What Is Musicianship and How Do You Develop Musicianship Skills?
In this piece, a master musician explains the key skills for modern musicianship and offers tips on how to develop them. Core musicianship skills include music reading and writing, ear training, performance, composition, improvisation, and transcription. Other musicianship skills include music production, music business, arranging music and teaching.
What is musicianship? In this article, we will explore:
- Primary skills: ear training, reading, and writing (transcription)
- Instrumental and ensemble performance (includes voice) for studio and stage
- Creating a good sound, timbre (tone), blending
- Accuracy: intonation, phrasing and feel
- Audience and stage communication (performers only)
- Composition, improvisation, arranging, and production
- Odds and ends: music industry, touring, audio engineering (studio and live), conducting, music therapy, and teaching music
- Expressing your emotions
There are so many different styles of music and different kinds of musicians available to the active listener and creative performer today. The list of genres and sub-genres is seemingly endless. Some musicians dedicate themselves to playing one style of music; others play many styles convincingly. Some musicians are primarily performers; others focus on writing, composing, recording, or teaching. Most artists tend to listen to music outside their own genres for inspiration. Perhaps surprisingly, many accomplished musicians from all styles of music tend to agree on what constitutes great musicianship. At the highest levels of music, there is general agreement about the skills a musician should have. As a music student, focusing on developing solid musicianship skills should be a definite priority.
But what specifically are musicianship skills and what is musicianship? How does one develop great musicianship skills? It’s true that some people are just born with amazing natural talent, but even those individuals must study and work hard to develop real musicianship. Think of musicianship as a foundation. As lifelong learners, musicians continue to study and practice even after they have built solid skills, in order to deepen their understanding and keep their skills as sharp as possible. To be successful as a professional musician, you will need certain skills to get the gigs. We are fortunate that so many have gone before us and laid out various paths to acquiring and developing musicianship.
Primary Skills: Ear Training, Reading and Writing Music
As I’ve said, most musicians agree musicianship as a whole requires a certain set of core skills. All of these skills are equally important, and the order of presentation here is not meant to imply that any one skill comes before another. All the skills are primary skills and should be studied concurrently, not consecutively. These primary skills are mostly related to playing an instrument (voice is considered an instrument), singing (also for instrumentalists), being musically literate (reading and writing music), and playing or singing with others in a group. Also, it’s important to develop a good sound, be accurate with notes and rhythm, learn to compose, improvise, arrange music for and direct ensembles, communicate with the audience, and to build a vast repertoire.
Of course, all of this takes some time. Becoming a master musician will take as much time as it takes to learn to be a Doctor, a Lawyer, or any other kind of advanced professional. From the time one starts getting serious about learning music, expect it to take somewhere between 10-12 years to master all aspects of musicianship. Some people will do it more quickly, but this is a very realistic estimate for most aspiring professionals.
Ear Training Skills
What is known as ear training actually has little to do with training your ears. Your ears probably work better than mine (hearing loss is common among aging musicians). What we are talking about here is memory training. In the same way, you can learn to recognize your different friends’ voices over the phone, you can learn to differentiate between notes and chords that you hear. This does take some practice. I’m not talking about perfect pitch, which very few people actually have, and won’t always help that much. (There are even some supposed disadvantages to having perfect pitch.) There is something called relative pitch any musician can learn, though it typically takes a few years of work to get there. Relative pitch is the ability to hear any note in relation to any other note and know exactly what it is. Obviously, this is a very valuable musicianship skill.
How to acquire perfect relative pitch? There are two things to practice and they are like two sides of the same coin. Think of it this way:
- Take music on the page and put it into the air. This is called performing.
- Take music out of the air and put it onto the page. This is called transcribing.
Another, simpler way to describe this is that performing is reading, and transcribing is writing.
We do the performing part using only our voice, without any instrument. (You can use a piano or guitar to check yourself for accuracy as you go.) This means that even non-singers must learn to approximate pitches and rhythms using their voice and by tapping or clapping. While we are performing, the goal is to create a pleasing sound, but it’s not the main point. We generally use established musical works for ear training performance, while focusing on these qualities:
- In time without stopping
- In tune (accurate intonation)
- Using solfege syllables (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti)
- While conducting in correct meter
- Using dynamics
- With accuracy
- With expressiveness
This kind of training is best done under the guidance of a Teacher, but there are also software programs and training videos available.
For transcribing, we work with short examples (4-8 bars) of music, writing it out using standard musical notation after hearing it a number of times. Ear training is also best done with a group or class, since part of the focus is on harmonic (polyphonic) awareness while performing. The main goal of ear training is to improve musical literacy and musical memory. These are crucial musicianship skills that musicians use every day of their lives. Students attending music schools usually complete several years of ear training classes, sometimes also called <em<solfege. There are also two kinds of ear training: one uses the fixed Do, where the note C is always Do, and the other is moveable Do, which always calls the key center Do. Most classical musicians use the former, while contemporary (pop, jazz, rock, etc.) musicians use the latter. I’ve found the moveable Do system to be most helpful, especially for transposing music from one key to another.
Of all the primary musicianship skills, ear training skills are perhaps the most useful and important to acquire.
Instrumental and Ensemble Performance (Includes Voice)
It seems almost too obvious to say that to become a great musician, one should have absolute mastery of playing an instrument. For our purposes, the voice is also an instrument, and it is recommended that all Vocalists also learn to play a second instrument such as piano or guitar. Regardless of principal instrument, most musicians also play piano. Piano is an ideal instrument to build musicianship skills on because of the linear aspect of the keyboard and the wide range of the instrument (from lowest to highest note). There are instrumental techniques unique to every instrument, and learning all the available and useful techniques for at least one instrument is considered to be an absolute prerequisite to musicianship. Even Orchestra Conductors must know how to play an instrument well. Anyone looking to enter a teaching career would also have to be an expert on the instrument they plan to teach.
Beyond playing an instrument well, musicians must learn techniques for playing in an ensemble. The word ensemble comes from the French language and the literal meaning is a “collection.” We use the term in English to denote a group of musical performers. Playing in an ensemble requires listening skills, plus the ability to mix your sound with the other musicians in a pleasant way. The best way to become a great ensemble performer is to practice together, performing with other musicians in a group as often as possible. It can also help to play along with recordings, which is a good way to learn music before going into rehearsals. As a side note, most professional musicians differentiate between time spent working on their instrument alone, called practicing, and working on the music in a group, called rehearsing.
A reggae piece will have a different rhythmic feel from a rock and roll or classical piece of music. Applying the appropriate feel when performing figures or phrases is a musicianship skill that requires careful listening, and is especially important when providing accompaniment, such as playing in a rhythm section (an ensemble with bass, drums, piano, and guitar or other chording instrument).
Creating a Good Sound, Timbre (Tone), Blending
As mentioned above, playing in a group requires carefully blending the sound of your instrument with the sound of the other instruments. Most musicians work very hard on this special skill because it makes them much more valuable to the group. It’s also especially important for vocalists when they are singing harmony, or background vocal parts. It’s much more difficult to sing background vocals than lead, because of the need to blend the sound. Due to this, professional Background Vocalists are usually in greater demand than Lead Singers.
Besides blending, it’s important to create a good quality sound on your instrument. It’s not as simple as it might seem at first, not least of all because sound quality is somewhat subjective. Not everyone likes the same things, so what might be a “good” sound to one person might not be the best to another. Musicians use the word timbre (pronounced: “tam-ber”) to talk about the quality of musical sound. While best understood as a synonym to tone, it’s actually a bit different in that it encompasses more characteristics of the sound. We think of “tone” as meaning more or less treble, mid-range, or bass, but timbre also incudes aspects of sound quality and resonance, as well as tone. The dictionary defines timbre as “the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity.”
Accuracy: Intonation, Articulation, Phrasing and Feel
As we describe these aspects of musicianship, we can think about all the qualities that make music sound great, and how music is created. Most musicians do know how to read music, but not all do. Whether reading or not, a master musician will be very accurate in the placement of their notes. This accuracy applies to both pitch and rhythm. After all, a note played using the wrong rhythm is a wrong note, even if the pitch is correct. Many melodies are well-known and musicians should not take too many liberties in playing those melodies. Notes also must be played accurately in tune; with what we term accurate intonation.
Articulation refers to the emphasis or accent given to a note or chord. It also describes the characteristics of the attack and release, sometimes called the sound envelope. Every note has a beginning, a middle, and an end, called the attack, sustain, and release respectively. Typical articulations and embellishments used in music are the accent, tenuto, staccato, legato, slur, trill, glissando, fermata, sforzando, and the tremolo, though these aren’t the only ones. Master musicians use articulations and embellishments to bring emotional expression to the music.
Along with articulations, musicians use phrasing to express musical ideas, such as in a melody or chord progression. Referring to a melody or a bass line, a short musical statement of a bar or less is called a figure, while several figures strung together into 2-4 bars is called a phrase. Most phrases in music are 4 bars long, and also include rests. (A rest is considered a note.) Just like a note, every figure and phrase has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Connecting enough phrases together creates a song or a musical work. Recognition of and mastery of phrasing is a key musicianship skill.
Performing a figure or a phrase with the correct idiomatic rhythmic interpretation, along with application of articulations, and with accuracy, is known as feel. For example, a reggae piece will have a different rhythmic feel from a rock and roll or classical piece of music. Applying the appropriate feel when performing figures or phrases is a musicianship skill that requires careful listening, and is especially important when providing accompaniment, such as playing in a rhythm section (an ensemble with bass, drums, piano, and guitar or other chording instrument).
Audience and Stage Communication, Cues (Performers Only)
When performing with an ensemble, it’s important to maintain communication with the other musicians and the audience. If there is a Conductor or ensemble leader, all the performers should be watching carefully for cues, or signals containing specific instructions about the music. A cue can be overt, such as a hand gesture or body movement, or can be very subtle, as in a glance or a facial expression. Cues can also be part of the music itself, such as a vocal cue (when the singer starts singing). Different groups and musicians will approach cues differently, and it is usually worked out in advance.
Properly given and received, cues alert the musicians to an impending transition, such as an upcoming chorus or bridge, and can signal dynamic or feel changes. Another example of a cue would be letting the soloist know in advance that their solo part is about to begin. Musicians are sharing cues with each other on stage all the time, and many of these cues are designed to be unnoticeable to the audience. An important part of musicianship as it pertains to ensemble performance is the giving and receiving of cues, and this can take some advance preparation and practice, as part of learning to play the music properly in the group.
Besides stage communication among the ensemble performers, there is also audience communication. This might logically evolve out of the stage communications (cues) as the performers, through their movements and facial expressions, also share cues with the audience. Audience communication and cueing the audience is an art form. Livingston Taylor calls it the “care and feeding of your audience.” One clear example: at the end of a song, or a concert, the musicians must let the audience know when the piece is finished, so they can respond with applause. This is most often done with visual (body movement and facial expressions) and verbal cues. If you watch master musicians performing in front of an audience you can notice the ways they interact with the audience, allowing the audience to “give back” at crucial moments. Live performance is an energy exchange flowing in both directions, from the stage to the audience and back again. Performing live is an important musicianship skill most musicians learn to master. This might also include techniques for dealing with performance anxiety.
If you show up at a jam session or a gig, often the first question you will be asked is “what songs do you know?” It’s super important to have a vast repertoire of songs memorized; I really can’t stress this enough. I remember when I was much younger I met a professional guitarist and singer at a festival in Europe. I was amazed when he estimated he knew 6,000 songs. When I went to music school I think I knew about 50 songs by heart. When I graduated I knew about 500. Now, I can say I know 5,000 songs. I think I’ve forgotten more songs than most people know! Knowing a song means you can play (or sing) the melody in different keys, and also know and can play the chord progression. Expanding your repertoire should be one of the primary goals of any young musician. Make sure to learn music from different genres. It doesn’t mean you will actually perform every piece, but you should at least know the melody and chord progression, and the lyrics, too. Even if you are an instrumentalist, you should learn the lyrics to the songs, because the lyric shows the intent of the melody. Upgrading and expanding your repertoire should be worked at assiduously over a long time.
Besides stage communication among the ensemble performers, there is also audience communication. This might logically evolve out of the stage communications (cues) as the performers, through their movements and facial expressions, also share cues with the audience. Audience communication and cueing the audience is an art form. Livingston Taylor calls it the “care and feeding of your audience.”
Composition, Improvisation, Arranging, and Production
There are many techniques used in composing. At its core, composing is transferring music from your head onto paper or your instrument. A composition doesn’t need to be written down to exist; for example, many Songwriters don’t actually “write” anything. For good musicianship, writing music down from your head is nevertheless an important skill. The process is similar whether you are transcribing something you’ve heard, or setting to paper the music you hear in your head. This skill is also closely related to improvisation, or making up music on the spot. I like to say that composition is improvisation in slow motion, while improvisation is composition speeded up. Throughout history, most of the great Composers could improvise, and most of the great improvisers, for example in Jazz, were also Composers. Mozart was reputed to be a proficient improviser of music and would play improvised music for hours at parties.
Arranging is taking an established piece of music and adapting it to a specific combination of musical instruments, usually (but not always) in an ensemble. Arrangers make decisions about form, key, style, instrumentation, accompaniment, solos, and other aspects that, taken together, determine how the music is presented and what it will sound like. Arrangers need strong skills in transcription, composition, and scoring. Arranging music is a useful and important skill.
Over the last few decades, with the radical advancement of music technology, especially synthesis, sequencing, sampling, and with engineering and music notation software vastly improving and decreasing in cost, the music production process has become integral to music as an art form. Composing, arranging, and production have intersected in new and useful ways. With digital sampling and sequencing, a Composer can hear what their piece will sound like without commissioning a live orchestra to play it. Not every musician needs to be a master of music technology or an Engineer, but understanding the applications of technology, including with live sound reinforcement and in the recording studio, is important to almost all musicians in the 21st century.
Odds and Ends: Music Industry, Touring, Audio Engineering (Studio and Live), Conducting, Music Therapy, and Teaching Music
Solid musicianship skills are considered a prerequisite to finding and building a career in most aspects of the music industry. There are lots of roles in music where having music skills will be viewed as a strong asset to success. Besides the direct application of music (i.e. performing, composing, and arranging) many great musicians are involved in industry roles, such as A&R, tour management, live and studio production, audio engineering, music therapy, and music education. It makes sense that being a good musician will give you an edge in finding any kind of work in the music field.
Expressing Your Emotions (Say Something with Your Music)
Now that we’ve explored musicianship as a set of important skills to be developed and worked on, it’s important to remember why we are doing this. Music is a universal language, and as with all art forms, a means of expression. The emotional content of your music is at least as important to your listeners as the techniques you have mastered. Finding your artistic voice is a lifelong journey for musicians, and can also be deeply personal. The musicianship skills discussed in this article are the main tools you will need to dig deep into your soul and express the meaning you find in your musical life. Acquiring, developing, and refining your musicianship skills is an important step to achieving musical fulfillment. It takes some time to gain these skills and to be confident in your musicianship, but the time will pass anyway. It’s worth putting in the effort since strong musicianship is a basic requirement to becoming a master musician.
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