Applying to Oxford: Music


Hello, and welcome to our new guest series on the blog: applying to Oxford for various subjects. There will be a guest contributor every day writing about their personal experience of applying to Oxford for their own subject.

Today’s post is written by Fatima who applied for Music as a home-schooled student.

Music at Oxford University is a multi-disciplinary course that will not only teach you about music but also challenge and develop the thought processes by which you learn.

You will get the opportunity to read widely on topics from W.F. Bach to T.S. Eliot, from Egyptian adhan to Aristotle’s notion of ‘form’, from Tunisian rap to the use of bells in the Russian Orthodox church…

You will be encouraged to become a ‘thinking musician’: someone who sees music within a context of other human beings and their thoughts and their philosophies, and someone who is always ready to interrogate these contexts.

It is important to note right from the outset however, that the Music course in itself will not prepare you for a career as a professional musician. This is an academic course, and your main activities will be reading and writing. There is nothing to stop you pursuing performance studies on your own steam – and in fact lesson grants, student ensembles, and numerous concert opportunities facilitate this – but it is important to acknowledge from the start that reading books and debating thoughts by writing essays or engaging in discussion is how you will be expected to perform on a daily basis. In some ways the course title is slightly misleading – the subject in which you will immerse yourself is best described as ‘Musicology’, rather than ‘Music’. I won’t attempt a definition here beyond ‘the study of music’ as you will probably spend your entire degree attempting to get to grips with this nebulous term!

The application process

First, be really sure that you want to apply to read Music at Oxford University. A good indication is whether you are excited by the prospect of entering a magnificent library with the purpose of reading books about your subject. If this seems rather boring it may be that this isn’t the best course for you! Having said that, a large part of the course can and will be harmony based, and will involve learning the grammar and syntax of writing music and applying them through stylistic compositions.

I would start by making a list of what motivates you to want to study music at a university level, and possibly even identify certain areas of particular interest. Organising your thoughts like this will make it much easier to discuss your future studies with prospective tutors.

I would also recommend attending an Open Day at the Music Faculty, where lots of tutors will be present and available for you to talk to. This is a great way to see who you might immediately warm to (or not!!) but also who might be working on the types of topic in which you’re already interested. If you’re serious about performance, it’s often good to have a tutor who is a performer themselves, or who will be sympathetic to you devoting time in this area.


In terms of the application itself, you’ll need to write a personal statement, and fill in the online UCAS application. Avoid hyperbole and exaggeration in your personal statement – keep it well-written, quirky, clearly demonstrative of genuine enthusiasm and interest, and full of examples of your current and on-going commitment to the study of music (having said that I think mine flouted all of those rules – just do your best!).

A quick shout-out here to home-schooled candidates. I was home-schooled and nearly didn’t apply to Oxford for a number of reasons, none of which should have deterred me. They were:

  • GCSE grades that were not amazing like the ones you read about in newspapers where it says “Having achieved 31 A*s in their GCSES, X is now applying to Oxford (I only did 8 and got A*A*A*A*AABB)
  • I didn’t do Music A-level (any subject that involves a lot of coursework is almost impossible to accommodate ‘at home’ – no access to internal markers, resources, etc)
  • I didn’t have a head-teacher to write the general reference that is required on the UCAS form

I dealt with each of these issues as follows:

  • Part of the reason I hadn’t done many GCSEs was because I taught myself 3 of them (the ones in which I got the lowest grades), and this took a considerable amount of time. Rather than hiding this under the carpet, I made a point of this as an example of dedication and independent study.
  • I was very fortunate because my tutor was extremely supportive from the outset, but in my application I simply explained that despite the fact Music A-level was impossible for me to take given my lack of access to school resources, I had still managed to take Music Theory Grade 8, a DipABRSM, and that I read widely around my subject (I gave a few examples of what I had read and why it had interested me).
  • I requested references from my instrumental teacher, and one of my A-level teachers, and asked a third teacher who had known me since I was 13 to put them together with any extra comments on my suitability to undertake this course.

The reason I’ve spent some time going into this is because I know a lot of home-schooled students are put off applying to Oxford and Cambridge because none of the Access materials they provide mention how home-schooling feeds into the system. However, if you are seriously committed I would strongly encourage you to apply anyway, with the attitude of celebrating your lack of mainstreamed education and the original and independent thought processes this will doubtless have fostered. Any home-schooled students out there who would like to discuss this further or would like me to read and comment on their personal statement, please leave a comment, tweet me, or send me an email!


I applied to Magdalen College, and was invited to interview at the beginning of December. I missed the welcome meeting as I was auditioning for music colleges, so my first experience was the ‘Performance Test’. As I play the recorder, I needed a harpsichord to accompany me as opposed to a piano, and so I got to do my test somewhere different to everyone else, in the Daubeny Room at Magdalen College. I played the first two movements of J.S. Bach’s Flute sonata in E major BWV 1035.

Then I had my first interview, with two of the music tutors at Magdalen. In advance of this interview, I had been given a German Lied song (with the text translated) and told to look at it. I had also received a piece of writing about Shostakovich (about whom I had never heard before in my life). The interview started with some general discussion of how I had found Magdalen so far, and was very friendly and laid back. They asked me what I thought of the song, and I answered quite honestly with some thoughts about the text and music. They asked me to guess who the composer was and I said Hugo Wolf. They didn’t comment on whether I was right or wrong (I was wrong), and it only occurred to me later I could just have Googled it beforehand!

After this we had a slightly disastrous conversation about Shostakovich.

Tutor: “How do you think this piece of writing we have given you in advance agrees or disagrees with views generally held about the composer?”

Me: “I don’t know. I’ve never heard of the composer before and never encountered any views generally held about him.”

Tutor: “Well….how do you think this piece of writing agrees or disagrees with views generally held about the composer AS YOU MIGHT SUPPOSE THEM TO BE?!”

As you can see my googling-things-on-the-internet skills were really non-existent.

We finished up with a quite heated discussion about objective and subjective beauty, sparked by them asking me what music I really didn’t like.

My second interview was at New College, lasted about 15 minutes, and was with only one tutor. We had a quick chat about general music things, and they handed me a piece of Extremely Contemporary Music. I didn’t know any Contemporary Music at all at this stage.

Tutor: “How would you play this?”

Me: “I wouldn’t”

Tutor: “Well try to imagine you would. How would you go about discovering it?”

I managed to identify that it was palindromic (the same backwards as it is forwards, SUPER EXCITING) and said I’d try to find a book about reading contemporary notation, if I wanted to play a piece like that.

My last interview was at Magdalen again, with only one tutor, and involved a few aural tests (I’d never done an aural test in my life) and an involved and very interesting conversation. I seem to remember it covered the idea of whether absolute objectivity was attainable for a human being trapped in their own subjectivity, and somehow migrated into discussing music and moral authority, what happens when music becomes implicated in political agenda, and several other things I don’t remember. All of these issues are things I was able to explore and discuss as part of my degree, and frankly are issues that I am continuing to explore and think about today as a musician. In my experience that’s what is truly great about this degree and learning environment – you’re encouraged not only to debate and discuss vitally important questions but also to consider and adopt thought processes and methods that you continue to use for the rest of your life.

Finally, a quick word about the tension between music at university and music at conservatoire. I rejected my music college places and chose to go to Oxford as an undergraduate (which was a very difficult decision at the time) but have just finished studying a Masters at the RCM, where I was really grateful for the performing as well as academic opportunities that my BA degree afforded. Conservatoire -> University is a much less common route however, so if you believe it is right for you, go to university first!

Twitter: @QuantzJJ




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