Conducting admissions without using conventional music theory tests: Piteå Music College

Anna Wedin

Our programme

At the music college in Piteå, we have for the past 11 years had a rock musician Bachelor degree program. At our institution, we differentiate between jazz and rock. This means that the umbrella term ‘rock’ includes, for example, blues, soul, metal, pop, country etc. as well as rock. The degree program’s focus is on developing musicians / singers with a strong personal expression and style in both performing and songwriting. Students also receive instrument training because we believe that good craftsmanship makes it easier to express oneself. The students are matched together in bands during their studies.

When we planned the program’s structure, we wanted to be able to reach prospective students without musical education in the classical sense, but hopefully with a lot of experience playing in rock bands. Thus, we chose not to include theory tests in the program’s admission procedure.

Traditional theory tests measure knowledge in Western art music theory, which is not compatible with, or particularly useful in, contemporary rock music; so why should we measure such knowledge? Instead, we have several practical listening tasks where the applicant uses their instrument.

The admission process

The admission process takes place in three steps:

  1. The applicant submits two examples of their music. Here we ask for live recordings, either from concerts or rehearsals because we want to hear how they sound together with other musicians since rock music is a very collective experience. From this sub-sample, we screen out a number of applicants.
  2. The applicant may play any song together with a band consisting of students from the second year of our rock program. This sub-sample also includes a jam in which the applicant is asked to join with something they think fits with what the others are playing.
  3. ‘Minus one’: within the framework of their education, the band from the second year writes a song that is recorded and mixed so that there is a version for each instrument where that specific instrument is missing (minus one). The applicant gets a copy of the song’s lyrics and gets 20 minutes to listen to the track and create/arrange a part for their instrument. They then play the song along with the band. Then another jam is played and the admission tests continue with rhythmic and melodic imitations (on their instrument). They get to listen to two chord progressions: an easier one where the applicant identifies chords without using an instrument and a more difficult one where they can use instruments. These progressions are played on guitar as most rock music is guitar- rather than piano-based.  Drummers and singers may choose which harmony instrument they want to play. Finally, they are shown a chord progression where we ask which chords it would be if, instead of starting with chord X, it starts with chord Y.

We did not have the ‘minus one’ task from the beginning, but we started with it 7-8 years ago. Before that we provided an existing song which the applicant was asked to learn in 30 minutes. We changed because we are more interested in what choices the applicant makes and how they choose to approach and color the song rather than how quickly and precisely they mimic / cover the song. We prefer the current approach.

Rationale for the current approach

We think that our tests give the applicants a better opportunity to show their creativity in the jam and in the ‘minus one’, which we think is important considering that they do a lot of songwriting and arranging during their three years with us.

We have, through these tests, been able to accept students with high competencies in rock music. Some of these students would certainly never have passed a traditional theory test. Therefore we feel like we are opening the academy to a new group of students.

This article is a part of the publication titled How are diverse cultures integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

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