The University of Iowa was established in 1847 as Iowa’s first public institution of higher education. Iowa was the first university in the U.S. to accept creative work in theatre, writing, music, and art as theses for advanced degrees.

The School of Music started in 1906, but it originally had no departmental status. By 1912 the School of Music was like an affiliated conservatory of music under the supervision of the Dean of Liberal Arts; students paid fees for their instruction rather than tuition. Nevertheless, a degree in music was offered and Gustav Schoettle was named head of musical instruction. When P.G. Clapp arrived to head the School of Music in 1919, he was charged with reorganizing the school into a regular department and administering the staff of eight teachers. By 1921, music had become a full-fledged department in the College of Liberal Arts, all music courses had gained full academic recognition, large performing ensembles had been developed, and graduate study had been established as central to the mission of the School of Music. Clapp also developed a music contest and a summer music camp to encourage the development of music in the state of Iowa.
When Clapp arrived in 1919, the School of Music was housed in three buildings located on the corner of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue. As large ensembles were established, other university buildings were used for rehearsals, and rooms in various houses were used as practice rooms. In 1932, the music department moved into new quarters: a refurbished former isolation hospital with a new adjoining rehearsal building. Because this complex was never large enough, various other buildings and houses were appropriated by music through the years.
Himie Voxman succeeded Clapp as director of the School of Music in 1954, serving in this capacity until 1980. Voxman's contributions to music education, pedagogy, and wind instrument repertoire were nationally recognized during his tenure as director, and continue to the present time. Voxman oversaw the opening of a new music building in 1971; its 700-seat recital hall was named in honor of Clapp. During Voxman's tenure, the school was awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation for the formation of a Center for New Music. This center continues to attract internationally known composers to the campus for residencies, workshops, and concerts, and many talented student composers and performers have been featured in its concerts.
In 2016, the university, with critical support from the federal government, the State of Iowa, and many generous donors, completed the School of Music's home, the Voxman Music Building, located at the corner of Clinton and Burlington Streets (the 1971 building had been destroyed by a flood in 2008). Featuring dynamic learning spaces and breathtaking stages for the School of Music's 350-plus yearly public performances and presentations, Voxman Music Building is optimized to support creative and scholarly work, with acoustically ideal performance and practice spaces, as well as the Rita Benton Music Library. The 190,000 square-foot space includes a 700-seat concert hall, 200-seat recital hall, organ performance hall, opera and chamber music rehearsal spaces, faculty studios, classrooms, practice rooms, electronic music and recording studios, and a student commons. The building features the latest instructional and recording technology.
The School of Music was headed by Marilyn Somville from 1980 to 1990. John Hill served as interim director from 1990-1991, and David Nelson served as director from 1991 to 2000. Kristin Thelander was director of the School of Music from 2000-2008. David Nelson returned to lead the School of Music from 2008-2009 and was succeeded by David Gier, who served from 2009-2018. Benjamin Coelho served as the interim director of the School of Music for the 2018-2019 academic year. The current director of the School is Tammie Walker.