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On Musicianship and Musicality

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Every so often I like to baffle myself with philosophical questions, such as:

Is it possible to have moral integrity without intellectual integrity?

We’re not going to explore that one today, but I offer it to you in case you enjoy this kind of thing too.

Today’s question is possibly less abstract (in the way it is expressed, at any rate, if not in consequence):

Is it possible to be musical, but lack musicianship, and vice versa?

(Spoiler alert. I think the answer to both may end up as: to an extent, but not entirely.)

So, musicality is a term with multiple usages, but for today’s purposes we’ll take it in the sense that John Sloboda uses it, to mean a form of implicit, intuitive understanding of musical shape, and of the way that musical sounds map onto patterns of extra-musical experience. It is often (erroneously) considered ‘innate’ because it emerges without apparent formal instruction. But it is certainly a learned capacity, not inborn, although it is learned in the kinds of immersive, informal contexts we pick up things like language and accent.

Sloboda’s work has showed how important play is for the development of musicality. Self-directed, experimental activity that manipulates the stuff of music (aka ‘mucking about’) is how you connect up the content of a style with the affective shapes it signifies within your culture.

Musicianship is more to do with fluency at handling the syntactic elements of a style. It is taught formally in those traditions propagated by formal teaching structures, and often involves drill in practice: whether that be your scales and arpeggios or your licks and changes. Competent musicians need to know their way round the keys and chords. It is related to music theory (in the sense of notation and analysis) but operates in a practical dimension. To the extent that a musical tradition uses dots, musicianship involves their practical manipulation: aural dictation, sight-reading, transposition, harmonisation.

So, can you have one without the other? When we meet a totally untrained singer with a wonderful feel for melodic shape, we may be tempted to label them as being musical but not having musicianship skills. But in fact, they only became a wonderful singer through dedicated effort, even in the absence of training through formal routes. So they will have developed a significant substrate of musicianship through this practice, just not in a form that includes declarative knowledge of music theory.

Conversely, someone with a confident grasp of technical elements who produces blocky or mechanical performances may be labelled as having musicianship without musicality. But it is clearly a limited musicianship if it includes only the capacity to label and analyse without the wherewithal also to synthesise into bigger musical shapes and structures.

If musicianship is the ‘what’ of music and musicality is the ‘how’, you need both to generate meaning. Shaping something without understanding the structure produces garbled or mixed musical messages; projecting content without shaping it is like reading a story book in a monotone.

To inflect my initial guess as to what the answer would be: to the extent a musician has musicality without musicianship, or vice versa, defines what they need to develop next to become rounded in their skills.

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