By Steve Lipman, Former Director of Admissions at Berklee College of Music
Marshmello. Kygo. The Chainsmokers. Martin Garrix.
By way of the careers of these artists, recorded music at large has made some sometimes strange but also wonderfully creative turns that ultimately changed the way we understand composition, melody, and rhythm.
What these artists all have in common is a successful career creating electronic music that’s made its mark on popular music culture. Because of Kraftwerk’s iconic and epic “Autobahn” and the searing, acrobatic precision of Skrillex’s EDM bass drops, the sounds, hooks, and sensibilities of electronic music are now everywhere. And the new hitmakers – Marshmello, Kygo, and Martin Garrix – have picked up the torch and carried electronic music forward into new frontiers and to the top of the Hot 100 chart.
All one needs to do to see the impact of electronic music pioneers is look at the Hot 100 or the top trending tracks on Spotify: the majority are from a sub-genre of EDM or at least prominently feature electronic elements. Chart-topping pop music today is largely a blend of electronic and acoustic elements. Listen to any Katy Perry hit and you’ll hear sampled beats and synthesized melodies, and we have the above artists and many more to thank for that.
The mixing and mastering of electronic music has forged a new understanding of what music is supposed to sound like, from the texture-rich soundscapes made by heavyweights in the genre like Brian Eno, to the almost glittery and catchy hooks of modern bands like CHVRCHES.
Music schools are taking notice. All around the country, new programs are being tailored not only to emerging electronic music artists, but to artists in general seeking to elevate their sound with electronic elements while not being held down by the possibilities of standard, traditional instruments.
What that means for you is that not all electronic music programs focusing on composition, technical know-how (a near requirement for electronic musicians), and the music business are created equal. As with any popular subject of study, some music production programs do it better than others.
Plus, with the use of laptops and tablets as musical instruments in and of themselves, the power of what’s possible is becoming democratized and more widely available. This means almost anybody with the right tools (i.e., software packages) and training can start making noteworthy electronic music. You may in some ways call it a “music of the people.”
I’ve put together a list of what I believe are the best schools for electronic music production. It’s important to note that these course offerings are not only for the next Skrillex or Kygo – they are becoming a more important part of the arsenal of tools for all artists seeking to build a career in music as we move forward in the 21st century.
The schools included in the list – along with having some academic coursework exploring electronic music in their curriculum – also have incredible music production programs. This allows you to take what you learned in an academic environment and apply it to what is always the second step of creating music after playing it: producing it in a compelling way.
But before we dive into the list, let’s talk some history.
The path of electronic music’s ascendancy runs parallel to the development of computer technology. Starting as early as the late 19th century, Italian composers were beginning to use what might be considered the first synthesizers to create what – at the time – was considered non-musical sounds as they started navigating newly-developed technologies.
You may be shocked to know that one of the earliest instruments to be considered an actual synthesizer was developed in the late 1930’s by Soviet scientist Evgeny Murzin. From there, we were given the Hammond Organ and other mainstays that are still in use today.
By the mid-1950’s, composers and instrumentalists in Europe, the United States, and Japan were creating bonafide music with early synthesizers. This new music embodied the classic concepts of melody, harmony, and rhythm through sounds blended with various frequencies.
Along with all this, new understandings of harmony, melody, and rhythm began to develop. What was impossible just a few decades before was turning into a growing body of knowledge and music for what many considered a “future music.”
Electronic music at-large owes its existence to the synthesizer. As you may know, the word “synthesize” means to bring elements together into a new, unrecognizable whole. Instruments
we call “synthesizers” are those that blend different sound frequencies, creating new sounds with their own individual character.
From the world of tapes and giant, almost room-sized synthesizers, we find ourselves today in a post-electronic world. From the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, electronic music began taking center stage. Popular groups like New Order, the Human League, and more were selling millions of records, most of which were created using synthesizers and other types of electronic instruments.
Additionally, the introduction of the drum machine helped launch grassroots artistic movements such as rap and hip hop in the early 1980’s. These were simple instruments that have made reverberations throughout history – without them, we might not have artists like Jay-Z and Puff Daddy (Or Sean Combs, however you prefer it) who made the genre what it is today.
So, it’s easy to understand how much electronic music has impacted the sounds that we hear today. We almost can’t get away from it, except for the folkiest of acoustic stars taking the stage.
And, when you think that such instruments as the electric guitar, with magnetic pickups, are a direct result of the pursuit for creating electronic music, you can see that it really, truly, is everywhere.
Today, it’s impossible to escape the reach of electronic music in our everyday lives.
If you use keyboards, you’re making sounds that wouldn’t have been possible without the work of electronic music pioneers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Moog Synthesizer, one of the most iconic synthesizers in all of history, creates a range of tones that redefined the possibilities of sound.
The recording industry – and all the tools it uses – were developed in tandem with electronic music. Interfaces like Ableton Live, Logic Pro, and Garageband (all tools that are crucial for the modern electronic musician) owe their existence to the development of music technology.
Music production is largely a technical and electronic process, with computers helping us capture sounds, change them, and assemble them into compositions. Attempting to study this world in college puts you right in line to become the next sonic pioneer in a world that is constantly changing, and constantly bettering itself.
So, now that you know a bit about the history and impact of electronic music and sound design, here are the best places I believe one can study and succeed.
The Thornton School of Music is one of the best in the world, and for good reason. With incredibly deep and insightful courses, along with many opportunities to perform and branch into the world of music in Los Angeles and beyond, many students find success after attending Thornton.
In 2014, a course aptly called “Electronic Dance Music” was introduced into the curriculum. The course explores the history and cultural impacts of electronic dance music, from its earliest beginnings to the multimedia experience we know as EDM concerts today.
Additionally, their Music Technology degree program is highly sought out by anyone who wants to dive into the tech-driven world of electronic music. As a music production school, you’ll be well placed in one of the epicenters of the music world – Los Angeles – to take your first dives into the music industry after you’ve finished your studies.
Studying electronic music at the University of Michigan means being close to Detroit. What that means for you is getting to the center of the electronic music revolution in the United States.
The Detroit techno scene was the epicenter of a burgeoning body of artists that went on to change the world of music with synthesized tones and electronic beats. At the University of Michigan, you are face-to-face with this scene, and any electronic music student studying here should take full advantage of the venues and spaces available to them.
The University of Michigan’s music production and composition programs are some of the best in the country. The Brehm Technology Suite, a multimedia framework of facilities and programs utilizing the most up-to-date technology, allows any musical creative to incorporate the elements of electronic music into their sound in a truly immersive and enriching environment.
You can expect to dive deep into the creative community in and around Detroit and Ann Arbor. The university’s location is one of the best for people exploring electronic music, and armed with the academic prowess of the University of Michigan’s programs you’ll find a fulfilling course load that prepares you well for a career in electronic music.
Ensembles are how serious music students test their skills with faculty and peers. The Frost School has their own electronic music ensemble, which is partly why this school makes it on our list of the best electronic music production schools.
Along with your standard music theory and music performance courses, The Frost School also offers several courses exploring the many facets of electronic music. Digital Editing and Sequencing, History and Analysis of Electronic and Acousmatic Music, and several others all aim to impart to you the skills and context needed to move forward confidently in the world of electronic music.
With a complete music technology degree program, the Steinhardt School of Music explores all the facets of electronic music production and performance with their Bachelor of Music in Music Technology program. I would consider it one of the best schools for electronic music production.
What makes this school stand out is its Masters in Music, which aims to make its students into “tonmeisters,” those veritable geniuses of the technology and processes behind music production. This includes synthesizing sounds, recording, and wielding a complete command of traditional and non-traditional musical rules and practices.
Berklee’s Bachelor of Music in Electronic Production and Design is an incredible program for the person who is both a musician and a technologist.
You not only learn how to use and manipulate the latest – and classic – tools for electronic musicians. Along with a healthy concentration on music composition, there’s a focus on recording electronic music and performing electronic music live that truly sets you up for your next step – a real-world dive into a career in music.
Berklee also offers advanced courses in Ableton Live, a digital audio workstation that in many ways is becoming the gold standard for audio engineers – especially those working in electronic music. You’re also given access to their 27 state of the art recording studios where your new compositions come to life.
This Florida school is a contender on this list for its focus on the application and use of electronic music.
Courses in music for video games, digital audio workstations (DAW’s), and music in media help build fundamentals that any student can use toward building a career in electronic music. For any student that is considering creating music for film or video, Full Sail is a fine option, especially if you don’t necessarily have the instrumental or performance skills required to pass auditions at some of these other schools.
A note about Full Sail University: in my opinion, students who are looking for a truly “collegiate” experience might not appreciate this option. They offer a condensed version of the college experience, without the extra curriculars and group activities you might experience at a typical college or university.
These five schools are – in my opinion – the best places for anybody in high school who is considering studying music later in life.
The list is not put together in any particular order, and that’s because there really isn’t any such thing as a “best” school for anything.
What it comes down to is the individual character of the student who is applying. Perhaps the better question to ask yourself is this:
“What is the best music school for me?”
At Inside Music Schools, I make my over 40 years of experience working in admissions for Berklee – one of the most renowned schools for the study of music – available to you.
That means my job is to help you get accepted not to the “best” school, but the right school for you. It must be a place where someone of your temperament, work ethic, and interests will thrive.
Choosing the right music school for you means looking past what famous alumni are doing, because your path to success will always be different from guys like Skrillex.