Music at oxford

General Intro

The Faculty of Music is:

“one of the largest and liveliest music departments in the country, and an internationally renowned centre of musical teaching and research. The Faculty came top of the ‘research power’ rankings in the most recent (2008) Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), with 50% of its research rated as ‘world-leading’ and the largest number of research active staff submitted by any Higher Education Institution in the UK. It gained the highest (5*) rating in the two previous RAEs of 1996 and 2001, and was ranked best UK music department by both The Times and The Independent in their most recent surveys.

The Faculty offers a highly stimulating environment for anyone interested in a practical, scholarly and creative engagement with music - musicologists, performers and composers. The exceptionally rich musical life of the University and its Colleges - including world-famous choirs, University orchestras and chamber groups, jazz ensembles, and contemporary music groups – is complemented by the wide range of musical activities to be found in and around the city, drawing on numerous musical traditions.

Our undergraduate and graduate curricula are strong in traditional musicological and musical skills, but are also notably wide-ranging and imaginative, reflecting contemporary developments in music and musicology; and alongside these formal programmes we organise and participate in a stimulating variety of concerts, masterclasses, workshops, public lectures, and conferences. Our resources include the internationally important Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, a high specification electronic music studio, an Indonesian gamelan, and specialised resources for the study of performance. The Faculty's research and teaching strengths cover a broad spectrum, including European music of many periods, ethnomusicology, composition, opera, film music, analysis and music theory, the psychology of music, performance, and performance practice.” (Taken from the Faculty website: [])

Music is a three year course, with examinations in the first year (Honour Moderations) and third year (Final Honour School). As of October 2008, six papers are offered for the Honour Moderations exams (five of which are compulsory) and eight papers are offered for the Final Honour School exams (two of which are compulsory). The overall degree result is based entirely on the results of the Final Honour School exams/submissions, which take place in Trinity Term (i.e. the summer term) of the third year. The first year results do not count, though an overall pass is required in order to proceed to the second year.



Music degrees at Oxford are taught at two levels: university and college level. Lectures, seminars and masterclasses take place within the Faculty, which is located on St. Aldate’s next to Christ Church meadow. Tutorials if given by one’s own tutor are typically given within the college, though if given by a tutor or DPhil student at another college may happen either in the Faculty or in another college.

The amount of tutorials and work set per week/term will vary according to college and the year of study. Generally speaking, course content is primarily given through lectures and in some cases, seminars (which are not compulsory, though all students are strongly advised to attend them). Weekly or fortnightly tutorials and independent reading support lectures. Lectures are given for the benefit of the whole year group (approx. 65 people). Suggested extra reading is sometimes given in the form of handouts. Seminar groups consist of approx. 15 people and are often taken by graduate students, for which reading may be set. Masterclasses are given by Faculty lecturers in certain instances (e.g. conducting), but are often taken by noted performers or conservatoire tutors and are open to current students and in some cases (again, conducting) to the general public.

Tutorials are even smaller, with a maximum of approximately 3 people in the tutorial group and the potential for one-on-one tuition where appropriate. These are normally given by college tutors but can be given by tutors or graduate students at other colleges. Work can take the form of presentations or essays for history-related topics; annotating scores or writing essays for analysis-related topics; continuing a specified amount of pastiche work for harmony-related tutorials, etc. Essay lengths are usually specified by tutors and suggested reading lists are often provided.

The Faculty does not have instrumental tutors. Certain colleges may be affiliated with specific tutors, e.g. Pembroke College for pianists. Typically, colleges make a financial contribution towards the lessons of Music students offering Performance for either the first or/and third year exams. The amount given varies according to one’s college. Most colleges have Instrumental Awards which are open to all students of that college. Students choose their instrumental or vocal tutor themselves, though college tutors are happy to make suggestions or arrangements if you don’t already have a tutor in mind. The amount of lessons taken per term is entirely dependent on the instrumental/vocal tutor. Many Oxford students study with conservatoire tutors, travelling out of Oxford for their lessons.

The Faculty has composition lecturers and tutors who are themselves composers, though it is possible to have composition lessons from external tutors.

The First Year course

The first year is an introductory year and teaches students skills and topics that will be built upon and extended in the latter two years. In order to accommodate for differences in A Level teaching and syllabuses, the first year course has recently been altered. As of January 2012, the five compulsory papers are:

Techniques of Composition. This is a take-away harmony paper, for which students have a week to complete three tasks. Preparation for this takes place through introductory lectures and tutorial work.

Keyboard skills. This is a short exam in which students will be tested score reading (in at least two unfamiliar clefs, i.e. alto and tenor) and figured bass. Preparation takes place through regular private practice and tutorials. As of May 2009, students are given half an hour preparation time with a keyboard before the exam.

Analysis. This is a 3 hour exam, during which students must analyse one of two given works from the 18th century. Typically, one will be from the Baroque period and one in the mature classical style. Preparation for this takes place through lectures and tutorial essays/analyses

Special topics. This is an exam in which questions will be asked regarding the topics specified for that academic year. Examples of topics include Global Hiphop, words and music c.1600 and the thirteenth century motet. Topics will vary according to the interests of the tutors delivering the lecture courses. Preparation takes place through lectures and tutorial essays/presentations

There is also a choice of 4 further options, for which students can offer two of the following:

Issues in the Study of Music. This is an exam in which students must answer two questions: one relating to “the social and cultural study of music” (i.e. ethnomusicology) and one relating to “the study of Western music history” (i.e. musicology). Preparation takes place through lectures, seminar classes and tutorial essays/presentations

Performance (a 10-12 minute recital, of Grade 8+ standard)

Composition portfolio (two works)

Extended essay (4000-5000 words on a Faculty-approved topic)

Recital programmes and essay proposals are submitted to and approved by the Faculty’s Board of Examiners in the second term of the first year. Colleges will not provide money for lessons unless a student intends to offer Performance for the first year exams. All six papers carry equal weight and an average is taken to provide the classification for that year.

The second and third year

There are no formal examinations (termly college-based examinations, known as “collections”, take place) in the second year. This allows students to try out various options before deciding which they prefer to focus on and offer for the Final Honour School examinations. Final decisions about the eight papers have to be made in the Michaelmas (the autumn) Term of the third year. Approval for performance recital programmes and dissertation/analysis portfolio/edition with commentary topics has to be sought from the Faculty’s Board of Examiners.

There are eight papers, only two of which (History I and History II) are absolutely compulsory. The options available are split into four areas: compulsory topics (List A), project-based work (List B), history options (List C) and practical options that are not Solo Performance (List D). Students must pick four topics from List A. They must then choose at least one topic from List B, at least one topic from List C, a further topic from List B or C and a final topic from List B, C or D. This sounds more confusing than it actually is! Students pick papers with advice from college tutors and are encouraged to try as many as possible.

List A

There are five topics, of which students must choose 4:

History I (c. 600-1750). This is a compulsory 3 hour paper, consisting of 4 sub-topics. Students are taught about all 4 topics through lectures and tutorials and then write about 3 topics in the exam. Topics vary for each year group according to the lecturers’ interests. Preparation takes place through lectures and tutorials

History II (c. 1750- present day). This is a compulsory 3 hour paper, consisting of 4 sub-topics. Students are taught about all 4 topics through lectures and tutorials and then write about 3 topics in the exam. Topics vary for each year group according to the lecturers’ interests. Preparation takes place through lectures and tutorials

Musical Thought and Scholarship. This is a 3 hour paper on issues in musicology in which either one extended essay, or two shorter essays may be written. The four broad topics (according to the Faculty handbook for Final Honour School 2010) are musical meaning, music in the age of recording, music and the social dimension, music and representation. Preparation takes place through lectures and tutorials.

Musical analysis and criticism. This is a 3 hour paper during which students must analyse and write an essay on a given piece of music from the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. Preparation takes place through lectures and tutorials.

Techniques of Composition I (exam) OR Techniques of Composition II (portfolio submission). This is either a three hour exam paper or a portfolio submission to be completed within the Easter holiday of the third year. Students choose a style and then complete a given extract for that style. Preparation takes place through tutorials.

List B

Students must do at least one List B paper but can offer as many as three papers from this area. Options include:

Techniques of Composition II (if not offered as part of List A)

Orchestration. Students have to submit a stylistic orchestration of one of a set choice of pieces. Preparation takes place in the form of lectures and individual tutorials

Solo performance. Students prepare and perform an approved recital of varying styles of approx. 35 minutes, of diploma standard, in the Holywell Music Room or in a college chapel (if an organist). Preparation takes place in the form of individual instrumental/vocal lessons and lectures, but can be supported by recitals, competitions and masterclasses.

Composition. Students compose four original works, one of which must (at the time of writing, i.e. February 2009) be a c.5 minute work for solo instrument and piano. The remaining three works are in three of the styles specified by the Faculty’s exam regulations. Preparation takes place through lectures and individual composition tutorials with a Faculty member or external tutor.

Dissertation on an approved topic (10,000 words maximum)

Approved analysis portfolio

Approved edition with commentary

Preparation for the above three is mostly the result of individual work. Initial advice is provided by college tutors and students taking any of the three above work under a supervisor, who may or may not be the college tutor.

List C

Students must offer at least one List C paper and can do a maximum of 3. These are specialist history topics and papers that can be offered vary from year to year. The topics reflect the interest of the Faculty lecturers and are as varied as ‘The Music of Guillaume de Machaut’ and ‘1966 and All That: The Beatles and Popular Musical Culture’! Preparation is provided through lectures. Students are not supposed to have tutorials for these papers, but are expected to work their way through the (often extensive!) reading lists by themselves.

List D

Papers in this list are not compulsory and a maximum of one can be taken. The papers on offer can vary but generally the following three are available: chamber music; choral (sometimes orchestral) conducting and choral performance.

All the eight papers carry equal weight.


Performance at Oxford

As the above list demonstrates, performance does not feature as heavily in the exam structure as it may do in other universities. It is in fact possible to go through the entire course without ever being examined on an instrument! However, this does not mean that there is little practical music going on, or that the standard of performance is inferior to other universities! The collegiate structure at Oxford means that there is a wide variety of opportunities available to performers: each college has its own music society or has a joint one with another college. This means that in addition to the (mostly-auditioning) university-wide ensembles, there are lots of non-auditioning college ensembles to join, as well as college musicals/operas. Equally, for budding conductors, there is a greater chance of being able to direct an ensemble and/or a production! The standard of the university-wide ensembles is very high, with some ensembles (e.g. the Oxford University Orchestra) being directed by professional conductors. For more information, please visit:

The Faculty regularly invites people to lead masterclasses throughout the academic year. Faculty funding is available to help with finances for summer schools, etc.

Each year, a number of Oxford students are accepted by the leading conservatoires for postgraduate study.

The Interviews

"The majority of Music applicants are called for interview in December. You will be invited to stay in Oxford for two or three days. You will also be invited to submit a couple of examples of marked essays in advance. If you are studying harmony and counterpoint, or if you are a composer, then you will also be invited to submit examples of this work for us to see. Once in Oxford you will attend a minimum of two interviews, and you will be asked to play on your first instrument or sing." (Taken from )

In the past, the overall % of applicants interviewed by the University (for all subjects) has been approx. 80%. This figure varies from year to year and also college to college.

Applicants should check the back of the most recent University prospectus for the interview dates. Applicants who are called to interview are presumed to have kept these dates free. Typically, applicants are asked to arrive on a Monday in December and to remain in Oxford until the Wednesday (sometimes the Thursday) of that week. Applicants are usually summoned by the college they applied to; in the event of over-subscription, candidates may receive a letter from a college they have not applied to, inviting them for an interview.

The interview process currently consists of a short recital (c. 6-7 minutes), a sight-reading test for those who are not Grade 5 standard on the piano and normally at least two interviews. Applicants to Worcester College may be asked to sit a further keyboard test (this is not a formal part of the interview and the results of this do not determine the outcome of a candidate's application). Interview questions vary widely, but applicants may be asked to analyse a piece of music and/or prose, as well as discuss submitted essays/A Level course/issues in musicology.

All Faculty tutors meet to discuss all the applicants during the interview week. Applicants typically receive one of the following letters shortly before Christmas: 1) Conditional offer from college the applicant applied to 2) Unconditional offer from college the applicant applied to (post-A2 applicants) 3) Conditional offer from another college the applicant was interviewed at 4) Unconditional offer from another college the applicant was interviewed at (post-A2 applicants) 5) Conditional offer from a college the applicant wasn't interviewed at 6) Unconditional offer from a college the applicant wasn't interviewed at (post-A2 applicants) 7) Rejection 8) Open offer


Frequently Asked Questions

A list of F.A.Q.s with answers is on the Faculty’s website:

Additional questions

  1. My conservatoire auditions clash with the Oxford interview dates. What should I do?

This is a tricky situation but one that tends to occur a lot! Phone the conservatoire in question and explain the situation. Ask if an alternative date can be given. See what they say. If necessary, contact the admissions tutor at the Oxford college that sent you your interview letter and ask for advice.


  1. I’m worried about the performance test that takes place at the interview: I’m not a natural performer!

Don’t worry! This is more of a formality than a test. The performance exam has little to do with who is offered a place.


  1. I’m applying for an Organ/Choral Scholarship. Is it better to apply to a choral foundation (Magdalen, New or Christ Church college)?

This is entirely dependent on how much you want to do, as a prospective Organ Scholar. The choral foundations (along with Worcester) have a boys’ choir, which would require you to get up extra-early a few days a week in order to take rehearsals! Colleges generally vary in how many services a week they do and how high/low Anglican their chaplain (and subsequently, chapel) is. Obviously the standard of the chapel choirs and the organs themselves inevitably vary.

  1. I don’t know whether I want to go to Oxford or a conservatoire

Ultimately, this comes down to whether you would rather pursue a largely performance-oriented course or a largely academic course. Whilst university degrees contain performance modules and music college degrees contain history modules, it is safe to say that if one wants one’s course to be mostly performance-based/related, music college would be the better place. Post-degree career plans (if one has them) can also help in choosing which is better. It should be noted that whilst many Oxford graduates go to music colleges for postgraduate studies, it is often difficult for this movement to work in reverse.

  1. Am I right for the Oxford course?

This is something that ultimately only the tutors can decide! Generally speaking, it is best to look at the course content listed above and see if what is offered appeals to your interests, particularly when it comes to emphasis on performance and popular music.

  1. What do Oxford Music graduates go on to do?

Oxford Music graduates go on to do a variety of different things. Some go on to postgraduate courses (academic, performance/composition/conducting and PGCE courses). Some go straight into performance-based career pathways (cathedral organist/organ scholar) or arts administration. Others abandon music altogether and do conversion courses to train to become lawyers, accountants, doctors (graduate medicine).

  1. How classical is the Oxford course?

Most of the music studied as part of the Oxford course is Western classical. That said, there are courses in a wide variety of alternative musics including ethnomusicology, 1960s British pop music and jazz and there are students for whom classical music is not their main area of musical interest or expertise.


  1. How does the Oxford course differ from what I have studied at A Level?

Obviously, there are lots of different A Level syllabuses and people study different things. Generally speaking, most A Level courses tackle harmony and history at a superficial level. Often candidates will be expected to submit work/do an exam based on one area of harmonic study; the Oxford course, on the other hand, demands that you submit three different styles of harmony in the first year and 1 (2 if offering both Techniques of Composition papers) style(s) in the third year. In both instances, the harmony submitted is of a more substantial nature and often longer than A Level students are used to. In terms of history, a much more thorough knowledge of a much wider repertoire is studied and required for the exams. In particular, A Level students will not have formally studied musicology (effectively issues relating to the history of the history of music).


  1. How do I pick a college? Which college is the best for Music? How important is college choice to extra-curricular uni music?

Colleges aren’t subject specific, so there is no one college that is “best” for the purposes of your academic work. College choice isn’t that important when it comes to extra-curricular activities, since the standard of college music varies from year to year and bears little reflection on one’s ability to participate in the various uni-wide ensembles. Where colleges really differ (in Music terms) is: the tutor’s specialist subjects; the facilities available for practice (e.g. the Jacqueline du Pré building at St. Hilda’s) and the types of college ensembles and productions put on (e.g. Pembroke has a tradition of putting on an annual music; Worcester has a tradition of putting on a summer opera, etc.). You do not need to pick colleges based on your tutor’s specialist subject, since teaching is Faculty-wide and you will invariably be taught by tutors and DPhil (PhD) students from other colleges (though the extent to which this is done varies from college to college). It is better to pick a college that you would enjoy being a member of for three years and looking for things specific to your needs (e.g. kitchen/en suite facilities; accommodation for the duration of the course, etc.).

  1. I’m a composer: does this mean I should apply to Worcester College?/I’m not a composer: does this mean I shouldn’t apply to Worcester College?

Whilst it may be easier to secure composition lessons from the Tutorial Fellow of Worcester College (traditionally a famous composer) if one is a Worcester student, such lessons are by no means limited to students at Worcester College. Equally, non-composers are offered places at Worcester each year, sometimes outnumbering the composers!

  1. I’ve not got straight As at GCSE/AS Level, but I’ve got x amount of diplomas/go to x Junior Conservatoire Department. Does this compensate for my GCSE/A Level results?

Unfortunately, no. Whilst you don’t have to have straight As at GCSE/AS Level to apply or be made an offer, prowess on (a) musical instrument(s) will not be considered a substitute.

  1. What are the provisions for second study at Oxford?

There are no financial provisions made for second study instrumental lessons. Performance recitals can only be on a single instrument, or a related instrument (e.g. classical guitar and lute), the latter being subject to the Faculty’s approval

  1. What’s the difference between Oxford and Cambridge? How do I choose between them?

There are many similarities between the two. Notable differences are that Oxford students can do a short recital as part of their first year exams, whereas this is not an option at Cambridge. Oxford’s musicology course (Musical Thought and Scholarship) does not currently have an equivalent at Cambridge. Cambridge students work within the Music Tripos and are examined each year, with 6 compulsory modules in the first year and compulsory harmony (Portfolio of Tonal Compositions) and analysis (Analysis and Repertoire) in the second year. For further information, visit

  1. I don’t meet the Grade V Piano standard/I can’t play the piano at all!

Oxford tutors have been known to take students who have little or no ability on a keyboard instrument. Students concerned about their level of keyboard ability should refer their questions to the Academic Administrator.

  1. I received an offer from Oxford but think I've messed up (one of) my A2 exams and may not get AAA. Should I contact the college/tutor who made me an offer?

No. Don't panic! Wait and see what the results are. If you end up missing your offer, contact the Admissions Tutor at the college that made you an offer.

Suggested pre-interview reading

Nicholas Cook’s Music. A Very Short Introduction (OUP: 1998) is a good taste of the kinds of questions that can arise both in an Oxford interview and the Oxford course.

(NB. This suggestion is The_Lonely_Goatherd's personal opinion and not an official Faculty suggestion.)


For more information, or to ask further questions

  • PM The_Lonely_Goatherd
  • Visit and
  • Register for the open day in July
  • E-mail the Faculty's Academic Administrator