Music
String player at the Faculty of Music, Oxford.
(Image credit: Rob Judges Photography / Oxford University Images).

Music

Music can be studied from a wide variety of perspectives. We ‘study music’ by listening or by learning to perform a musical composition. We may also investigate, through analysis, the relationships between the various parts of the composition, or use documentary evidence to explore how reliable and authoritative a given score might be and how we might perform it in a historically sensitive manner. Historical studies, too, allow us to investigate the various uses of music – be it in 16th-century Rome, in Hollywood films, among the aboriginal peoples of Australia, or in some other context – and to understand better how our perception of a musical work (or repertory or style) has been shaped over time, and how it might differ from that of earlier ages or of different cultures. Although these and many other approaches, such as the more creative activities of performance and composition, might be singled out, they cannot so easily be kept separate if we are to study music musically.

Music at Oxford

Music has been part of the intellectual and cultural life of Oxford for more than eight centuries. Today, some dozen professors, readers and lecturers form the academic staff in the Faculty of Music, all of whom have internationally distinguished reputations as musicologists, performers or composers. Their work is complemented by that of many college Fellows and lecturers, bringing the total staff number to about 30. Numerous visiting speakers, and our close links with professional performing ensembles, including Phantasm and the University’s professional orchestra in residence, the Oxford Philomusica, add further richness and enjoyment to the experience of being a music student here.

The faculty offers performance and composition workshops, and many students play an active part in the life of college chapels, as either choral or organ scholars. The faculty building includes practice rooms for solo, chamber and orchestral work; there is an electronic music and recording studio; and the library holdings of scores, recordings, books and other research materials are probably the most extensive in the UK. The world-famous Bate Collection of Musical Instruments is also housed at the Faculty, and many of these historical instruments are available for use by students.

The Oxford course is broadly based without compromising the possibility of increasing specialisation in one or more areas as you proceed. Performance and performance-related studies are especially prominent, particularly among the options for Finals, while those wishing to concentrate on other areas such as history, analysis and stylistic or original composition can do so equally well. Combined with the rich opportunities for personal development which arise from the musical facilities and activities sustained throughout the University and the city, this course helps every student to graduate as a mature and well-rounded musician with an informed and lively sense of the contemporary study and practice of the subject.

Careers

Teaching, performance and arts administration are among the more popular destinations for Music graduates, but others include broadcasting, publishing, politics and the Civil Service. Those wishing to undertake further study in performance often win coveted places at conservatoires in the UK and abroad. Josephine, who graduated in 2005, is now an analyst for HSBC Private Bank. She says: ‘My Music degree developed core research skills which are essential to rigorous fundamental analysis, a high standard of written communication which is key to concise report writing, and stage presence which translates into confident public speaking.’

Deborah, who graduated in 2001, now works in a university library in London. She says: ‘Over the last 10 years I have worked as a librarian and research assistant. I went on to gain master’s degrees in both musicology and librarianship, and am working towards a PhD in music librarianship. I am currently responsible for cataloguing and classification at the library.’

Work placements/international opportunities

The Faculty of Music currently has a Socrates association with the University of Strasbourg and the University of Dresden.

A typical weekly timetable

Work is divided between lectures and classes in the Faculty of Music and college tutorials. There are between four and six lectures a week, depending on the chosen options, as well as classes and tutorials. In the final term there are generally fewer lectures and more time for independent study.

1st year

Courses

Six subjects are taken (one chosen from a list of options)

Compulsory:

  • Special topics
  • Musical analysis
  • Techniques of composition and keyboard skills

Options:

  • Issues in the study of music
  • Composition
  • Performance
  • Extended essay

Assessment

First University examinations: Three written papers and one ‘take-away’ paper, a practical examination and a recital/portfolio of compositions/essay

2nd and 3rd years

Courses

Eight subjects are taken (six chosen from a list of options)

Compulsory:

  • Topics in Music History before 1750

  • Topics in Music History after 1700

Optional topics studied (these vary from year to year and have recently included the following): Singing, music writing, and memory, c600–1100; Opera in Purcell’s England 1659–1705; The Keyboard Concerto, 1740–1830; Richard Wagner; From Tasso to Tapiola: the symphonic poem, c1850–1950; Beyond modernism: music since 1945; Musical analysis and criticism; Musical thought and scholarship; Techniques of composition; Solo performance; Orchestration; Dissertation; Composition portfolio; Edition with commentary; Analysis portfolio; Chamber music performance; Choral conducting; Choral performance. Special Topic papers (these may vary from year to year and have recently included the following): Choral studies; The music of Guillaume de Machaut; Ethnomusicology and the urban encounter; Film music; Handel’s operas and oratorios in context; Music in the Iberian world, 1480–1650; Psychological perspectives on performance; 1966 and all that: The Beatles and popular music culture; Before silence and after: experimental music

Assessment

Final University examinations:
Three or more written papers and a combination of ‘take-away’ papers, portfolio submissions, recitals and practical tests, depending on the options chosen

Candidates are expected to have Music to A-level, Advanced Higher, or Higher Level in the IB or another equivalent. Keyboard ability of ABRSM Grade V or above is also highly recommended.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in how to apply. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Written work

You will need to submit written work by 10 November 2014 when applying for this course. Please send in two copies of the following:

  • Two pieces of teacher-marked written work, at least one of which should normally be on music. The emphasis in on quality of thought, not on quantity: c. 1500 words per essay is entirely sufficient.
  • Some examples of teacher-marked harmony and counterpoint (e.g. Baroque chorale, 16th century counterpoint, 2-part invention, string quartet, Romantic songs); and/or some examples of original composition, which should be in some form of notated score.

Written test

There is no written test, but candidates who are invited to interview in Oxford will be asked to give a performance of a prepared piece on the candidate’s principal instrument or voice (organists, percussionists and candidates requiring an accompanist should inform the faculty in advance of the interview period).

Candidates not possessing keyboard fluency to ABRSM Grade V may be asked to take a standardised keyboard sight-reading test at interview. Please indicate your level of keyboard proficiency on your UCAS application. Some tutors may ask you to study a short piece of music and/or text about music in preparation for your interview; if so, this material will be given to you during your stay in Oxford.

What are tutors looking for ?

Tutors are looking for a genuine spirit of enquiry and keenness to think critically about music, and those showing the potential to engage with the undergraduate course.

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for Music.

Suggested reading

At present we do not produce a Music reading list for people who are considering making a Music application. However, you may find this BBC Radio 4 program about Mathematics and Music of interest.

Olivia, 2nd year

'From playing for three evensongs a week to being immersed in the sound world of the Bosavi Rainforest people in Papua New Guinea, Oxford has been a fantastic experience so far. One aspect of Oxford’s music course that first attracted me was the diversity and the choice it gives students, particularly in the final year.

I am currently studying a variety of history topics, ranging from the 13th-century motet to film music, along with some composition and analysis courses. I want to be a performer and knowing that I can choose to concentrate on this later in the course has helped me to focus my interests throughout the term.'

Andrew, who graduated in 2006

He is now the Assistant Director of Music at King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon. He says:   

‘Since graduating I have been involved in professional music-making and education. I’m currently combining teaching music with working on educational research. The experiences afforded by an Oxford education and participation in student societies around my course have enabled me to be seen, in post-Oxford life, as a safe pair of hands, both in terms of academic issues and administrative matters. This means I have been able to gain responsibilities in the areas of education management and school governance fairly early on in my career.’

Contextual information

The Key Information Sets provide a lot of numbers about the Oxford experience – but there is so much about what you get here that numbers can’t convey. It’s not just the quantity of the Oxford education that you need to consider, there is also the quality – let us tell you more.

Oxford’s tutorial system

Regular tutorials, which are the responsibility of the colleges, are the focal point of teaching and learning at Oxford. The tutorial system is one of the most distinctive features of an Oxford education: it ensures that students work closely with tutors throughout their undergraduate careers, and offers a learning experience which is second to none.

A typical tutorial is a one-hour meeting between a tutor and one, two, or three students to discuss reading and written work that the students have prepared in advance. It gives students the chance to interact directly with tutors, to engage with them in debate, to exchange ideas and argue, to ask questions, and of course to learn through the discussion of the prepared work. Many tutors are world-leaders in their fields of research, and Oxford undergraduates frequently learn of new discoveries before they are published.

Each student also receives teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. But the tutorial is the place where all the elements of the course come together and make sense. Meeting regularly with the same tutor – often weekly throughout the term – ensures a high level of individual attention and enables the process of learning and teaching to take place in the context of a student’s individual needs.

The tutorial system also offers the sustained commitment of one or more senior academics – as college tutors – to each student’s progress. It helps students to grow in confidence, to develop their skills in analysis and persuasive argument, and to flourish as independent learners and thinkers.

More information about tutorials

The benefits of the college system

  • Every Oxford student is a member of a college. The college system is at the heart of the Oxford experience, giving students the benefits of belonging to both a large and internationally renowned university and a much smaller, interdisciplinary, college community.
  • Each college brings together academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and college staff. The college gives its members the chance to be part of a close and friendly community made up of both leading academics and students from different subjects, year groups, cultures and countries. The relatively small size of each college means that it is easy to make friends and contribute to college life. There is a sense of belonging, which can be harder to achieve in a larger setting, and a supportive environment for study and all sorts of other activities.
  • Colleges organise tutorial teaching for their undergraduates, and one or more college tutors will oversee and guide each student’s progress throughout his or her career at Oxford. The college system fosters a sense of community between tutors and students, and among students themselves, allowing for close and supportive personal attention to each student’s academic development.

It is the norm that undergraduates live in college accommodation in their first year, and in many cases they will continue to be accommodated by their college for the majority or the entire duration of their course. Colleges invest heavily in providing an extensive range of services for their students, and as well as accommodation colleges provide food, library and IT resources, sports facilities and clubs, drama and music, social spaces and societies, access to travel or project grants, and extensive welfare support. For students the college often becomes the hub of their social, sporting and cultural life.

More about Oxford’s unique college system and how to choose a college