Conservatory, University, or Liberal Arts College: Which Type of Music Institution Best Suits You?

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Among the primary considerations for those seeking to earn a music degree is determining the type and size of the school that will enable you to meet your goals. Depending on the major and genre of music you want to pursue, you’ll likely be choosing between a music conservatory, a small liberal arts college, or a large university. The academic opportunities and student experience are different at each type of music institution.

Today, music schools of all descriptions offer a broader range of majors and minors than in past decades. Even a classical conservatory like Juilliard now has a jazz program. Oberlin, another top music conservatory with classical and jazz bona fides, also offers courses in the recording arts and production. Small liberal arts colleges may serve up a mix of traditional classical, jazz, and popular studies as well as a concentration in music business. A large university offers a big academic tent in which the university’s school of music may have all of the above while residing alongside separate schools of business, engineering, law, medicine, and so forth.

Whats the Best Fit?

If you are wondering: “Should I study music at a university?”, the resources at large institutions—for example, the University of Southern California or New York University—are vast. The music schools within both offer degrees in performance, composition, music technology, screen scoring, music business, music education, and much more. Being located in Los Angeles, America’s entertainment capital, USC’s faculty members and visiting artists are among the most celebrated professionals in every quarter of the industry. NYU’s faculty is equally extraordinary, and the university is also located in an industry hotspot.

USC has more than 46,000 students and NYU, 58,000. At a university with a population approaching that of a mid-sized American town, living among a large cohort offers social interactions with those from other backgrounds, academic disciplines, and cultures. Additionally, USC, like the University of Michigan, is a division one school with top-notch athletic programs. This is a plus for those who want to play or those for whom attending huge sporting events or playing in a marching band is a desired part of the college experience.

Brian Head is associate dean for academic affairs at the Thornton School of Music at USC. “Here, undergraduates are immersed in a full college experience with courses that are very rich outside of your major,” he says. “You will be exposed to really smart, dynamic people in other fields among the students and faculty members. You get to see the world not only through the eyes of your music friends but your engineering and English major friends too. There are many opportunities to get involved in the academic life outside of music and there are lots of different clubs and activities.” One popular activity Head describes are the hackathons where students from all disciplines—including music—spend an entire weekend together coding and creating apps. “USC is also in a big city rather than tucked away in a remote place,” Head continues. “That’s great for students who want the opportunities a big city offers. We really lean into Los Angeles and our students can get rush tickets for the opera or shows and our campus is only 20 minutes away from the music clubs on Sunset Boulevard.”

Liberal Arts Option

For those who are more comfortable with a smaller student body and a campus with more of a small-town feeling, there are many liberal arts colleges with excellent programs and professors. Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, is a case in point. Dr. David Lee Fish is the founder and director of Catawba’s popular music program and formerly chaired the music department. “What we provide has been described as a boutique experience,” says Fish. “One illustration of that was a recent guest artist visit by a famous rock musician. He worked with only nine guitarists here. Our students got more of an intimate experience than they would have gotten at a big school. He said he had just come from a visit to a large music school where there were 1,200 guitarists.”

Catawba has a total student population of 1,300, 75 of whom are music majors. “Our department is a small community and the students look after one another,” says Fish. “It’s like an extended family. At a small institution like this, the students also get to know the faculty members well because they will take several courses from them. Another distinguishing factor of a liberal arts school is that you will earn a bachelor of arts degree. That means fewer hours in your major and more in general education courses. The liberal arts ethos is that we strive to educate the entire person. We’re not just training a musician, so our students have to take non-music classes seriously. I’m teaching songwriters and I want them to be able to write about more than love. At a school like this, they will be studying history, philosophy, the environment, and more.“

Many who choose a liberal arts college declare their major after arriving or may change majors altogether. “At Catawba, you can also blend studies,” says Fish. “We have business majors who take a minor in music business and study in our department. An important stat for Catawba is that over 90 percent of our music students stay to graduate from us.”

The Conservatory Experience

This author’s undergraduate music education took place at both Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory of Music. Both institutions are today considered top music conservatories. In the 1970s when I entered Berklee, there were only three majors: music education, performance, and composition and arranging, and the student population was about 1,000. Berklee’s student body has now grown to nearly 7,000 on all of its campuses and the number of majors has multiplied considerably.

I entered as an electric guitar performance major interested in popular music. At the time, Berklee was the only music institution where that instrument could be your principal instrument. Many schools have since followed suit. Berklee’s core curriculum was jazz-oriented then, but readily applicable to many musical styles. I learned much about playing and writing music, and formed relationships with classmates who went on to distinguished performing, recording, and composing careers. Such interpersonal connections are a celebrated part of the Berklee experience. I found, however, that as I grew musically I wanted to dive deeper into classical music. I transferred to New England Conservatory of Music and completed my bachelor of music degree in classical guitar performance.

At NEC, I was exposed to the rich history and traditions of classical music and met entirely different types of students and faculty members among a very small and tight community of focused musicians. NEC taught music theory with a different approach from Berklee’s, rounding out my musical persona.

Today, a student who changes directions wouldn’t need to transfer to another institution since Berklee merged with Boston Conservatory several years ago. Now students enrolled at Berklee can have a traditional conservatory experience studying classical performance, composition, conducting, dance, and musical theater, and also take courses in songwriting, music business, music production and engineering, music therapy, jazz composition, film and video game scoring, music technology, and much more.

Most musicians are quite driven, so at conservatories as well as universities and liberal arts colleges, you’ll find an energetic and competitive atmosphere that represents in microcosm what the greater music industry holds in store. Think seriously about your goals and the type of music career you are aiming for as well as a suitable learning environment. Determine which situation will be most comfortable and beneficial for your personal needs as you reach for your dreams.

Mark Small

Mark Small, classical guitarist, composer, and music journalist, has spent the majority of his life in New England. He has composed classical, jazz, pop, and sacred music for chorus, wind ensemble, orchestra, piano, and guitar. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in classical guitar performance from New England Conservatory and California State University, Fullerton. He also studied guitar and composition at Berklee College of Music, and served for 26 years as editor of Berklee today magazine until his retirement in 2018.

An active music journalist, Mark has written for Guitar Player, DownBeat, Acoustic Guitar, Soundboard, Classical Guitar, and other music publications.