Music Interviews

The best place to start is Oxford's official information on preparing for interviews. But after you've looked there, read on to hear some students talk about their Music interviews.

Sofia K-B

They gave me an excerpt from a text on music (and the fact that music should be seen as an action and not as an abstract concept), a contemporary piece to listen to along with the sheet music and finally a repetitive piece without the sheet music. I had half an hour to look through them all and take notes. I was then asked questions about the excerpts, before being asked about me in a more general sense. "Where would you picture yourself in 5 years?"

Another interview was more turned towards questions about the essays I had written and the compositions I had submitted. All in all, very agreeable and surprisingly chilled.

Sofia, St John's, student from 2015
George Haggett

Some colleges may ask you to take a keyboard skills test - don't worry if it doesn't go well! Keyboard skills are completely new to many applicants. I did terribly in mine but it doesn't seem to have had a bearing on the rest of my interviews at all.

In one interview I was given a set amount of time on my own with a score and an iPod with the piece on, then talked about what I'd noticed about the piece with a tutor. If you have an interview like this, listen for large things (what period is this piece from? What is its form/structure?) and use them as a context for the smaller details which you pick up on. Don't worry, you won't be expected to know the piece.

In another interview, I was given a newspaper article about the allocation of lottery funding to opera. The interviewers and I discussed whether or not it was fair that the lottery fund (contributed to mainly by people from working class backgrounds) was bolstering an art form that's mainly attended by middle class people. In an interview like this, I think they're less interested in what conclusion (if any!) you come to and more interested in your ability to weigh up arguments and see both sides of a story. Discussing music's place in society is a big part of the course here, and the answers to these questions are never easy; they just want to hear how you think.

George, St Hugh's, student from 2014

My first interview at St. Anne's College was almost entirely based on my personal statement, in which I had written a bit about world music. We discussed ethics of 'fusion' compositions and the differences in teaching/learning styles between Indian Gharanas and Western approaches to instrumental/vocal learning. I was given a piece of music to analyse 10 minutes before the interview. I had to say which composer I thought it was by and why I thought it was that composer.

My second interview at Worcester College involved extra harmony tests, e.g. improvisation over a ground bass, four-part Bach chorale harmonisation, improvisation on a hexatonic scale. In the interview (i.e. not before the interview), I was given two pages of a piano sonata and was asked questions about the form, structure and which composer it may have been and why I thought it was that composer. Ten minutes before the interview, I was given a musicological question to ponder on and this was the basis for a musicological discussion about musical authenticity during the interview itself.

My third and final interview was at St. Peter's College but for a place at St Edmund's (Teddy) Hall. This was mainly about my written work, which the college had not had access to. They wished to know what topic I had written on (I had written an essay on Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique') and that initiated a conversation about the history of programme music. I was given a piece of music to analyse and I had to guess the form, which I could not do. The form was then explained to me and I still couldn't understand it!

Shan, Worcester, student from 2007

At Worcester, I had to do a keyboard skills test, which threw me off a little because I'd been told that if you had Grade 5 piano and above, you wouldn't have to do on (so be prepared!) You're allowed 10 minutes of prep time, and then I had to improvise a melody and variations over a bass line that the professor played, had to play a 4-part Bach chorale whilst filling in some of the missing tenor and alto parts, and then had to improvise a 40-second piece on the theme of "Space". It doesn't matter whether you absolutely nail it or not, you just have to be able to show potential and willingness to learn.

I was asked: "What is a fact of music history?" I answered that Liszt was a virtuosic pianist and backed it up with 3 pieces of evidence: letters from one composer to another about hearing Liszt play, the piano music that Liszt was writing which would have been very difficult to write had he not been extremely talented at the piano, and different paintings which depict an enchanted audience surrounding Liszt at the piano in a social setting. They then asked me about my music tastes, and then showed me a Haydn score and asked me to identify if the music had modulated to the dominant at the end of the exposition as predicted. We also talked about defining Classical/Romantic boundaries and whether it was possible to do so. I talked a little about Nicolas Cook's book, "Music: A Very Short Introduction."

My interview at St. Catherine's opened with them asking me to summarise one of the essays I'd submitted on Baroque arias. We talked a little about how Baroque music might have one particular "affect". They told me that global hip-hop had just been introduced to the course, and what did I think of studying pop music in general? I answered that although pop music might have a different "function" to classical music, it still is relevant to people, evokes emotion, and is a product of human beings which deserves examination. I cited Phil Collins, "Another Day in Paradise" and talked about how the music caused people to think. They asked me how I might analyse pop music and I responded that it couldn't be in the same way to classical music, because while we may focus on whether a classical piece has a cadential 6/4 or not, that isn't integral to pop and isn't what makes pop worth study.

I was invited back for another interview at Worcester, which was unexpected and unusual for Music. This one was more informal, with them asking me what particular interests I had in the course at Oxford. I pretended I liked libraries more than I actually do... I did speak about Early Music and how there was so much still to be explored and speculated on - I talked about a fifteenth century mass I had heard performed (on YouTube!) in a very vocally raw way and how it had struck me as different from the usual purity of voice in early music (or at least, the purity we decide to perform it with!).

My interview at St John's gave me 30 minutes to listen to a modernist piece for solo violin and study the score, as well as read an excerpt from a book on music and society and how the two are integrated. I then went into the interview and was asked questions about the style of the piece, a possible composer, to look at certain instrumental timbres and modes of playing, to analyse the tonality and harmony (if possible) and to question its effect. Then we discussed the excerpt - I was asked to summarise what I'd read. We then questioned the idea of whether it was society that influenced music or whether music itself could influence society. The professors were very kind and not at all harsh or intimidating, even though I turned up 30 minutes late because of getting lost!

Although the Worcester interview was somewhat of a shock, I quite enjoyed the other two interviews. The professors want to see how you'll respond in a tutorial setting, so be confident in giving answers, and don't be afraid to sit in silence considering something if you don't want to speak straight away. It's much better to give a considered answer than blurt out the first thing that comes to you. Show that you are willing for your knowledge and opinions to be broadened, but equally, if you really believe in something, you can stick to your guns and argue logically and politely for your view. They want to have a conversation with you, exchanging ideas and opinions, not to batter you into submission with their knowledge.

Hannah, St Catz, student from 2013

I was interviewed twice and also sat an audition, the same as everyone who gets an invitation to interview for Music: every music student is guaranteed at least two interviews. The audition, while significant, is certainly not the most important part of the process. If you're a great performer, it's an opportunity to show that off, but if it's not your focus, it won't be held against you. Personally, I played generally well but made multiple silly errors: I think the tutors are aware of how much pressure everyone is under, and so cut some slack, but regardless, nobody is penalised for how they do.

Each interview comprised a preparation period and the interview itself: during each preparation period, I was given a piece of music and a text on music. This was the first time I had encountered truly academic writing about music, and it is for most people, so don't let the unfamiliarity get to you. Just focus on understanding what the article is saying, and what it reminds you of/any connections you can think of.

In the first interview at Hertford college, I was given an article on the concept of "kitsch", which was pretty tricky and complex, and two short scores written side by side, similar in harmony but with notable differences in the melody. There were no specific questions as far as I remember, so in the half hour I got, I read through article and made a couple of notes on what I thought the author was saying and what I thought about that, and what I thought it related to, and then looked at the harmony and melody of the two pieces of music and tried to work out what they were and how they were connected.

Inside the interview room, after the two tutors behind the desk briefly introduced themselves, we discussed the scores, and what I thought about them; this was sort of just a ramble of thoughts and ideas I had had looking at the score for fifteen minutes, but where I seemed to hit on something, the tutors would become more interested, whereas when I seemed to be getting colder, so did the tutors, and so that way they lead me to identify what was going on. We talked similarly about the kitsch article, but the conversation eventually took flight as we talked about Einaudi, film music, and what music can mean. The tutors had clearly distinct personalities, one warm, friendly and forgiving, the other combative and sometimes seeming disinterested. I'm still not sure if this is just what they're actually like!

I think I eventually confidently stated that music can never mean anything (facepalm), at which point the tutors took my attention back to another set of scores. Here I was asked to talk about different short extracts of music, never being entirely sure whether anything I said was correct, but sometimes identifying a composer, sometimes talking about techniques present in the music, just finding things to say about different pieces of music put in front of me. Suddenly, it seemed, the interview was over, and they were shaking my hand and saying goodbye.

The next interview took place a day later, about twenty minutes walk from Hertford, at St Hughs. In the preparation time before the second interview, I was to read an article on the recording of Bach's choral works and was also given a short piano work. Accompanying the two items was a list of five questions, ranging from the simple "examine the harmony of the piece" to something complex about identifying musicians' values. I duly attempted to consider answers to all the questions, writing my thoughts down in mind-maps in my notebook as I went along.

More quickly than last time, it seemed my time was up, and I was introduced to the two tutors, both sitting with laptops in front of them. They explained that since they were filling in for another tutor who was ill that day, they'd be recording the whole interview by typing it out; and also that they wouldn't be responding to anything I said, but only asking each question one by one and letting me respond for as long as I liked. This was immediately strange, but I held my nerve and referred to my notes, now useful to organise a full response. After I'd been through a few questions, they gave me some additional information on the score, explained what a "whole cadence" was, and asked me to identify all those in the score, and subsequently whether this new information changed my idea of its structure. After sitting through some more tapping of laptop keys and talking for a little longer, the interview was again suddenly over, and I was let out into the world, for a long, shaky walk back to Hertford.

Chris, Hertford, student from 2014

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