Music Theory, Musicianship, and Music Careers
In my first semester of college, one of the electives I took was a course on music recording technology. Of the twenty or so students in the class, only one other student aside from me completed the music theory/aural skills course sequence.1 The rest were aspiring rappers and rockers who wanted to learn the technology they needed to make their beats and record their hooks and licks without having to learn the language of music, which would have showed them how to assess whether or not their licks, hooks, and chord progressions were any good.
One kid in particular bragged about how he purposefully abstained from learning music theory because he didn’t want it to ruin music for him, for music to lose its magic. And I’ve heard similar sentiments from other people as well. After several years of reflecting on the importance of learning music theory for one’s career as a musician, I developed the following philosophy: Studying music doesn’t take away its magic; it turns you into a magician. This philosophy also applies to non-musicians too: the more a listener learns about music, the more intimate will be his/her experience with it.
My music professors made sure to emphasize that nearly all professional, working musicians did more than one “thing,” by which meant revenue-generating music-related activities. In other words, most professional musicians earn a living not just performing music in professional ensembles, but also teaching lessons and classes, composing or arranging music, and, less commonly, writing about music. This book is part of my attempt to carve out a career as a musician.
1These courses are the fundamental courses for becoming a professional musician. They teach the language of music, and at some schools, aural skills courses are called ‘musicianship’ courses. Music theory and musicianship can be thought of as opposite skills. Whereas music theory teaches students how to hear (in their heads) and understand written music without it actually being played, musicianship teaches them how to transcribe and understand music they hear (from a live or recorded source), though these are overly simplistic definitions.
Sometimes when professional musicians use the term musicianship, they are not referring broadly to a quality possessed by anyone playing an instrument or singing, but to the specific set of skills developed in a musicianship class: interval recognition (e.g. perfect fifth, major sixth, etc.), chord quality recognition (mostly triads and seventh chords), and chord function recognition (with respect to the key/scale of the music, which note is the root, and how is that chord used?). The music profession recognizes these skills as basic and fundamental, so even if someone becomes a financially successful music performer (e.g. rockstar, singer-songwriter, rapper) despite not having developed these skills, s/he will not be recognized by the profession as a strong musician. For more on the ‘Rockstar Myth,’ see Chapters 8 and 9.