The University of Oxford’s music scene is often characterised by the Magdalen schoolboys singing on May Morning, or orchestras booming out 18th-century chart-toppers in the Sheldonian. Although these traditions are a prominent and celebrated part of the student body’s culture, both the university and the city have much more to offer for music lovers. From jazz ensembles to a Gilbert and Sullivan Society, the university has something for everybody. Oxford as a city too is rich with musical history, being the hometown of indie heavyweights such as Radiohead, Foals, and Bastille. In a labyrinth of musical opportunities, I have you covered to discover the greatest sounds of Oxford.
Away from the traditional catharsis of Mondays and Wednesdays at Park End, Tuesdays at Plush, and Thursdays at Bridge, there are a number of special club nights that mean you can escape the void of hearing the same 20 songs being played over and over again. The first of these is the termly ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ night at Bullingdon, a traditional thrills-and-spills indie disco. Don your Reebok classics, smoke a roll-up, and observe your voice fade as you scream out a string of indie anthems. Beware though that tickets are notoriously hard to get hold of. If once a term isn’t enough to quench your Dark Fruits indie thirst, a monthly indie night is set to start up at the O2 Academy Oxford – keep an eye out for that! Another club night which has been a big hit is run by Komuna, a collective of musicians inspired by the basement techno clubs of Eastern Europe. With DJs playing experimental techno, a sound rarely heard in an OX postcode, the climax of the night is the string quartet playing experimental dance music, which is much cooler and less weird than it sounds! With a successful launch at Plush followed by a night at Bully in Trinity, Komuna is not to be missed if you want to add a bit of variety into your clubbing experience.
Given Oxford’s rich music history, up-and-coming musicians and war-hardened veterans alike often frequent the city. The O2 Academy Oxford has hosted the likes of Alt-J, Bastille, and St. Vincent over the last six months, with the small venue allowing you to have a great view of your favourite artists, regardless of height (speaking from experience as a short gig-goer). Next door, the Bullingdon also hosts slightly more eclectic gigs, but has played host to artists with immense pedigree in recent years. Truck Record Store, organisers of the annual festival in July, also host intimate gigs with up-and-coming artists. If you fancy something more last-minute and laidback, the Jericho Tavern has live music every Thursday. On the very stage where Radiohead played their first ever gig, you can see the stars of the future hone their skills. The quality is admittedly quite varied, but the vibes are always good even if the music is subpar. The Jericho Tavern is also (in my well-established and well-tested opinion) home to the best pub garden in Oxford so, if the music goes seriously wayward, you can seek sanctuary in the heated booths.
Jazz and funk nights
Despite football manager Pep Guardiola’s claim that “if everyone was a jazz musician, the world would be chaos,” there is something incredibly tempting and alluring about an evening of free-flowing and foot-tapping jazz and funk to help procrastinate that looming essay. The Mad Hatter is a venue that is as psychedelic and disorientating as Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland itself. With cocktails served in teapots and funky mood lighting, the bar on Iffley Road is the perfect location to take in some jazz, often provided by the ridiculously talented Oxford University Jazz Orchestra (OUJO). With the room being the size of a first-year bedroom, make sure you get there early to avoid disappointment. Whilst jazz famously has no beginning and end, the Mad Hatter does have strict licensing and health and safety standards to uphold, so capacity is small. On a slightly larger scale, there are a couple of very cool funk collectives that will play venues like the Bullingdon, such as Dot’s Funk Odyssey and Sisters of Funk. Brace yourself for pop tunes like you’ve never heard them before, complete with horn sections and blistering sax solos.
Before coming to university, I thought Stephen Sondheim directed Saving Private Ryan, and presumed Sweeney Todd was the name of a child in the year below me at primary school. Oxford’s effervescent and inescapable musical theatre scene has given me a good education of the sights and sounds of musicals. Whilst the name of Les Miserables bears similarity to its effect on my emotional state, a sign there is more work to be done for my conversion to a musicals aficionado, I have seen some incredible performances from students. The Oxford Playhouse hosts student-run musicals a few times throughout the year. With a capacity of well over 600 and all the kit of a small West End theatre, it is a fantastic opportunity to get involved in. The aforementioned Mad Hatter also plays host to a Musical Theatre Open Mic night, whilst smaller theatres like the Pilch have also put on musicals on a lesser-scale.
Support your local choir or orchestra
Closer to home, college choirs are a large part of music at Oxford. Whilst it is impossible to escape the choral scene if you live in Magdalen or Christ Church, other college choirs are much more reliant on the support of their peers. There is something truly moving and relaxing about hearing very talented people singing much better than you might do in the shower. Most colleges will also have orchestras and collectives which will be open to musicians (or indeed wannabe musicians) of any ability, putting on showcase gigs throughout the year. With some of the country’s most talented musicians playing quite literally on your doorstep for free, it is a real shame not to take the opportunity at least once in your first year to watch your mates do what they love doing.
It is undeniable that there is ample opportunity to experience and take part in a whole range of musical opportunities at Oxford. Whether you are Grade 8 piano, can hit a pan with a wooden spoon, or are simply a Spotify sommelier, Oxford is booming with sounds of various decibels and styles for you to take in.
Image credit: Vishnu R Nair via Pexels.