers a music technology concentration for undergrads that requires students to take three technology courses and work independently with a mentor from the school’s faculty on a project built around the student’s interest, with areas of study that can include scoring for new media, recording, mixing, production, electronics performance and interactivity, computer-aided composition and others. The school also offers dual degree programs with Tufts and Harvard University. Composition alumna Stephanie Economou recently scored Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Alan Hovhaness (classical composer), Ralph Burns (Cabaret)
7. Eastman School of Music
Rochester, New York
Eastman’s two-year master’s program was founded by Jeff Beal (Netflix’s House of Cards) and is directed by composer Mark Watters, who says that in-person classes and performances have now returned fully to the school. “Probably the biggest news is that Jeff and [singer] Joan Beal have moved to NYC, but rather than sell their gorgeous home studio in Agoura Hills, they have turned it into Eastman West, a residence for graduated Eastman media composers who will be allowed to not only live there for a modest fee, but they also have access to his fabulous studio for their own projects. This has been a tremendous help to the current group of four young composers as they begin their careers.”
NOTABLE ALUMNI Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) Wendy O. Williams (punk icon)
8. UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music
UCLA Herb Alpert School’s master’s and Ph.D. programs offer a specialization in either composition or composition for visual media, with students completing study in music theory, orchestration, music analysis, technology, counterpoint (two or more lines of music that can be played simultaneously), performance, as well as Western and non-Western music history and traditions. The school’s small student population of 558 allows for a generous student-to-teacher ratio of 4-to-1, and with 45 performance ensembles, the school generates more than 350 on-campus performances a year. Composer Terence Blanchard has been named the first Kenny Burrell chair in jazz studies at the school.
TUITION $13,258 (in-state); about $66,000 (out-of-state)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers), John Cage (composer-artist)
9. San Francisco Conservatory of Music
SFC’s proximity to Silicon Valley brings with it unparalleled access to the gaming industry’s talent, technology and funding, making it one of the surest pathways into the world of video game scoring. Its technology and applied composition program gives students firsthand experience in scoring an in-development video game, while they also get the opportunity to record their music at George Lucas’ prestigious Skywalker Sound. Visiting faculty in the program have included Laura Karpman (Taken), Austin Wintory (Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) and conductor-orchestrator Tim Davies. The school also partners with the San Francisco International Film Festival, giving students the chance to work directly with filmmakers.
NOTABLE ALUNNI Isaac Stern, John Adams (composer-conductor)
10. Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
Jacobs’ music scoring for visual media program is run by program director and associate professor Larry Groupé, who also is a working composer (2020’s The Outpost). In 2019, Groupé upgraded the program to include a master’s degree, undergraduate and doctoral minors, and two certificate degrees. Each semester, composing students take part in a Hollywood-style recording session at the school’s new Joshi Studio, collaborate with Indiana University film students on projects, attend special presentations with film industry guests and enjoy access to the school’s considerable student body of trained musicians, who can be called upon to perform their music.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Joshua Bell (violinist-composer), Leonard Slatkin (conductor)
11. University of North Carolina School of the Arts
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Although UNCSA has its own music school (along with conservatory training in drama, dance, and design and production), it’s in the unique position of offering a two-year master of fine arts in film music composition as part of its school of filmmaking. “Everything about our film school is kind of a studio system mirror,” says composer Chris Heckman, chair of the program. “Students come here because they’re going to have the experience of really working with filmmakers and developing relationships that hopefully carry on into the professional world.”
The school’s 4,000-square-foot film scoring stage, the largest on the East Coast, can accommodate a 75-piece symphony orchestra. Notes Hackman, “Our scoring stage is really major — especially since so many stages shut down in New York, it’s hard to find a stage as impressive as this.”
TUITION $9,196 (in-state); $23,899 (out-of-state)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Atli Örvarsson (Pirates of the Caribbean), Kim Planert (Castle)
12. Curtis Institute of Music
Curtis offers bachelor of music, post-baccalaureate diploma, master of music in opera and professional studies certificates. Tuition is free (merit-based scholarships cover the full cost of students’ education), but COVID-related health fees can add to overall costs (additional financial aid is available to cover expenditures beyond tuition). Students talented enough to enroll at the school (the acceptance rate is a stingy 4 percent) become part of an exceptionally small population of about 175 students, with a remarkable student-to-teacher ratio of 2-to-1 allowing for extensive personal access and interaction with the school’s faculty.
TUITION Free after scholarships
NOTABLE ALUMNI Samuel Barber, Nino Rota (The Godfather)
13. New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development
New York City
Steinhardt offers bachelor of music and master of music degrees in music theory and composition and in screen scoring. Students enrolled in the programs receive training in music theory and music history, from Western music to film music, and popular to world music traditions. They also can study instrumentation and orchestration, and receive private composition lessons, as well as engage in multiple performances and collaborations. Students can use the school’s recording studio and have their compositions premiered in one of the many concerts presented by the school’s Composers Collective, all while gaining access to some of the numerous film, video game productions, documentaries and other media in the New York City area.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Elmer Bernstein, Cy Coleman (composer/jazz pianist)
14. Yale School of Music
New Haven, Connecticut
New Haven’s Yale School of Music offers conservatory training with a focus on traditional acoustic composition, but also boasts opportunities to learn electronic music, recording techniques and technology through the school’s media production department and its recording studios, which offer experience in audio-video recording and editing as well as live streaming and content creation. The school offers master of music, master and doctor of musical arts degrees, and a combined bachelor of arts/master of music degree for students seeking out a liberal arts education to round out their portfolio. Over the course of their studies, composition students generate enough music to fill a full-length recital program, and working guest composers meet and work with students at a composition seminar.
TUITION Free after full tuition award and fellowship
NOTABLE ALUMNI Marco Beltrami (A Quiet Place), Andrew Norman (contemporary classical composer)
15. Royal College of Music
RCM offers a two-year master’s program for students. The master of composition for screen takes advantage of London’s hub of motion picture, television and advertising production and focuses on practical skills. Students attend networking events and workshops with film and television production professionals and collaborate with students from London’s prestigious film schools. As one of the world’s leading conservatories, RCM also offers bachelor’s degrees in music and master’s degrees in music, music performance and composition as well as postgraduate-level classes in composition for screen.
TUITION 25,300 pounds (about $33,800)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Alexandre Desplat (The French Dispatch), Neville Marriner (violinist-conductor)
16. Columbia University in the City of New York
New York City
Columbia CNY offers a two-year sound arts MFA program that admits just two to four students a year, with a curriculum of either individual or collaborative research projects focusing on the integration of sound in media, with access to the sound art and music faculty along with visual arts, engineering and other personnel throughout the university. Students in the program work in the studio with visiting artists and enjoy a week’s worth of activities with an important artist each semester. Related courses include sound: advanced topics I & II; sculpture; computer programming for music and art; music, math and perception; and ethnology of sound. The school’s music performance program features concentrations in composition, ethnomusicology, historical musicology and music theory.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Ira Gershwin, Pat Boone
17. Musicians Institute
If you’re looking for a more affordable way to enter the Los Angeles music scene with a focus on rock ‘n’ roll instruction, Musicians Institute offers master and bachelor of music degrees along with associate of arts and associate of science degrees. A bachelor’s degree program in music composition for visual media gives students instruction in arranging, scoring, orchestration, music theory, ear training and music history, and its campus, located in the heart of Hollywood, boasts numerous recording studios and access to L.A.’s music industry professionals. The school also offers a wide range of online classes along with in-person instruction.
NOTABLE ALUMNI David Becker (jazz guitarist), Kevin Fowler (singer-songwriter)
18. Pacific Northwest Film Scoring Program — Seattle Film Institute
PNFS offers a master of music in film composition program (the only one in the U.S.) run by Hummie Mann. The program introduced an online/low residency format that allows students to attend remote classes as well as one- and two-week residencies in Seattle three times during the school year for in-person workshops and recording sessions. Students undertake 10 scoring projects that involve conducting live recording sessions, as well as working on remote sessions and producing electronic and synth scores. They also learn how to handle all the most commonly used software in the industry. Other instruction includes mixing, songwriting, business and networking, and composition and sound design for interactive video games. Students can earn a master’s degree in 40 weeks and leave the program with a professional skill set and demo reel.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Brendon Williams (video game composer), Bobby Brader (composer-orchestrator)
19. University of North Texas
Although it doesn’t have a dedicated media scoring program, UNT’s composition program is one of the largest in the nation, boasting around 70 students and a broad array of approaches and disciplines. The campus’ Center for Experimental Music & Intermedia (CEMI) incorporates six production studios and the Merrill Ellis Intermedia Theater. Coming to America 2 composer Jermaine Stegall entered the composition program as a stepping stone to further education and work in Los Angeles. “It seemed like all the tools that I needed were there,” Stegall says. “The director of the program [Joseph Klein] told me up front, with my passion for film music, that that’s not what they teach us, but they can certainly help you hone the skills that you might need if you were composing actual music.”
TUITION $38,794 (average per semester, out-of-state); $26,554 (in-state)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Christopher Young (Pet Semetary), Don Henley
20. Los Angeles College of Music
LACM offers a 20-month associate of science degree and a 38-month bachelor of science degree in music production; then online degree programs covering three areas of study: composition, production and the business side of managing music. The school also has a bachelor of music degree program in composing for visual media that offers education in musical technique, technology, music business models and the ability to work both independently and with producers, directors and musicians to succeed. Candidates for the program must audition with audio tracks accompanied by notated scores, as well as a written description of their involvement with their score submissions and their computer skills and prior studio and music experience.
NOTABLE ALUMNI Jean Dolabella (multi-instrumenalist), Tal Wilkenfeld (singer-songwriter)