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Best Ivies and Liberal arts colleges for music (composition)?

JuvenilemeJuvenileme 2 replies2 postsRegistered User New Member
Hi everyone,
I'm interested in doing music composition at the undergrad level and I'm wondering how the Ivies fare in this regard. I've heard and read from other similar posts that many of the Ivies - Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc - have great music programs (albeit not in performance, just in more theoretical areas) and attract many great musicians as well.

As someone with limited performing experience but with a strong interest in composition, I feel that a B.A. would be best suited for me. I was wondering which of the Ivies have the better composition programs? I'm also open to suggestions to other strong liberal-arts style universities with good comp programs as well.

(P.S. I'm aware that there is another thread on Music composition in the Ivies, but that was 10 years ago, so I thought it might be outdated. )
edited August 11
12 replies
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Replies to: Best Ivies and Liberal arts colleges for music (composition)?

  • merc81merc81 10170 replies152 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited August 11
    As with other areas of studies within a liberal arts environment, you will be encouraged to develop your general education and interest in composition through a range of courses across various disciplines and topics, both within and outside of your major. Based on what you have indicated, it seems you'd be interested in strong general music programs, with an emphasis on those with sufficient courses in composition for you to create your own "track" in this area.

    Among the Ivies, look into Harvard and Yale in particular.

    For smaller college choices, research the theory and composition offerings at Skidmore, Wesleyan, Smith, Hamilton, Kenyon.
    edited August 11
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  • tk21769tk21769 10623 replies27 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    The NRC 1995 pecking order was:
    HYPPCCB (H Y Pr Pe Col=Cor B)
    The more recent NRC/Chronicle "R-Rank High" order:
    HPYPCBC (H Pr=Y Pe Col B Cor)
    Other high rankers include:
    Berkeley, Brandeis, Chicago, Michigan, Northwestern, NYU, Rochester, Stanford

    These are graduate program rankings but may be relevant to UG program quality
    (although they do not cover LACs.)
    They are not specific to composition.

    If you put any credence in rankings like these, it would appear that (a) HYP have had staying power as some of the strongest programs; (b) most of the other Ivies also have been strong for decades, but not necessarily more so than programs at a bunch of other top private and public universities. Northwestern for example is especially strong in composition according to one assessment I've seen. Chicago, Northwestern, and Stanford are roughly as generous with need-based aid as the Ivies. Indiana may have stronger music programs than almost any of these private schools (with lower sticker prices to boot). Many other colleges seem to have pockets of excellence in choral music, world music (ethnomusicology), music education, etc. (probably including composition).




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  • compmomcompmom 10628 replies76 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    First, I suggest you go to the music forum and post this. Also read "The Double Degree Dilemma" essay that is posted near the top of that forum.

    You can do a BA with a general music major, without a listed major in composition, if you so choose, and still develop enough to get into a top grad school for composition. In fact, you can even major (at Harvard, "concentrate") in something else entirely, take lessons, have pieces played, do summer programs, and still get into grad school for composition.

    You can also double major, major/minor or do a double degree. Harvard and Tufts have double degrees with NEC (for Harvard it is a BA/MM), and Yale has a fairly recent double degree with its own School of Music. Princeton has an exchange with the Royal Academy (I believe- check). Brown actually has a composition strand to the music major (along with MEM/technology and ethnomusicology). Columbia also has an excellent program.


    Look at Oberlin's BA and Bard's programs as well, though you should, for the most part, avoid schools with conservatories/BM programs in case the best teachers and opportunities go to BM students.

    Check how undergrad pieces are played. At Harvard, students have their own association/collective and hire an outside group once a year, and use Harvard musicians for other concerts. There are indeed excellent musicians at all these schools, especially those with double degree programs I think.

    I would include Tufts, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, Williams, Amherst.....

    One thing to think about: Brown and Amherst, maybe others, have freer curricula without gen eds which can appeal to some.

    Make sure to choose schools with the usual criteria, such as cost, size, location, and "vibe."

    I'll PM you.


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  • JuvenilemeJuvenileme 2 replies2 postsRegistered User New Member
    Hello everyone, thank you for your replies!
    The general consensus seems to be that Harvard and Yale have the best programs, although several other public universities and LACs have programs that are equally, if not more, well-known than the Ivies.
    Thanks for the various suggestions!
    compmom wrote: »
    Look at Oberlin's BA and Bard's programs as well, though you should, for the most part, avoid schools with conservatories/BM programs in case the best teachers and opportunities go to BM students.

    I'ma little conflicted with regards to this to be honest. I would prefer the freedom of exploration that comes with a B.A., but for many schools, the B.M. seems to come with many more advantages too - a richer offering of music electives, opportunities to have student works performed, writing commissions, etc. At this point I'm open to either. B.M seems largely the "richer" degree, if you will - but I'm not sure if I have the stamina to dedicate that much sustained commitment to music for four years - I'm worried I may burn out.

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  • brantlybrantly 3875 replies67 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    tk21769 wrote: »
    The NRC 1995 pecking order was:
    HYPPCCB (H Y Pr Pe Col=Cor B)
    The more recent NRC/Chronicle "R-Rank High" order:
    HPYPCBC (H Pr=Y Pe Col B Cor)
    Can you please spell this out? I googled NRC and all I got was Nuclear Regulatory Commission, New Roberto Clemente music school [NRC + Music], and Northern Regional College [NRC + College].
    Also, I get Harvard, Yale Princeton, and Berkeley. What are:
    Pe
    Col=Cor
    What is "R-Rank High"?


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  • merc81merc81 10170 replies152 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited August 13
    Regarding your prospects with a B.A. from an LAC, note that composer and Pulitzer Prize winner (Music) Melinda Wagner received her B.A. from Hamilton. For context, even some conservatories, as far as I know, have not produced a Pulitzer winner.
    edited August 13
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  • SpiritManagerSpiritManager 2804 replies66 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Most of these replies are very general (except for @compmom's) - in that they don't know about the composition departments for undergrads at the schools mentioned. This is very important for music composition at the Ivies referenced - most of them are almost entirely focused on their grad students, and it's rare for the elite composition faculty to teach any of the undergrad courses or take any students for private study. Rare, but there are always exceptions if the student is exceptional.

    At Yale, the composition professors are completely separate from the Yale School of Music professors. Although some of the classes in Yale College will be taught by grad students from the School of Music. Yale College has an entirely separate music department from Yale School of Music. Grad students teach music courses at Columbia, as well - as they do in most universities with grad programs.

    You should be posting on the Music Major forum where there are knowledgeable posters who will share with you what they know. There are many past threads on there regarding music composition for undergrads. Some of the recommendations will depend on your particular musical interests - as the focus may vary from school to school. For instance, Harvard's department has a very different aesthetic than Princeton. Some are more interested in electroacoustic music, and the majority will be Eurocentric in their aesthetic focus, with Princeton the outlier. And maybe Brown.

    You mention Yale and Harvard - very different composition departments. You need to research the professors, the curriculum requirements, and the courses offered. And the general aesthetic of the department.

    In the past, always we've always recommended for undergrad music comp BA versus BM - Bard, Williams, Holy Cross, Brandeis, Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vassar. For larger schools - some of the strongest composition departments will require a BM such as USC, Michigan, Indiana, or Northwestern. (Note that Bard offers both a BA in the College and a BM in the Conservatory - and they're quite equal in opportunities, and have the same professors. But the Conservatory requires a five year Double Degree with a BA in a different subject, while one can do a four year single or double major in the College.)
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  • tk21769tk21769 10623 replies27 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited August 13
    Can you please spell this out? I googled NRC and all I got was Nuclear Regulatory Commission, New Roberto Clemente music school [NRC + Music], and Northern Regional College [NRC + College].

    "NRC" in this context means "National Research Council".
    Go here:
    https://www.chronicle.com/article/NRC-Rankings-Overview-Music/124746
    Again, these are graduate program rankings (which may or may not be relevant to your needs) .

    There are 8 Ivy League colleges. Pe = Penn (University of PEnnsylvania, not Princeton). Co = COlumbia, Cor = Cornell, etc.
    edited August 13
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  • circuitridercircuitrider 3290 replies165 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    ^Respectfully, in the future, could we *please* minimize the necessity for secret de-coder rings by spelling out or maybe adopting the occasional college or university nickname ("Swat", "Wes", "Penn", etc.), if brevity is important. Even use of the acronym, HYP is pushing the envelope as far as I am concerned.
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  • compmomcompmom 10628 replies76 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited August 16
    Again I strongly recommend that you, @Juvenileme, read the essay entitled "Double Degree Dilemma" on the music major forum. It is about the different ways to study music as an undergrad. You do not NEED a conservatory for undergrad composition. However, you may WANT one.

    You stated an interest in psychology and a desire not to be narrowly focused on music. If you want to be immersed in music (BM's are 2/3-3/4 music classes and BA's are 1/4- 1/3 music classes) then apply to conservatories, freestanding or schools of music within universities. You can apply to both options and decide later.


    BM admissions will require a portfolio of 3-4 works, preferably recorded live though some MIDI may be allowed. You may or may not have to do an audition. For a BA you would do a music supplement with a recording (maybe cued to the best 3 minutes of your best piece), a resume and music letters of recommendation.


    I would still suggest Brown for its flexibility and the fact that they actually have a composition strand in the major. Williams, Tufts and Amherst as well. Vassar, Clark U., Sarah Lawrence too.


    There is an argument that undergrad should be foundational. You can decide how much cultural history, art history, poetry and literature, will inform your future composing and whether you need to study these things in addition to the usual music theory, history, ethnomusicology, composition and technology.


    Be aware that you really cannot tell a whole lot from websites or even visits. It is frustrating. Sit down with the music dept. rep. at some point. Ask how undergrads get pieces played. Ask if there are lessons or small tutorials. Ask who plays the music. Etc.


    And read that essay!!!!!
    edited August 16
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  • circuitridercircuitrider 3290 replies165 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    edited August 16
    Music majors design their own programs of study in consultation with an advisor.

    https://catalog.wesleyan.edu/departments/musc/
    edited August 16
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  • compmomcompmom 10628 replies76 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Wesleyan is especially good with ethnomusicology/world music. Many of the schools, including Harvard, have moved toward a more diverse music curriculum (as opposed to the traditional theory-heavy Western classical one) including Harvard. You really have to dig into the details for each school and also visit.
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