What is "musicianship?"

a. Musicianship skills are those beyond the physical technique of playing an instrument or singing, and reading notation. They enable us to express our own musical thoughts and to understand the musical thoughts of others more deeply, like becoming truly fluent in a language.

b. The term "musicianship" often refers to ear training, sight singing, music theory, and functional keyboard skills classes. These are often divided into separate classes which music students may be required to take in college and in college preparatory programs. Skills and knowledge associated with musicianship may include:

  • music theory
  • aural skills
  • singing or playing in tune
  • improvisation
  • playing by ear
  • choral part-singing
  • vocal harmonization
  • keyboard harmonization
  • sight reading

  • What is the point of musicianship classes if I already sound good on my instrument?

    Wouldn't it be strange if you didn't know what a sentence sounded like until you spoke it, or what it meant? Or if you could only recite books, poems, and speeches aloud, but couldn't form your own sentences? What would it mean about the way you think, if you couldn't think in your own words?

    Just because of the particular way our society has developed, many formally trained music makers have this kind of a relationship with music. Of course reciting poems and stories can be a very satisfying act, and we can get very in depth about how to use our voices and faces and bodies to express the words of others in unique and personal ways. But think of how satisfying it is to fluently express our own ideas, and imagine how much more we'd understand those poems and stories written by others if we could understand the language well enough to make our own. This fluency and depth of understanding is what Creative Musicianship can help music makers develop.

    Do I need to be able to play an instrument or sing already to take musicianship classes?

    Actually, no! Although these classes are designed to support traditional music lessons or those wishing to expand their skills, they are also an effective and efficient way to hone your ear or get started singing or playing the piano.

    What is ear training?

    In ear training classes students learn to understand the language of music just from listening to it, without needing to see notation. Many ear training classes include opportunities for students to learn to write down pitches and/or rhythms they hear (dictation or transcription), sing and identify chords and the distances between pitches, and sing on solfége syllables. Often these skills are broken down into tiny pieces and drilled over and over and over again…

    What is the difference between playing by ear and ear training?

    Ear training is a class or a learning sequence focusing on recognition and identification. It is often taught towards applications related to notation, like notational audiation (hearing the music in your head that you see on a page), sight singing, or taking dictation. To learn more, click here.

    Playing by ear is the act of hearing music and then playing it on an instrument. There was a fascinating research study conducted in 2010 in which "ear players" were more successful on ear training tasks than formally trained musicians. Hmm…

    What are aural skills?

    Some people use the term "aural skills" synonymously with "ear training." Others define "aural skills" as a course combining "ear training" with "sight singing."

    What are sight singing and sight reading?

    Sight singing and sight reading are activities in which a person could pick up a piece of unfamiliar sheet music and perform it, the way you might be able to pick up a book you've never read before and read it aloud. However, since singing is not such a mechanical process as playing an instrument, sight singing requires most people to know what the music sounds like before they utter a sound, even if only a fraction of a second before they sing…

    What is solfége?

    Solfége is a set of syllables used to refer to pitches. There are various versions, but most involve the syllables Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti, or Si. Some use solfége the same way we use letter names- C is always C, always the same fingering on the instrument, always the same sound. But some use solfége to denote the function of a pitch in a key. So, for example, Do would always be the "tonic," or the "home" note in a major scale. Solfége is often used in aural skills classes. For some, it's mostly tradition. Others insist it's easier to sing on solfége syllables that to sing on letters or numbers. Still others assert that, if people learn to associate the sound/feeling/function of pitches with solfége syllables early in life, it can be a valuable language through which to build musical comprehension.

    What are "keyboard skills," "functional keyboard," and "functional piano?"

    Short answer- they're all the same thing. Have you ever been at a birthday party where someone suddenly leaps to the piano and starts accompanying everyone singing Happy Birthday without sheet music? This would be an example of someone with "functional" piano skills. "Functional piano" is a term that was often used in the mid 20th century to refer to skills pianists might use to play in different keys (transpose), to play music where not all of it is written down (like from a fake book, or figured bass), and to create harmonies to a melody by ear (harmonization).

    What is music theory?

    Music theory is a way of noticing, understanding, and describing of the way music is built.

    Imagine if you had to build a house, but all you could see as an example was what's visible. You'd have to build the house without being able to see the stud beams, the way the foundation was dug or the cement was poured, the plumbing, the electrical wires, etc. You might be able to create something that looked like your house, but… you get the picture! It's hard to create or re-create something without understanding how it is built, and this understanding is what music theory is about.

    What is intonation?

    Intonation is, simply put, singing or playing in tune. Improving skills in intonation involves training ourselves to listen to ourselves, compare the pitch we're producing with something else (either a memory we have, or someone else playing or singing), and learning what we need to do physically in order to adjust our pitch.

    What is harmonization?

    The term harmonization is commonly used to refer to the skill of accompanying a melody without full notation, often on a keyboard. There could be "symbols" of some sort, such as chord symbols or figured bass, or you might need to figure out what the chords are by ear. I also use the term to apply to vocalists and instrumentalists harmonizing with a melody by ear.