Musicality versus Musicianship

I have heard many times, “That person is so musical!” This is always a complement.

I have also heard, “That woman is such a good musician.” You would think these two things would always go together.

They do not.

I know quite a few people who are excellent musicians. They can read or play very difficult, complex music easily. They are knowledgeable about their particular skill (conducting, orchestrating or arranging, playing an instrument or singing). They can analyze difficult pieces with complex ingredients. They can talk about music in highly sophisticated terms. These people, certainly, are excellent musicians. Unfortunately, some of them, when it comes to making music, aren’t too good.

What does it mean to make music, to be musical? There is no universal scale as to what musicality is or should be. Some people probably don’t really value it as they don’t understand it well. This is a big problem because the good musicians are often the ones who get the jobs, the important jobs, because they have quantifiable skills. It doesn’t mean they deserve the jobs, but if they have them, they don’t necessarily value or reward the people who work with or under them who have equal musicianship but are also musical.

You can also be very musical and not a great musician. An example of that would be Luciano Pavarotti, who, I am told was not really a trained musician and learned most of what he performed by rote or by ear. Perhaps this isn’t true, but he wasn’t known for being able to sing all kinds of material. He mostly stuck to Italian Romantic repertoire, going only occasionally outside to other languages and composers. He was, we can suppose, not a fabulous musician, but he was so incredibly musical, no one really cared. I wonder, too, if Barbra Streisand reads music. My guess is that she does not. If not, it certainly would not have mattered there, either.

Someone who is musical automatically responds fully, easily and deeply to music. A musical person doesn’t need to wonder about the relationship between music and emotion, as they are completely the same. A musical person “just knows” how to express the music and doesn’t have to ponder how that is done. Each artist is different in how he or she expresses a piece, but there is no doubt as to “the way it goes” when the music is being performed, and it’s not about the black blobs on the page.

It is very hard, then, for a musical person to work with or under someone who is just a good musician. They wonder, always, “What is WRONG with this person, do they not hear that this is not how the music should go?” It seems impossible to a very musical person that the obvious emotional meaning of the music isn’t as plain as day to others and it can be very frustrating to hear music performed in a manner that is dry, static, flat, mechanical, dull, predictable or shaky.

Audiences will always respond to musicality, but they might not realize that this is what they are doing. Emotion is always what people want to hear and will respond to and remember. You cannot substitute this for a performance that is not also good in terms of the musicianship, but without it, the accuracy or the complexity of the music alone will only impress others who are also good musicians.

I was told that a famous composer, perhaps Stravinsky or Copland, said there was no such thing as emotion in music, and I suspect that perhaps John Cage thought so, too. I think Balanchine said that about dance and perhaps also Merce Cunningham. I have not done the work to see if these statements are facts or just rumors I have heard, so don’t hold me to them, but I wonder then, if they did have that opinion, how is it that others find emotional meaning in their work? How does such an attitude contrast with the work of someone like Martha Graham, who said that all movement had universal expression, including emotional meaning.

Is this a male/female thing? Do women feel more than men and express more as well? Is expressing emotion taboo? Is it just “being sentimental?” (a very bad thing in a lot of artistic circles) Many of the arts are controlled by men, although there are many women artists who are not in decision-making jobs. If you look at who conducts operas and orchestras, who is being commissioned to write operas and new orchestral works, if you look at who is running the companies, orchestras, and who is doing the hiring, pretty much you will find that the predominant group is male. Hmmmmmmm.

I don’t know if any of this has to do with the ability to be musical, to find in music an authentic emotional landscape that is revealed as movement, and expressed as sound through pitches, rhythm and sometimes words. I do know that I am always going to be more interested in hearing someone perform a piece that is musically expressive and will pass up the one that is intellectually intricate, accurate and really forgettable.

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2 thoughts on “Musicality versus Musicianship”

  1. The idea of some 20th c. composers that music has no inherent emotion links to the old broader argument of art for art’s sake vs. art at the service of humanity (or politics or an ideology). It was a trend in the 20th c. to have music (and dance) not be read as “progammatic” or “about anything.” Schoenberg was the first, but Stravinsky and many others had similar ideas. I think some of those composers had a change of heart in later years, but not all. Great book I just read on 20th c. music: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century by Alex Ross. All that said, I like your explanation of what it means to be musical, Jeanie.

  2. Musicality is expressiveness – making music with meaning and beauty. You are one with the music, spiritually and consciously.

    Musicianship is professionalism – making music with standards and rigor. You are the servant of the music, always conscientious.

    Some of both is needed, but right now, musicianship is prized far more.

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