Top Music Schools in California and the Northwest

Top Music Schools in the West

California and the western states are home to many terrific music programs, including USC's Thornton School of Music. Photo by Jackie Burrell

Whether your kid is 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 tippy top, and less competitive schools lower down, the stratification of music schools is even more severe. At the top of that pyramid, you'll find the best conservatories in the country.

But for some musicians, the better fit is a conservatory within a college or a university with a stellar music department (And this college vs. conservatory article explains why.) Like a conservatory, the best of these music schools require auditions , performance resumes and an entirely different application process from the usual college apps formula.

The trick, of course, is in finding a music program that's a good fit for your favorite musician's abilities, talent, and level of passion. On the following pages, you'll find a guide to some of the best music programs in the west. Of course, every big university has a music program - but these schools offer even more and the list ranges from the glories of USC's Thornton School, which easily ranks among the country's best, to a South Dakota university whose colossal instrument museum is a treasure trove for music historians. Page through for some of the best in the west, or use the quick links below.

  • California's Treasures: Thornton, Colburn, Chapman and More
  • The Pacific Northwest and Beyond

Thornton, Colburn & More

Tommy the Trojan stands watch, statuesquely, over the University of Southern California campus. Jackie Burrell

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, UCSB, Berkeley, UCSD, Stanford, San Jose State, Cal State East Bay and so on - have terrific music programs, but if your favorite musician is looking for a real conservatory-within-a-university experience, be sure to check these out.

  • Thornton School of Music: The University of Southern California's Thornton School is one of the best conservatories in the country. The faculty hails from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other major music ensembles, its composition faculty includes Frank Ticheli, and its majors range from opera, jazz and early music to scoring for television and motion pictures. (No surprise there. USC's film school is renowned too.) 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 here 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, and instrumental 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+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 and Beyond

Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, boasts 20 performing ensembles, a dedicated bachelor of music degree, and a jazz improvisation major. iStock Photo

California isn't the only western state with fine music programs. Classical and jazz musicians will want to check out these possibilities too:

Washington's Music Schools

Puget Sound and cosmopolitan Seattle aren't the only things the state of Washington has going for it. It's 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 Sound in nearby Tacoma. It's a small, private, liberal arts university with a terrific music program. And U-Dub, the University of Washington, Seattle offers all the academic and athletic amenities of an enormous university including a fine music department.

Oregon's Music Scene

Any large state university is going to have a good music department - and Oregon, of course, has two, the University of Oregon and Oregon State. But the school that 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 include  a major in improvisation.

Three More Musical Gems

Sure, Reno has casinos, but the University of Nevada's bigger claim to fame is its jazz program, which includes the annual Reno Jazz Festival. 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. And the University of South Dakota is not only home to a newly renovated performance hall, complete with pipe organ, but also the National Music Museum, a 20,000-sq. ft. facility with nine galleries devoted to the history of musical instruments, including displays of more than 15,000 esoteric instruments from every country and culture.

(And if you're looking far, far beyond, be sure to check out the East Coast's conservatories, as well as its excellent university music programs too, and don't forget to take a peek in the Midwest too.)