The Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music is one of the oldest degree-granting music schools in the United States. Its beginning stretches back to 1873, when the Northwestern Female College and the Evanston College for Ladies incorporated into the Northwestern University Women's College. This new institution established the Conservatory of Music, and in 1891 Peter Christian Lutkin was named its director. In 1892, the division was renamed the Department of Music and three years later become the School of Music, with Lutkin as its first dean.

Lutkin's tenure was a period of substantial growth. A new music building was opened adjacent to the Women's Hall, the "Beehive" practice facility was constructed, and the first honorary Doctor of Music degree was awarded in 1915 to Frederick A. Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Pi Kappa Lambda, the national music honorary society, was founded in 1918, its name derived from the Greek equivalents of Lutkin's initials.

Lutkin was succeeded in 1928 by Carl Beecher who had earned the school's first bachelor's degree. (The second was awarded to Howard Hanson who went on to become the director of the Eastman School of Music.) John W. Beattie, professor of music education and a member of the faculty since 1925, was appointed the School's third dean in 1936 and during his administration the graduate program was expanded and the 400-seat Lutkin Hall built.

George Howerton, a Northwestern Ph.D. as well as a 20-year faculty member, became dean in 1951. Under his leadership the school established an opera program, began a series of celebrity master classes, and greatly increased the music library holdings. He was succeeded in 1971 by Thomas Miller, whose tenure was marked by sweeping revisions of the undergraduate curriculum, the opening of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in 1975, and the completion of the Regenstein Hall of Music two years later.

Bernard J. Dobroski became the school’s sixth dean in 1990. Highlights of his term were new initiatives in faculty and student recruitment, expansion of course offerings for nonmajors, and new community outreach programs, including the popular Kids Fare series.

The administration of the current dean, Toni-Marie Montgomery, began in 2003. Her leadership has brought the school an increased visibility through such initiatives as the Davee Media Library, an online collection of high-quality audio and video performances and master classes; Music from Northwestern, a radio series on WFMT-FM, showcasing performances by Bienen students and faculty; and an annual spring concert at Chicago's iconic Millennium Park. In 2008, the school was named for former Northwestern president Henry Bienen and his wife, Leigh, and an endowment was established. Construction began on a new, state-of-the-art building in June 2012, with a projected completion date of summer  2015. The new facility will consolidate all of the school's programs in one location for the first time in almost 40 years.Two prizes have also been established: the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition in 2004, and the $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance in 2005. In Fall 2011, after an 18-month process, the Bienen School unveiled a Strategic Plan designed to solidify its position as one of the nation's leading music institutions. 

The Bienen School of Music today has an enrollment of more than 620 undergraduate and graduate students and a world-renowned faculty of 125, including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other major ensembles. Students pursue degrees in performance and music studies as well as double degrees with the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Medill School of Journalism. Students may participate in 16 ensembles and have access to more than 400 concerts (including three professional series) presented annually by the school. Alumni of the Bienen School of Music hold positions as performers, administrators, and educators in America’s leading arts and educational institutions.

The Bienen School of Music is a founding member of the National Association of Schools of Music, which fully accredits all its degree programs.