Top Colleges for Popular Music

Berklee College

In a 1967 hit song, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds rock band sang: 

So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?
Then listen now to what I say.
Just get an electric guitar,
Then take some time,
And learn how to play.
And with your hair swung right,
And your pants too tight,
It’s gonna be all right.

The song was a satirical oversimplification even when it was written. Today, those wanting to pursue a career in popular music can take a more systematic approach with the help of colleges and universities with outstanding contemporary music programs. 

Dr. David Lee Fish, a founding board member of the Association for Popular Music Education and director of Catawba College’s popular music program, points out an interesting statistic. While there are over 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in America, only about a dozen grant degrees in popular music studies. He adds that there are quite a few “pretenders” and suggests students keep two things in mind when assessing if a school has a true curriculum for contemporary music. 

“The first thing to consider is the types of ensembles it offers,” says Fish. “The second is whether they offer songwriting. Many schools say they have a commercial music program, but their ensembles are primarily jazz bands. As for the second point, it’s hard to make the case for a pop music program if there are no songwriting classes. Songwriting is central to popular music.”

Below, we will look at five institutions with celebrated popular music studies programs that do meet these two criteria. At the end of the post, we follow it up with a list of notable programs at other institutions. 

University of Southern California

The Thornton School of Music at USC has all-star faculty drawn from respected names in music. The overarching contemporary music program includes a range of areas for study in popular music, jazz, the music industry, music technology, musical theatre, popular music, screen scoring, and studio guitar. USC’s popular music department is within the Contemporary Music division. Founded by Christopher Sampson in 2009, it is chaired by composer, keyboardist, and four-time Grammy nominee Patrice Rushen.

USC’s popular music degree track embraces rock, R&B, pop, folk, Latin, and country styles. It emphasizes musical skills and the nuances of styles. Undergrads take classes in performance, songwriting and arranging, recording studio techniques, MIDI programming, music production, and entrepreneurship in addition to core courses in music theory, ear training, music history. Electives in contemporary music culture, film music, world music, and general education courses are also among degree requirements.

Located in Los Angeles, USC enjoys a roster of faculty who are veteran composers, performers, and producers with impressive credentials. Among them are guitarist Paul Jackson Jr., bassist Alphonso Johnson, drummer Will Kennedy, pop music violinist Ginny Luke, songwriter Andrea Stolpe, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Adriana Balic. The department strives to foster a creative and collaborative environment for students.

At the nexus of America’s music, movie, and TV industries, USC is near major concert venues, record industry headquarters, famous recording studios, and more. The proximity offers many extra-curricular learning experiences and employment opportunities. Admission to USC’s Thornton School of Music is competitive, with about a 20 percent acceptance rate. The popular music program has the reputation of being even more competitive. (For more information, visit https://music.usc.edu/departments/contemporary-music/.)

Belmont University

 In 1979, Belmont University’s College of Music and Performing Arts became the first in the nation to offer a Bachelor of Music degree in commercial music. The course of study includes commercial music, music technology, and performance, but also embraces traditional offerings in classical, church music, music education, and more.

The program is built on a foundation of classical music, jazz, and blues to inform student studies of contemporary forms. Those majoring in commercial music can choose from five areas of emphasis: performance, songwriting, composition and arranging, music business, and music technology.

Belmont actually fields a second college dedicated to various aspects of popular music. The second is the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. Founded in 2003, it bears the name of a legendary performer, songwriter, producer, and record company executive. The Curb College offers courses in songwriting, audio engineering, media production, music business, journalism, publishing, and more. Look inside its buildings, and you will find top-notch studios and technology.

Like USC, Belmont is in a musical hotspot with proximity to Nashville’s iconic Music Row. Many Belmont faculty members have had notable careers in the industry, and networking opportunities abound for students. Belmont has a high acceptance rate of 84 percent and prides itself on being the largest ecumenical Christian university in America. (Visit https://www.belmont.edu/cmpa/music/undergrad/index.html for further information.)

Berklee College of Music

The world’s largest institution for music studies is the combined Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory at Berklee. It ranks at or near the top of the list for best contemporary music colleges, with popular music being a key component in its expansive curriculum. Berklee grants undergraduate degrees in 12 majors and 30 principal instruments ranging from electric guitar, bass, and drums to orchestral instruments, banjo, electronic digital instruments, and more. For decades after its founding in 1945, Berklee was the only option for students to learn musical styles not taught at classical conservatories.

Berklee was the first school to offer studies in performance, composition and arranging for jazz musicians. Over the decades, it has burnished its outlier reputation by creating a very diverse curriculum. Berklee became the first institution in the nation to offer electric guitar as a principal instrument in 1962, a film scoring major in 1979, music synthesis studies in 1984, and songwriting in 1987. Further innovations included establishing an audio recording department (1977), music business major (1992), music therapy major (1996), hip-hop curriculum (1999), American roots music minor (2006), Africana musical studies (2006), video game scoring (2009), an institute for creative entrepreneurship (2014), and a popular music institute (2016).

 In 2016, Berklee merged with Boston Conservatory (founded in 1867), expanding its curriculum to include musical theater and dance as well as operatic and symphonic orchestra instruction. As a result, Berklee became a musical melting pot with a vibrant atmosphere and teaching in many musical genres and styles. Numerous Berklee students have gone on to noteworthy careers as pop and jazz performers, film composers, record company executives, hit songwriters, recording engineers, producers, and more. To date, its alumni have won a total of 310 Grammys in addition to many other industry awards. Berklee has a high acceptance rate of 54 percent. (Visit https://www.berklee.edu.)

University of Miami

The Frost School of Music at the University of Miami (Florida) offers an array of highly respected studies among its eight departments. In addition to instrumental and voice performance studies (which embrace classical music, opera, jazz, and popular styles), other departments focus on music education and therapy, theory and composition, studio music and jazz, musicology, and music media and industry. 

Frost’s Modern Artist Development and Entrepreneurship program (M.A.D.E.) is a comprehensive program for those seeking a BM in popular music and music business. The program’s approach allows students to tailor their studies for the career they envision. The school’s motto reflects this emphasis: “Build Yourself at Frost.” The M.A.D.E. program is designed for the business-minded musician; honing one’s musical craft is but one component needed for success in today’s music industry. The curriculum covers performance, writing, arranging and orchestration, musical directing, marketing and promotion, copyright and licensing, creating business plans, and more.

M.A.D.E. students who want to delve deeply into performing and songwriting can pursue a minor in the Bruce Hornsby Creative American Music program (C.A.M.), named for an iconic singer-songwriter and UM alumnus. C.A.M. is open to all Frost music majors by audition. 

The overarching mission of the M.A.D.E. program, as articulated on its website, is to “provide the highest level of preparation for qualified performers and creatives to thrive in all aspects of the contemporary music industry.” The Frost School has a moderate acceptance rate of 40%.  (Visit https://bulletin.miami.edu/undergraduate-academic-programs/music/music-media-industry/musicianship-artistry-development-entrepreneurship-bm/#textcontainer#text). 

New York University

Like Belmont, the study of popular music takes place within two areas within New York University (NYU). The Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, with its Music and Performing Arts Professions Department, offers an expansive curriculum. Areas of emphasis include instrumental performance studies for orchestral players (brass, woodwind, strings, and percussion) as well as vocal and jazz studies. NYU’s popular music track leads to a BM in Music Theory and Composition with a concentration in Contemporary Production and Songwriting. 

In addition to typical undergraduate music courses in aural comprehension, music history, music theory, and general keyboard skills, popular music majors study songwriting, music technology, music publishing, contemporary scoring, orchestration, and jazz arranging. Songwriters receive input from accomplished faculty members and songwriting professionals and collaborate with classmates as lyricists and composers. Liberal arts courses round out the degree. 

For high school students wanting an advanced look at its songwriting studies, NYU offers an intensive, two-week songwriting seminar each summer.  (Visit https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/programs/songwriting.)

T he Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music presents its own comprehensive program of study. It bears the name an NYU alumnus and distinguished music industry executive who signed such superstars as Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, and others. The institute’s mission is to equip students with the business and creative skills to become industry leaders in the art and commerce of recorded music. Among its many offerings are studies in entrepreneurship, analysis of the contributions of various popular music artists and movements, and such current issues as music streaming. (See https://tisch.nyu.edu/special-programs/courses-for-non-majors/clive-davis-institute-of-recorded-music.)

With a campus located in one of the world’s great cities—another music industry hub—and proximity to many cultural happenings, NYU is an excellent destination for those serious about a range of music careers. Acceptance into NYU is competitive at 16%.

Prepare for Your Next Step

The electric guitar and distinctive hairdo recommended by the Byrds may still have their place in rock stardom, but much has changed since 1967. Developing a multifaceted talent and gaining practical knowledge about the music industry at a college or university multiplies the options and increases the odds for developing a lasting career somewhere in the music business.

Additional Colleges and Universities with Strong Pop (Commercial) Music Programs

Catawba College (Salisbury, NC)

University of the Arts (Philadelphia, PA)

Los Angeles College of Music

Middle Tennessee State University

Fullerton College (Fullerton, CA)

Columbia College Chicago

The City College of New York  

Also, visit the Association for Popular Music Education website at www.popularmusiceducation.org.

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.