Best options for non-conservatory music study

My rising senior son is a musician. He plays piano, guitar, sings (school jazz choir and leading roles in musical theater), composes (solo piano) and writes (folkie singer/songwriter music). He is also incredibly strong in music theory. Music is his life and that is what he wants to pursue in college and beyond.

The issue is that he does not fit the conservatory mode. He has a number of years of training in jazz piano and is self taught on guitar. But, while quite good at both, neither instrument would be at the level for admisison into a conservatory. He is an excellent singer, but doesn’t want to pursue a vocal major. Moreover, he also wants to take a plethora of classes outside of music (creative writing and theology are of particular interest), so a BM is not for him. It is for this reason that Berklee is not under consideration although he is actually going to their five week program this summer.

In an earlier post, I asked for feedback on music production programs. While still interested in that, we are now looking a little more broadly. Where can an all around good musician go to study music outside of conservatory where the music major is not a strictly academic major (i.e., has some performance and composition options)? His acadmics are good but not at the top of the class (probably top 30%) and, while not done with his testing, indications are that his SAT scores will probably end up at or near 1400.

Our current short list incluces Oberlin (Musical Studies major), Lawrence (BA or Bachelor of Musical Arts in Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation), Bard (Electronic Music), Connecticut College (Music, Sound & Technology) and Occidental (Music with Music Production concentration). The first three are obviously conservatory adjacent. One concern there would be whether a student studying music in the college vs. the conservatory would feel like an outsider to the music scene. On the other hand, my son wants to be around great musicians, which is why that setup is appealing.

Thoughts on the schools on our list? Recommendations on other schools to potentially add to our list would also be welcome. Thanks!

So you would interpret conservatory not just as the school’s that specialize in music (Juilliard, Curtis, Manhattan, UArts, Berklee, etc.), but also colleges that have broader non-music studies but have music programs that still require specific auditions for admission? Just trying to level set.

Interesting question. By conservatory I mean a school dedicated to the study of music where you audition in and pursue a BM degree. He is open to auditioning into a program as long as it’s not classical since he has no classical training or a full on jazz studies program. He did study jazz for a number of years, so he wouldn’t mind taking jazz classes, which is why the BMA in Jazz and Improvisational Music at Lawrence University is a possibility. Jazz is a component of the major but far less so than a jazz studies major.

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I would take a look at Loyola University in New Orleans. It offers an array of musical majors including:

  • B.S. in Hip Hop and R&B
  • Instrumental Performance
  • Jazz Studies
  • Music Composition
  • Music Education
  • Music Industry Studies
  • Music Performance
  • Music Therapy
  • B.A. in Music
  • Popular and Commercial Music
  • Vocal Performance

I don’t think the majority of those majors require auditions, but you would obviously need to check that out yourself. But, Loyola is a full college, including offering a major in religion (with concentrations in Christianity or World Religions) and in English with a concentration in writing (writing fiction, playwriting, and creative nonfiction).


Bard College sounds perfect for your son. Not sure about the electronic music path, particularly - as that is often more for experimental electroacoustic music, rather than production (such as TIMARA at Oberlin.) But I don’t believe he would need to choose a particular focus for the BA in Music - at least not initially, and he could do composition, jazz, production, guitar, play in ensembles, and take phenomenal music theory classes and analysis. It’s a terrific department that caters to all tastes, with fabulous professors. And there would be nothing limiting about it not being in the conservatory.


St. Olaf


William Patterson University in New Jersey (particularly due to jazz emphasis).

The word “conservatory” means different things to different people. Some use it only for freestanding conservatories. Honestly, BM programs at schools of music at universities have similar programs.

In addition to the usual suspects suggested above- and I agree you need to check and see if the best teachers, performances and resource go to the BM students)- I think he can consider many liberal arts colleges that do NOT have a BM program.

Many schools fund and give credit for lessons (some provide teachers, some don’t) and for certain performances that are extracurricular. Many “academic” music majors do have performance components and they always have composition (the definition of which is changing at some places).

He can go in as undecided and try some other areas of study, and consider doing music as an extracurricular.

Harvard began to emphasize “applied arts” about a decade ago, and also diversified the curriculum. Wesleyan always has had diversity in the curriculum. Rather than be “siloed” for one instrument or composition, I think a liberal arts BA in music or a BA or BS in something else entirely- with adequate EC music and electives- might fit the bill.

Look at the curriculum and course descriptions at various LAC’s. Start with “little Ivies” (Tufts, Williams, Wesleyan, Amerst etc.) and also look at the schools on the Colleges that Change Lives site.

Oberlin Musical Studies is a great option. Other schools may have a “low wall” between college and conservatory but you do need to make sure he won’t feel like he stands “Outside” of music w/the BM students. I know a composer who did science at Bard and went on to PhD program in music, Check flexibility and resources for non-BM students at Lawrence, St. Olaf, College of Wooster, Ithaca, and others. But I think a liberal arts school might be a good fit.

Thanks for the feedback. I agree that a liberal arts school is likely the best fit. The “little ivies” you mention are likely punching above his weight grade and score wise, so we need options that are outside the top 20 ranked liberal arts school. He will have just about a 4.0 weighted, probably a 3.7 unweighted. In our school district, which is very competitive, that will keep him out of the running for Williams, Amherst, Tufts, etc… I think that Oberlin is likely right on the money for him, but admissions being what they are, we need other options. . . .

Thanks for your response. Bard does sound great and less than 2 hous from home! Can I ask how you know Bard? Did you/your child go?

Yes, my son graduated with a Double Degree in Classics and Music Composition way back in 2014! So some of my info is dated, but I’m still in touch with some of the faculty, whom I got to know well through my son, as well as through mutual friends. My son almost didn’t go the conservatory route, but he decided he wanted the double degree, and, as we suspected, there was additional merit money through the conservatory.
I recommend your son take a look at the past few semester course lists to get a feel for the academic side of Bard. There are so many intriguing courses. And great professors in all the fields of your son’s interests.

Check out the list of schools here
Colleges That Change Lives – Changing Lives. One Student At A Time. (

But he has a great list so far:

Our current short list includes Oberlin (Musical Studies major), Lawrence (BA or Bachelor of Musical Arts in Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation), Bard (Electronic Music), Connecticut College (Music, Sound & Technology) and Occidental (Music with Music Production concentration).

Ct College is one of the “little Ivies.”

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I second Loyola New Orleans. My son just finished his first year in the Popular and Commercial music major. His stats were almost identical to your son’s numbers. His classes included piano and guitar lessons as well as an ensemble group, music theory, and music industry classes. He also took philosophy, literature, and biology.

The city so has many accessible opportunities very close by. For example, he worked as a stage hand for Jazzfest this spring and a number of teachers and students performed on various stages. His job had him setting up and breaking down equipment for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Buffett, the Who… He was shocked to find himself standing backstage a couple of feet from David Grohl. The opportunities are so right there for students in New Orleans.


Wow, that sounds great! Thanks for the feedback. We’ll check it out.

Just catching this thread. I had a somewhat similar student in that he was just very multi interested. He had a big classical piano background and easily could have auditioned for those programs (absolutely zero interest in that path), did a ton of MT, took voice, took some guitar. Did some composition in high school. He was an academic very high flyer, but high end privates do not work for our budget.

But I wanted to say he has found a shockingly great fit with a very flexible music teacher in a big ten University. He is also a double degree student. He is doing a VP program but his primary music outlet on campus is with a touring variety show (singers/dancers, live band, business and leadership internships, broadway production team, etc). Anyway, I just wanted to throw that out there to maybe dig deep into some of your bigger school options that may be financial/academic safeties to see if there may be outlets that may fit the bill either curricular or extracurricar. We assumed this kid would end up at an LAC but this has actually given him better opportunities than he would have likely gotten on a little campus and they unexpectedly threw a bunch of music money his way as well. Always good to keep undergrad affordable, a lot of music and music adjacent students end up in grad school.

Good luck!


It seems his big ten university has a BM program, where he is doing a double degree. There are also LAC’s that offer a BM and a double degree program. And LAC’s that don’t offer a BM but have an excellent music curriculum, lessons and extracurriculars. I just don’t want folks to get the impression that the best option is a big university, for everyone. It sounds like your son found a great fit.


Oh, well I’m definitely not trying to say the best fit for everyone is large at all and sorry I wasn’t specific enough on degree options. I’m just saying it has been more flexible and right for my kid than I imagined and it pays to do your homework. We initially picked it for dual degree options, 2nd major strength, and affordably. But we now realize it has offered him more musical flexibility and exposure to a wider skill set than expected. He has a paid music based internship this year.

His University offers BA, BS, and BM music options so lots of options there and jazz/comp paths. Many students doing mixed paths and multi interested. My kid is actually doing the BS (he switched away from the BM for various reasons), but because his other degree is in another college and unrelated it is still considered dual degree at his school.

I also wanted to mention some of the students in his favored touring performance group are not music majors at all. Some have unrelated majors, some are theater majors, some are business majors that do a music business internship that want the music/peformance training, etc. There are lots of ways to carve out an eclectic music and academic education.

Just wanted to throw out another option the OP may not have considered. This option ended up being about half the price of Oberlin for us as it turned out. We were glad we applied to a range of options. We definitely initially imagined the best fit at an LAC for this student but we learned a lot through the application and audition process.


Interesting that he is doing a dual degree BS- and is the other degree a BA? Nice to know there are other dual degree options. Affordability is a priority for many of us!

It is also good to know that members of his touring performance group are not all music majors. That supports the idea of going to a non-BM school or not majoring in music and still doing lessons and extracurricular performance.

Thanks for your feedback. It is very enlightening. BTW, my oldest son just finished his junior year at USC. He started out with a BM in jazz studies, but became interested in CompSci, so switched to a BA in music and added CompSci so he is now a dual degree student as well.

But, getting back to the kid that prompted me to start this thread, we already saw Pitt and he felt that was too big. Indiana is on our radar as well. However, he has no interest in going to a school that is big on sports and Greek life which is why he thinks that a LAC may be the best fit.

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Music is not my area of expertise, so assess this info accordingly. But, based on the schools on your list, I think these might be some others you may want to investigate:

Holy Cross (MA): The music major includes coursework in theory & composition, history & cultural studies, performance studies, classical music and popular music, world music and jazz, and audio engineering and music technology. It does not appear as though an audition is required here, and the academic background of students is likely to be pretty similar to your son’s.

U. of New Haven (CT): Offers B.A.s in Music, Music Industry, and Music & Sound Recording along with a B.S. in Music Technology & Innovation. An audition does not appear to be necessary.

Shenandoah (VA): As they call their program a conservatory, I don’t know how you will feel, but this is also a regular college with majors in English, religion, etc. But there are majors offered in Collaborative Audio Arts, Composition, Contemporary Musicianship & Entrepreneur Development, Jazz Studies, Music Education, Music Performance, Music Production & Recording Technology, Music Therapy, Musical Theatre, Musical Theatre Accompaniment along with certificates in Church Music and Songwriting. Most of these require an audition, and others require a portfolio with an on-campus interview. I doubt they have the same level of performance expectations for a non-performance based major as a performance-based one, but I thought I would at least mention it.

Middle Tennessee State: Offers majors in Audio Production, Media Management, Recording Industry/Commercial Songwriting, Recording Industry/Music Business, a B.A. in Music, as well as other music degrees in Music Composition, Music Education (Instrumental), Music/Instrumental Performance, Music Industry, Vocal Music, and Voice Performance. I don’t think the first several require an audition.

Rowan (NJ): Offers majors in Jazz Studies, Music Composition, Music Education, Music Industry, Music Performance, Music Therapy, plus Musical Theater. All majors in the music school appear to require an audition, but they appear to separate the auditions for music performance & education majors from those who are doing music therapy, jazz studies, or music industry.

The bottom two are not small schools, but if you’re visiting IU… Plus, I don’t think either of these are big into Greek life or sports.