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Public vs. Private vs. Conservatory

There are several types of post-secondary education available to musicians. The main forms of official education fall in two general categories: liberal arts universities, and conservatories. Universities can be further divided into public and private schools. They all have benefits and drawbacks, and with roughly 5300 schools in the US, there’s going to be one out there that fits your needs.


Overall, universities are focused on providing a diverse education and producing well-rounded liberal arts students. They may provide three different potential degrees – Bachelor of Arts in music, Bachelor of Music, and Bachelor of Science in music. Each of these has its own specialty.

Bachelor of Music: Focuses primarily on the musical aspect of the degree. A good rule of thumb is that two thirds of your overall credits will be in the music department, and one third in gen ed credits. This is the most similar to the education you would receive at a conservatory. The goal here is to be a good musician, with some extra backing in the liberal arts. It is very art-based.

Bachelor of Arts in music: Focuses primarily on receiving a liberal education, with music as a focus within that education. Here the spread is usually one third music to two thirds other classes. The goal is a well-rounded person, with a focus in music. If music is something you may not want as your entire career, or if you are thinking of going into music business or law, then a BA in music may be a better choice than a BM.

Bachelor of Science in music: Focuses in a specific subfield of music, one that is technical or related to business. Fields can include audiology, audio technology, recording, music education, music business, and others. Schools vary as to what will be a BS as opposed to a BM or BA. Essentially these degrees are for people who enjoy science or technically-based training.

Overall, universities provide a broader education. If you have doubts about whether you want to pursue performing as your career, then a University degree is likely better for you. It provides more flexibility to switch majors, as well as more flexibility within the degree itself when it comes to potential jobs.


Public universities, especially in state universities, are much cheaper than private universities, averaging between $12,000 and $13,000 a year to attend. This is because state and federal governments programs fund part of the university’s system. That means the tuition is not forced to cover the entire cost of running the school. Furthermore, state universities tend to be much larger than private universities, which means that they are usually more diverse and have more programs for students to participate in and use. There are also a greater number of classes offered, and professors available to teach you. In general, state universities simply have more of everything.

State universities, however, also make it much easier to fall between the cracks. When your university has anywhere from ten to fifty thousand students, if you are struggling, then it is less likely than at a smaller school that someone will notice. Some people like being just a face in the crowd, while others prefer to have more individualized attention during counseling and planning sessions. The goal is for you to find an atmosphere that makes you comfortable, and that you can also afford to attend.


Private universities, compared to state universities, are much more expensive. This is because they do not receive state funding. Without that funding, tuition is forced to make up much more of the overall cost of attendance. A private university can cost anywhere from$25,000 to $50,000 per year to attend, when room and board are included. Living on campus and paying the university for room and board is often mandatory at private universities.

General, private universities are much smaller than public universities. They often have a maximum of five or ten thousand students. This means that the school as a whole has fewer resources, facilities, and stuff. While the classes offered maybe more individualized, there are fewer offered, simply because there are fewer professors. As long as the school is well-run, there will be enough classes offered for people to complete their degrees, but scheduling may be harder, because fewer sections are offered of any one class. The benefit is that with fewer students, professor and advisors can give much more attention to each student they do have. This is why private universities boast about their low student-to-faculty ratio.

Some people enjoy having a familiarity with most people on their campus, while others find it off-putting to go to a university with the same number of people as attended their high school, or even fewer. Again, the point is to choose a school that fits you, not one that seems prestigious or one that your friends chose.


Conservatories are essentially prestigious trade schools for learning a musical act. They pride themselves on producing extremely skilled performers, composers, and occasionally educators. The overall education of a conservatory is almost entirely musical. While universities have a general education requirement, most conservatories require almost nothing. Some may require business classes, but there is no requirement surrounding, for example, sociology, or non-musical history. This makes conservatories ideal for people who know their goal is undoubtedly performance-based. However, it makes it much more difficult for people who intend to get further degrees or begin careers that are not performance-based. Without including classes that are usually found in University settings, employers and grad schools are less likely to consider a conservatory student to be a good fit for their organization.

Conservatories in general are very competitive places, even after people have been admitted. Since everyone there intends on performing to make a living, performance opportunities, master classes, and other potential opportunities for growth within the conservatory are very, very desirable. This means that the overall atmosphere can be at times tense, frustrating, or simply energizing, if you thrive under pressure. Some people prefer a more laid-back atmosphere, while others enjoy the challenge of getting ahead in a competitive environment.

So if you are certain that you want to perform, then a conservatory would probably be a great fit. However, if an atmosphere of stiff competition, and a lack of flexibility and future career options is a downside for you, then consider just getting a Bachelor of Music degree from a university instead. The goal is to choose an educational style that works best for you.

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