What is a musician?
According to Google:
a person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented.
According to the Merrian-Webster dictionary:
a composer, conductor, or performer of music especially: Instrumentalist
There are many variations on this, but nearly all say a musician is a person who plays a musical instrument. I don’t think this gives a true picture of a musician. It is only a superficial explanation.
Many see a musician and remark about how ‘gifted’ or ‘talented’ they are as if that is all one needs to be a musician. Just have the ‘gift’ and you can play. Not so.
A search for the word ‘talent’ yields interesting results. Realize that definitions are only a reflection of how a word is used in society. Some definitions say it is a special aptitude. Some say it is a natural ability to do something well. One I read says it is a marked innate ability as for artistic accomplishment. Innate means inborn or natural.
Realizing there are people such as Savants that have an almost supernatural ability in a specific area such as math, music or other, the average musician is just like you and me. They may have an aptitude for something. We all have aptitudes. Some folks have very good dexterity. Some have good abstract reasoning. Some can visualize things like how a room will look after it is decorated with certain colors and such.
I have yet to meet a musician that did not need to work at it. Practice, practice and more practice. Some can play incredibly fast while others cannot. That does not reflect on musicianship but rather it reflects dexterity. Even the musician with great dexterity has to practice techniques to develop the ability to play extremely fast note sequences.
There is talent involved. That is to say a certain amount of physical ability that allows one to play the strings or manipulate the holes and levers of a flute, to simultaneously play rhythms and melodies on a piano or to play various patterns on the various pieces of a drum kit simultaneously. But only in rare cases such as a savant, does on just pick up and instrument and begin playing it.
Think about something such as a guitar. It uses strings and to obtain various pitches and all one needs to do is shorten or lengthen the string. I’ve watched many, many guitar tutorials and I have yet to see one that elaborated on the idea of lengthening and shortening a string to play melodies on a guitar. Is it a special ability to recognizes that pitches rise as you play keys to the right on a piano and lower as you play to the left? Is it a special ability to recognize that some notes sound better together than others? I don’t think it is a ‘special’ ability. It has more to do with intelligence which is simply the ability to take new information, understand it a put it to use.
Play right and you get a higher pitch, play left and you get a lower pitch. Lengthen a string and you get a lower pitch. Shorten a string and you get a higher pitch. All one has to do is find pitches that sound good when played sequentially or as chords and you have music. So a person with reasonable intelligence can learn to play music. The limit they would have is in the area of dexterity mainly and the other would be the ability to think about the notes and remember where certain pitches could be found. One could learn to read music and the need for audiation decreases. Audiation is simply the ability to ‘hear’ sounds in your mind. Maybe a better way to say it is to perceive how a note or chord will sound.
Musicians are simply people that upon encountering music, are impressed enough by it to want to do it – to play an instrument. That is probably every person that encounters music. So there is something different about a musician because not everyone goes on to learn to play an instrument. A musician loves music enough to devote time to it.
I have heard many people say “I just don’t have time enough”. That is absolutely not true. What they are really saying is music is not high enough on their priority list to spend the time to learn it. How many people that “don’t have the time” watch television every day? How many that don’t have the time, play video games or read books? How many spend time on the web with things like Facebook? They do have the time. They simply do not love music enough to set aside time to devote to learning it. Many people will listen to music as they do chores or pursue hobbies like painting. Many will listen to music when the drive. But how many will just put on an album and sit and listen to music? It is a matter of priorities.
The next time you encounter a musician that is ‘talented’, think about the hours, days, weeks or years they spent practicing and learning those skills. It actually enhances the experience in my opinion.
Many have said music is a language without words. Words are simply a collection of sounds that represent an object idea or concept. Emotions are a part of the human experience. Stories, books and such are built around emotions are they not? We see a war movie or read a book about war and what we find are the experiences and emotions of humans in the context of war and all that it is. Ever wonder why they use music in a movie? They are using it to explain the emotional part of the story. They are elaborating on what the actors are feeling as they recite their lines. This is true in every ‘good’ movie. The musician that writes the score for the movie understands emotion and is able to describe it with music. But, it is much more than descriptive. It is immersive. It actually cause us to feel those emotions. Consider violins in a sentimental scene or when we see the pain of losing a friend in a battle situation. When a loved one returns after a prolonged absence. Music not only describes an emotion it evokes the emotion in the listener. Much as certain words can upset us or cause us to be angry or cause us to think fondly of a loved one departed. So we can say that a musician understands the language of emotion and can express and impart those emotions. Some can only play the music while others express the music. It is like the actor that says the lines versus the one that transforms him/her self into the character of the story. You stop seeing the actor and see the character in the story instead.
Musicians then have a different nature than the average person. Not all musicians, but most. Some use music as a tool to reach a goal. I won’t give an example because even sincere musicians have gone to the dark side in the pursuit of mammon. What I am saying is musicians in general are very aware of emotions and the effects of those emotions on the human experience. That is not to say that others can’t or don’t understand deeper things of life, but a musician goes a little further into the understanding. We term it as having a broader or deeper understanding.
Musicians are artists. Just like a painter puts colors on a canvas that captivate us that for a moment in time and takes us to another place, not literally, but we are transported into the world of the picture. We can see the Eagle in flight and almost see from the Eagle’s eyes. We can imagine we are there with all the aromas of the grasses, flowers and trees. The sound of the wind is almost audible. The musician also creates a world – a world of sound. How many of us can hear opening music and know it is about space, a science or science fiction themed story? What about suspense? Can you imagine suspenseful music? Do you feel the suspense when you hear that type of music? So the musician helps to create the emotional portion of movie. But, the musician can also create a picture in your mind and the interesting thing is that we paint to picture based on our understanding of life and the experiences we have had. If you heard a section of music with strong powerful low strings and high strings playing chords with prolonged voicing, would you tend to think of canyons? Maybe a raging sea from a high quieter vantage point? The musician is also a painter of images but we the listener assemble the images from the images of places we have been or seen in pictures.
So we can say of a musician:
They can play an instrument.
They understand emotion and can express and invoke emotion.
They can create a world in our imagination both in sound and imagery.
They are of reasonable intelligence being able to grasp the concepts of music and apply them.
Musicians also have incredible memory. Can you imagine memorizing say 400 short stories word for word? That it what a music does with music. He/she remembers every note of hundreds of songs in sequential order and the keys in which those notes are played and the tempo. Those that rely on sheet music have a different type of mental faculty. That is the ability to see a graphic representation of a note/notes, then extract the duration and pitch and instantly audiate and transfrom the graphics into sound and know where the pitches are located on the instrument of choice and execute while doing the same for the next note. Just the way we read words from one to the next, the musician reads the graphic information and translates it to sound instantaneously enough to keep time and perform the music live. Any one that has ever tried understands the significance of that ability.
Does this make them better than the average person? No in a general sense, but yes in specific senses. But that is true of the mathematician or the chemist or anyone that pursues a specif area of knowldedge.
Many speak of attaining certain levels in musicianship. That some are better than others. The truth of that depends on your perspective. A person that can perform 32nd notes at 120 bpm is certainly able to play fast. But what about quality? Is every note clean and clear and expressed as 1/32? Quality of playing and speed are two different things. To me, extremely fast notes can be very effective in a piece of music, but if that is all they play, it can get old. I am amazed at the speed of the performance, but content is nearly zero for me. Some can play every note of a given piece correctly including the timing, but it lacks something. It sounds sort of mechanical. While another musician can play the same piece and it sounds better to us. I believe it is the difference between reciting and expressing. Much the same as the two actors. One recites the lines, but the other places themselves in the context of the word and speaks with vocal expression and imparts the emotion and intent of the words. Music is the same. One can express or one can recite.
So when one says musician A is better than musician B, I have to ask better at what? Speed? Quality of notes – ie clear or sloppy with error? Better at expressing the emotion/intent of the music? Better at what?
In my view there are levels, but not like one would normally think of levels.
First there are people that listen to music. It us usually in the background and just sort of fills a space.
Second there are people that listen to music more deeply. They will put on music and sit and listen to it as the main activity of the moment.
Third there a people that express a desire to play music. You hear them all the time. “I wish I could do that.” is a common phrase.
Fourth is the person that loves music enough to learn an instrument. They play recreationally at home, for others or just because they enjoy playing music. They will learn a few chords and mayble pick out some melodies on a guitar or piano.
Fifth is the person that is hungry to learn more, they dedicate time to the study of music and their instrument. They seek to understand the patterns found in all instruments. We call them scales. They seek to understand the difference between playing a pitch and expressing a note. They strive for quality in the performance of notes, striving to play each note clearly and in time understanding that every note in a sequence plays an important role and each note is as important as the next. They want excellence in every aspect of performing music.
Sixth is the musician that delves into the emotion of music and seeks to understand it fully and to express those emotions. Regard for playing fast or slow is only thought of with the impact it will have on expressing the emotion on creating the world that is being created.
Seventh is the musician that seeks to create music. These are the ones, that aren’t satisfied with performing the tunes of others. They can and do perform the music of others because it is necessary in the learning process of music. They are driven by the beauty and the passion for music in creating new music that no one has heard. Anyone that has learned to paint has at some point used another’s painting as learning tool. Maybe there are exceptions, but most will use either another’s painting or a photo of a scene to begin learning form, color and values. The same is true of music. Most instructors will use established music to teach others to play.
This seventh category of musician is those driven to create music and finds the most reward and satisfaction from creating new music.
Notice that I numbered the types of people and how they relate to music. This is not in order from worst to best or vice versa. It is simply a list. Is it better to create music that recite it? Than depends on where you are in the list. I suspect a creator of music would thinks so. I think it is more important to the creator, but I don’t necessarily think is is better. I think it is more of a deeper understanding, love and passion for what music is. We all are creators. It is in the very nature of human existence. Some think of it as the highest level of musicianship. I think of it as the deepest level.
The one thing that marks a musician from the average person is the love of music. They love it enough to set aside time to learn about it and practice their instrument until they can play. Some love it enough to go beyond being able to play. I think that if music is a ‘gift’ as some say, it is ‘given’ to those whose nature is to love and understand the emotional nature of man and that appreciates beauty enough to want to add some to the world.
It is foreign to me to try and decide who is best. To me the ‘better’ musician is the one that reaches me with their music. I cannot know the feelings of a musician so I cannot gauge their love for music. The only measurement I have is to see the fruit of that love and from that I can determine where they fit in the list. One may be a creator and not necessarily be the fastest or deliver the highest quality of performance. Musicians that are not the most skilled have moved me to tears. Some that are obviously skillful at execution have moved me to tears. In my thinking that puts both on the same ‘level’.
So there are some of my thoughts for what they are worth. There are many perspectives in the world. I have met some that don’t care at all about music. I suspect if it were removed from the world they would miss it though. I am not saying right or wrong here, merely sharing my thoughts for what it is worth.