Am I Musical?

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question markThe term 'musical' is one that puzzles me greatly. You might think that someone in my line of work would know what it means, but in fact I see it being used in multiple different ways. Some of these I find at least moderately problematic, especially when they get muddled up with other uses.

(Indeed, when I was involved in writing course documentation for degrees in performance and composition, we avoided the word 'musicality' in favour of 'musicianship' for precisely this reason. There's enough anxiety around assessment criteria without loading the terms.)

The term gets used in (at least) three different ways.

First, in the sense that musicality is a natural, inherent quality that you either have or you don't. Now, this is a problematic notion in all kinds of ways that I and others have talked about before. There may be genetic components to musical aptitudes, but if we go around attributing any and all musical success to this, you create a category of the 'unmusical' and thereby lock a whole swathe of the population out of rewarding participation.

The second way is to identify musical training, particularly in the dimensions of music literacy. When someone says, 'Oh I love music, but I'm not musical', this is usually what they mean - they respond with pleasure but wouldn't know what to do with a bit of sheet music. This, by itself, is less of a problematic usage, as it is more factual and less loaded. It recognises musical technical skills as something that are acquired, and thereby allow you do things you wouldn't otherwise be able to.

Of course, it becomes deeply problematic when it gets tangled up with the first usage. To say someone 'isn't musical' carries a double meaning that elides a fact about their background (they didn't learn as a child) with a judgement about their capacities ('they don't have a musical bone in their body'). Excuse me? Who are you to judge?

The third way the term gets used distinguishes between types of musical skill. A performance that is rich in nuance/shaping/phrasing will be deemed 'musical' whereas one which is more four-square/mechanical/only-the-notes-and-words will be deemed 'unmusical'.

It is therefore possible to be 'musical' under usage two, but 'unmusical' in usage three, which may lead people to make judgements about your 'natural' capacities under definition one.

If I were going to use the term, it would be usage three I'd find most useful. There is a point to be made that some performances get inside the musical structures and bring them to life in a way that others don't. I used the metaphor of music as particle or as wave some years ago to make this distinction.

But given the muddying and counter-productive connotations of the first two definitions, I'd rather forgo the word at all. It isn't a great hardship to use synonyms such as 'insightful', or 'imaginative' instead.

I'd reserve the word "musical" for usage #3. The main distinction, in my mind, is that while musicianship skills (as in usage #2) must always be taught -- no one knows from the womb how to identify a minor third -- musicality, while teachable, is in many performers absorbed directly from hearing musical performances. Furthermore, musicality is very much tied into different styles: what is musical for Bach would be meaningless in jazz or hiphop but they share the language of notes, rests, rhythms, chords, etc. at least to some degree.

I like to use the word "talent" for the first meaning and "skills" for the second.

Excellent topic for discussion, and these three meanings should be clearly understood by every person, regardless of what words are used to describe them.

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