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Explainers: What’s the best UK music course for me?

(Image credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Berklee)

Wherever you are in the world, identifying the best music course for you can feel like an overwhelming task. Ultimately, it’s a question of selecting the course that you feel best matches your unique requirements and priorities as a musician. 

In the UK, prospective students face a choice of universities, further education colleges, private institutes and specialist conservatoires. 

The US has a similarly broad choice of schools to consider, each with their own unique environments, faculty selection, qualifications and course designs to weigh up.  

The number one question: is any course right for me?

A good course can provide the tools and frameworks to build a career, improve your technique, expand your musical knowledge, explain the inner-workings of the music industry, or at least a part of it, and provide a wide variety of networking opportunities. However, there will always be limitations in how precisely a course’s content applies to you as an individual. 

What’s more, they all require an attitude of positive engagement to get the best of out of them. Ask yourself, seriously, if you are willing to make the commitment to attend your sessions, take action based on the knowledge you acquire, make connections, go to the masterclasses, etc. 

Be wary about falling into a course for lack of a better option. Outside of the classical world, it is perfectly acceptable to avoid a course all together, work a shift, take every gig you’re offered and learn on the job. A music course is not a short-cut to a career, nor are you buying a qualification. It’s better to think of it as an accelerator – but you’ve got to be willing to pedal!

Ask yourself, seriously, if you are willing to make the commitment to attend your sessions, take action based on the knowledge you acquire, make connections, go to the masterclasses

Qualifications

It’s worth understanding the type of qualification you will gain as it may affect both your choice of course and your career options further down the line – particularly if you pursue a career outside of the music industry.

Further Education (post-16)

In the UK, post-16 qualifications are split into academic and vocational routes. The latter takes the form of BTEC diploma courses, which focus more on 'job families', or sectors of an industry, whereas the more academic A-Levels allow you to study a selection of subjects (typically three). Studying music at A-Level may offer a better route to a university or conservatoire. 

If you want more information on Post-16 study, we recommend you read UCAS’ Which qualifications are right for me? document.

Higher Education (degree-level study)

Following your studies in further education, you can pursue a music degree at a university or alternative provider – typically a BA (Bachelor of Arts) or the specialist BMus (Bachelor of Music) – across three years. 

If that’s not for you, there is the HND (Higher National Diploma) option, which takes two years – equivalent to a foundation degree – and focuses on vocational study, meaning the emphasis is on gaining experience and completing coursework alongside industry placements. 

Although a degree is considered to be the ‘academic’ route, in practice the lines are more blurred and many degrees in creative subjects offer HND-like placements and a vocational focus.

Types of music schools

In the UK, those looking to study music outside of compulsory education have a range of options. 

Further education colleges

Not to be confused with the US-style college (which refers to a university). FE Colleges are often multi-disciplinary and offer a broad range of courses for those aged 16 or above. These are normally heavily subsidised by government funding and offer a mix of BTEC, A-Level and HND courses. 

One interesting addition here is the BRIT School, which is sponsored by the British Record Industry Trust and offers successful applicants performance-focused education. They have one intake for students aged 14-16 and another Post 16 intake for those  aged 16-18. Places are in high demand, though.

Pros: Subsidised by government, so many courses are free to those aged 16-18 years old. Entry requirements can be lower, which makes them a good access point to those new to music study.

Cons: Some courses/institutions will need private funding or student loan coverage, particularly for HND study.

Universities

Most of us are familiar with the concept of a university. These institutions represent some of the oldest and most venerable seats of learning in the world. However, they vary greatly in character, reputation and resources, so do your research. 

As with conservatoires below, they have a fustier reputation among contemporary musicians, but many offer excellent music degrees. A Music BA at a prestigious university may prove a good choice for those who take music seriously but also want the option of alternative career paths.

Pros: Prestige. Usually have excellent facilities (if you pick the right one). Established management and infrastructure. Wide range of other courses (and diversity of students). Easy to fund with student loan.

Cons: Degree courses and the associated costs of living are expensive, though don’t be deterred by the prospect of student loans, which are more of an income-linked tax payable after graduation. Not always the best choice for those studying contemporary styles such as rock, pop or hip-hop. 

Conservatoires

These are specialist performance schools offering a mix of undergraduate degrees and post-graduate courses. They often have strong links with orchestras and are perhaps best suited to those with strong theory knowledge and/or virtuosic players. However, there are an increasing number of offering popular music courses. 

Well-known conservatoires in the UK include The Royal Academy of Music, Guild Hall School of Music and Royal Northern College of Music. 

In the US, there are institutions such as the Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music. The latter has arguably updated the conservatoire model for contemporary musicians. It does not label itself as a conservatoire as such, but has much in common with them in terms of rigour and reputation. 

Pros: Highly specialised. Many are world-renowned. Respected route into industry. Challenging courses.

Cons: Challenging courses! Entry will often require an audition and theory test. Small range of courses (and student interests).

Rock schools and alternative providers

In the past few decades, there has been a boom in privately-owned music education colleges, which have emerged in response to a rising demand for courses in pop and rock. Many of these offer a broad range of contemporary music courses, typically including songwriting, performance, production and professional musicianship courses, alongside subjects such as music business and management. 

In the UK and Europe, the largest provider is British and Irish Modern Music (BIMM), while the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), established by Sir Paul McCartney, is perhaps the most prestigious. There are also the likes of the Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM), Access 2 Music, the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP), and the production/DJ-focused Point Blank to consider. 

Pros: Tutors are often active in the music industry. Contemporary focus and environment. Many courses have low entry requirements. Fees can be lower than university courses.

Cons: Low entry requirements can impact class environments and the sense of challenge. Often don’t have the resources of a university or conservatoire. Student loan might not cover full cost of fees at some institutions. 

How do I pick?

Start by considering the level of study and type of education you feel best suits your needs. 

Few of us have a defined plan for our career, but it might help to ask yourself some questions: 

  • What qualification, if any, best aligns with your aspirations?
  • How much do you want to be pushed or challenged as a musician?
  • How much time and money do you want to dedicate to this?
  • How important is it to you to have other career options?
  • What kind of music would you like to study?

When you have an idea of the type of course and provider that will suit your needs, start to research online. In the UK, there are some key quality indicators to consider particularly when it comes to conservatoires, universities and private institutions. 

First is student satisfaction, the National Student Satisfaction Survey reports on this yearly, using feedback from the most recent group of graduating students. Websites such as UniStats offer easy access to this information – simply search the name of institute or browse by subject. 

The second consideration is the Teaching Excellence Framework rating. This is a government-backed scheme that indicates the quality of the teaching you might expect to find, ranked from bronze to gold. It is a voluntary scheme so any indicator is generally a good sign.

WhatUni is also a good resource for course and institute reviews, as are the national papers’ league tables, such as those produced by the Times and The Guardian, and Which? University. As with any consumer-generated review, take the very worst write-ups with a pinch of salt – some individuals will have axes to grind! Still, they can be useful in helping you to narrow down your shortlist.

Finally, the best thing you can do to help you decide on a music course is to visit your short-listed institutions and meet the teaching staff. This will give you an opportunity to see the facilities first-hand and get a sense of the location. This is the time to ask any questions you have about the course content and get an answer from those who will be leading your classes.

Once you’ve done your research, made a shortlist, visited several locations and spoken to those involved in the courses, it’s decision time. Trust your gut and go with the place, people and course that feels right to you. Good luck!