The school gets its name in honor of a $25 million gift by Flora L. Thornton in 1999. At the time, this was the largest donation to a school of music in the United States. In 2006, she donated an additional $5 million to support the facility needs of the school.
The USC Thornton School is noted for quality programs such as orchestral studies, opera, jazz, early music, composition, Film Scoring and Music Industry. Rolling Stone magazine named the music school as one of the top-five in the country.
A diverse school of music, Thornton is one of the few highly regarded music schools in the United States to offer a degree program in early music. Students of baroque, renaissance and medieval music (vocal or instrumental) may enroll in a specialized degree program in early music.
At the 2007 Grammy Awards, four alumni (out of six nominated) and four faculty members received awards, in addition to one faculty member receiving a special honor. At the 2009 Grammy Awards, faculty and alumni won six awards.
In 2009, the Thornton School was again a trailblazer in collegiate music when it became the first university to offer a major in popular music performance and songwriting alongside its already prestigious classical and jazz programs.
Thornton was one of the first universities to offer an undergraduate program in Music Industry, a program still regarded as among the best in the country, and currently offers a Master of Science in Music Industry program. Thornton offers the only comprehensive program in Scoring for Television and Film. It also has a unique program in studio guitar performance.
In 2017 USC Thornton launched new professional master degree programs in Arts Leadership, K-12 Contemporary Teaching Practice, and Community Music.
In 2018 USC Thornton announced a new model of classical music education for undergraduate Classical Performance and Composition students. Hallmarks of USC Thornton's redesigned curriculum includes restructured lessons, rehearsals, and classes to prepare students for a vibrant career in music.