Although it is sometimes thought of at school level as one of the less academic subjects, when it comes to Oxbridge, music is just as challenging and intellectual a course as any other. This can often lead prospective interviewees to feel extremely anxious about their interview, as they are often unsure what form it will take and what kind of discussion will be expected of them. This week’s real Oxbridge interview question, from interviewer Dan Grimley at Merton College, Oxford, should put nervous candidates’ minds at rest! “If you could invent a new musical instrument, what kind of sound would it make?

Use Your Imagination

On the Oxford University website where this question is published, Grimley acknowledges how open-ended it is, and explains that he is looking for imagination and critical thought, rather than a single ‘right’ answer. So don’t be afraid to show your imaginative range – music is a creative subject and there are unlikely to be many absolute right and wrong answers in your interview. Some candidates, when they get very nervous, feel that they have to speak in very academic terms and suppress their creative flair. So remember to open up, be brave and let your imagination take the subject to new and different levels. Don’t be afraid to suggest any ideas you have, even if they might sound zany or unusual!

Go Back to Basics

A great technique for almost any Oxbridge interview is to start from the most basic knowledge you have that relates to the question and then build up a response from there. This technique is very effective for two reasons – it helps you to stay calm under pressure, giving you time to work out a strong, sensible answer backed up by evidence, and it also allows you to showcase your range of knowledge and thought processes to the interviewer. So even if you don’t end up with a perfect solution, you have showed your ability to use your musical knowledge to reason and try to find a solution to the question and demonstrated your competence with simpler concepts along the way. In this case, it would be worthwhile starting by considering the types of sounds made by voices and existing instruments, and perhaps talking about the range of tone and quality of these sounds before moving on to consider how some of these existing sounds might be altered or extended to create a new one.

Think Outside the (Opera) Box

The website stresses that interviewees are encouraged to respond with examples of all kinds of music, not just classical instruments and styles. It is a very common mistake to assume that just because Oxbridge is old and prestigious, it will also be stuffy and pretentious. Tutors will be interested to hear about your own musical interests and influences, so don’t hold back from discussing a broad and eclectic range of styles, including modern music. Showing that you are able to embrace and appreciate a whole range of musical styles from across different genres and time periods should impress interviewers and demonstrate your eagerness to learn about the full spectrum of the course.