What makes someone a player of an instrument?
August 10, 2014 1:47 PM   Subscribe

I was reading this thread and one of the comments struck me: 'these people just memorized some tabs, and can't actually play guitar.' It made me wonder what is the difference between playing an instrument and simply 'memorizing some riffs'?

I am teaching myself an instrument. Much of what I do is practice scales and learn songs from books. While I wouldn't call myself a musician by a long shot, it had not occurred to me that it was possible to define what I was doing as not playing the instrument. I do think there is an argument to be made that there is a distinction between playing an instrument and just cranking out set pieces, but I'm unclear on how to define it.

So what makes someone an instrument player rather than a riff-reproduction machine?
posted by winna to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's about knowing *what* you're doing and why.

For example, I like to play with flight simulators - the kind that are super realistic and require a fair bit of studying and practice and what not to do anything interesting with.

If we were on a 777, and the flight crew all ate the fish, but I'd had the chicken, I could almost certainly land the plane without hurting too many people. That does *not* make me a pilot.

With guitar, sure, I can bang around some tunes from tabs or chord charts. You could even put me in a room with some like-minded folks, and we could have some fun. You would *not* put me on stage in front of a paying audience, because I sure as shit am not a musician.

I'm not sure any of that is a definition so much as another view of similar data. I think the general rule is about knowing what you're doing and why to the point you can make your way without any pre-existing signposts.
posted by colin_l at 1:53 PM on August 10, 2014

I don't know the answer, but your question reminds me an awful lot of the John Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment which addresses speaking/understanding a language. As you can tell from the wiki, there's been a lot written on the subject, and some of it may apply.

You might also look at other musical analogs. Classical musicians (I'm thinking of people playing Bach or Beethoven) are "only" playing notes on a page and which have been on that page for a few hundred years. Free jazz musicians (to go to the other extreme) often play in collective improvisation without fixed chords or tempos. Both could be said to be playing music, and I'd bet there's a convincing argument that the free jazz musicians aren't playing music, for some definitions of "playing" and "music," or that they are the best definition for "playing music." Likewise someone might argue that the classical musicians are just reciting music rather than playing, or some other distinction. You'll probably find people that will strongly and convincingly oppose any stance you might take on this, I'd imagine.
posted by msbrauer at 1:58 PM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

What makes someone a player of an instrument is if they play it. Anything outside of that is snobbery.

I play a bunch of instruments, some (much) better than others, and have spent large chunks of my life with people who are Into Music. I've heard classical musicians complain that jazz musicians aren't "real" musicians, because they just play whatever they want. I've heard jazz musicians say the same about classical musicians, because they just play what's on the page and don't ever have to rely on their musical knowledge to make things blend or work. Pop musicians get dinged for being "too formulaic" or not complex enough, or because they're just copying someone else's riff. Drummers aren't real musicians because any asshole can hit things with a stick. Trombones aren't real instruments because they don't even have fingerings. Various native instruments aren't real instruments (or real music) because they're "too primative"; various classical-styled things aren't real because they're "too formal". This is all shit that I've heard people say with a totally straight face.

It literally doesn't matter what you're playing or how skilled, talented, or experienced you are--someone out there's going to be only too happy to shit on the generic you for not doing music they way they feel you should do music. And that person is an insecure asshole who should be pitied and then ignored.
posted by MeghanC at 2:12 PM on August 10, 2014 [54 favorites]

I once asked a musician how anyone can tell if a conductor is any good. He replied "The orchestra knows."

Preferences and snobbery aside, a musician knows a musician when he plays with him.

OTOH, if a fifth grader with three lessons says "I play the clarinet," I will not say her nae.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:20 PM on August 10, 2014

I can't favorite MeghanC's comment hard enough.

You are teaching yourself to play an instrument. Ergo, you are a player of that instrument. You can categorize yourself as a novice player of that instrument, or a beginning player of that instrument, but you are nonetheless a player of that instrument.

At last count, I play 49 instruments. I am a Band Geek. I do not play them all equally well. My piccolo is awesome. My accordion, not so much. I rock the flute. I struggle with the french horn. I've been paid to play the piano, so I've been a Paid Professional Musician.

You play your instrument, winna. You go and you play the hell out of it. And you call yourself a player of that thing. Because you are.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:20 PM on August 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Well, it's kind of semantics. If you're touching the instrument and sounds come out hey guess what- you're playing it!

What that person was trying to say with "can't actually play" is that the person is doing it by rote. I'm sure you've had some experience in life with someone doing something by rote- they memorize a series of facts or instructions, so it might work, but they don't know *why* it works, and they can't improvise or succeed at all without following those exact steps.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:21 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

If I put myself in the mindset of that comment you linked to, here is what I think it is trying to express... I am not sure how accurate it actually is, but I don't think it's entirely false...

Some people kind of "fetishize" the idea of playing guitar, or of being a guitar player, but without actually being very interested in using the instrument to perform actual music, instead focusing on superficial aspects, such as gear, models, showing off, using shredding skills to impress, and so on...

This seems to be most culturally widespread for the electric guitar in particular, perhaps because so many masculine idols have been guitarists, viz. Hendrix and various other rock stars.

Someone doing this would be inclined to learn a few "impressive" things in a rote way, and then focus excessively on external validation, bragging, and such.

Perhaps there is an element of narcissism in much of music, or even art in general, but it needs to be balanced with sincere learning, some understanding of fundamentals, some creativity, some humility, some cooperation...

The pathological case is the semi-mythical "shredding guitar dude at Guitar Center," who may be more of a cultural archetype than an actual kind of person, but I don't hang out at those places enough to say for sure.

But actually, I don't think you get to the point of impressive shredding without learning quite a significant amount about actually playing; the difference seems to be mainly about attitude.
posted by mbrock at 2:26 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, two things happen as you move along the spectrum from 'learning' to 'playing' to 'making music'. First, you stop consciously thinking about the mechanics of how to make sound (move this hand here, press this finger there) and instead think about the sounds you want to make; your hands know what to do automatically at this point. Second, as a consequence of that, you begin to view the instrument as a tool for communicating ideas and emotions, rather than playing songs, and it begins to fade away altogether. When you listen to great players, you hardly even notice their instruments; instead you notice them, and you feel the emotion they're putting out.

Being able to play a few chords and a few famous riffs on a guitar is a great achievement for someone who's learning -- I sure as shit can't do it, guitar is hard. But it's kind of like learning the alphabet. It takes a while to learn how to form all those letters when you're a little kid. Drawing a well-formed A, B, and C is an achievement. But you can go so much further and learn to spell, and then learn to write, and then learn to write something beautiful and original and personal.

The problem comes when a beginning guitar player learns the alphabet and is a little too proud of it and starts showing off, which is unfortunately common, and can be a bit tiresome (see: that video of the guitar shop). It is great to be proud of the achievement, but don't let it go to your head, you know?
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:35 PM on August 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think that it's a question of fluency.

Right now I'm (slowly slowly) learning to play the guitar, but although I can play a few songs by rote, I wouldn't say that I'm a guitar player because I'm not a fluent player of the instrument. I have to piece my way through each song sort of blindly, note by note and hand motion by hand motion, hoping that it will come together into music. It doesn't *feel* like playing music, in the same way that running grammar drills in Russian class doesn't *feel* like being a Russian speaker.

On the other hand, I am a viola player. I have a strong intuition for what each note is supposed to sound like on the viola even without/before I hear it, I know what a piece will sound like by looking at it on the page and how my part fits into the whole, I'm able to improvise and to play as part of an orchestra or group, I *feel* fluent in the instrument. That's not to say that I'm an amazing viola player, because I'm not. But I'm a fluent viola player in the same way that I'm a fluent English speaker, and I'm not a guitar player in the same way that I'm not a Russian speaker.
posted by rue72 at 2:41 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the case of the guitar, what sometimes makes me feel like I have made some progress towards being an actual musician is that though I still only play covers, I can – with at least some songs – go rather easily from a simple chord sheet to a custom arrangement with some appropriate flourishes and such. Sometimes I can do a decent version of a relatively simple song on the first try. I have some understanding of transposing chords, at least between some common keys (E, C, G, A, Bb). I have tons to learn, but after a number of years, I feel somewhat competent at the basics, and I can use the guitar as an accompanying instrument without flubbing too much; I can play mostly without looking at the fretboard; I have a small repertoire of songs I know by heart; I can improvise some solo-like things; etc.
posted by mbrock at 2:47 PM on August 10, 2014

Guitar specific example: Let's say you break two strings on the first verse. If you can finish the song without the audience noticing anything is wrong, you're a musician*.

*Exception that proves the rule: or you're in a punk band.
posted by Metafilter Username at 2:58 PM on August 10, 2014

I guess one might say it's like learning some stuff out of a Russian phrasebook by heart, and then saying you speak Russian.

It would be fair to say that when you use the phrases you are speaking Russian, but it's also fair to say you're not a "real" Russian speaker. Right up until you speak fluent native Russian, you'll find people to argue that you aren't as expressive as a "real" Russian, you don't understand the nuances, you're not really communicating what you mean to say effectively, etc etc.

I guess this rabbit hole is about as deep as the one covering "What is Art?". Are you an artist if you are filling in the paint by numbers? What if you copy a Picasso?

Personally I think if you still have to focus on getting through a piece when you're playing it, rather than focussing on being expressive and communicating with it, there's a reasonable argument that you're not yet really a Musician.
posted by emilyw at 3:05 PM on August 10, 2014

I think it's an awful distinction to make. You are playing an instrument, because you physically pick up the instrument and play it!

There are differences between what you can do when you are a beginner and after you've been practicing for a while, and there are differences between styles (i.e. if you learn how to play classical guitar, learning how to play the blues will put you back in the beginner seat again). But it's like any skill: you get better with practice, and as you get better, you start to re-evaluate your definitions of fluency.

What I mean is, when you're a beginner, everything is hard, and so the question of fluency seems very simple: either you are or you aren't. But as you learn more and get better at something, a lot more roads open up in front of you, and fluency starts to seem like a moving target. I guess what I really mean is: there are always reasons to feel bad. Try not to listen to that junk, and just enjoy playing your instrument instead. And if you want to get to be a better musician, in addition to practicing, listen to a lot of music in your chosen genre.
posted by colfax at 3:16 PM on August 10, 2014

When I was a kid, practically everyone knew how to play "Heart and Soul" on the piano, even the kids who'd never taken piano lessons and couldn't tell you which key was C, and whenever we saw an unattended piano we'd all run to it and show off our talent. Most of us never learned anything else and never cared; we were impressed enough that we could do Heart and Soul. I think that's the kind of thing the comment is trying to get at.

I'd say that pretty much anything beyond that counts as playing. If you are making an effort to learn which parts of your instrument make which notes, how to make those notes sound good, and how to arrange those notes into different songs, you are playing.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:29 PM on August 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

I guess if someone's holding the instrument all wrong, does things that thwart her/his playing technique instead of opening a path for further development, or actively hides her/himself behind three or four chords they once learned and refuses to look any further…such a person can't truly be called a "player of an instrument", they're just sorta messing around.

But otherwise there's not really a difference. Everyone is still learning. Some have come further than others.
posted by Namlit at 3:35 PM on August 10, 2014

Even classical musicians don't merely reproduce someone else's notes. They make their own decisions about tempo, dynamics, phrasing, vibrato, etc. Though some of those choices are indicated by the composer on the page, the musician should always bring more of their own nuances and personality to it.

And rock music isn't classical music, and neither of them is jazz. Different standards apply to different genres, and that isn't contradictory. If you're a rock guitarist, it's fine to copy exactly what another guitarist has already played sometimes (especially for practicing), but I wouldn't consider you to be much of a guitarist if you're always just playing some other guitarist's riff, someone else's chord progression (with the same strumming pattern and voicing and everything), or playing someone else's solo note for note. Since rock is a genre where the musicians' original contributions have a lot of value (far more so than in classical), you only really become a rock guitarist in your own right when at least a significant portion of what you play is stuff you came up with. Even if you're a rather derivative player who's not radically breaking new ground, the very act of sitting down to play new stuff from scratch, instead of reading from tab or copying what you hear on a record, is essential to musicianship.
posted by John Cohen at 3:36 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I kind of draw a line, with guitar, between players who can tell if it's in tune or not, by just listening to it!
posted by thelonius at 3:47 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've had formal training in and experience playing classical and jazz, and experience playing other people's pop/rock songs and writing my own, and I'd say PercussivePaul has pretty much nailed it above.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:23 PM on August 10, 2014

it's down to feel, tone and groove, which can apply to classical musicians as well as rock and jazz musicians - some people can play all the right notes and it's fairly lifeless - others can be fairly limited in their abilities but their playing breathes
posted by pyramid termite at 4:54 PM on August 10, 2014

I think PercussivePaul's answer is pretty good, though I agree in good part with MeghanC too. I have learned to read music on the piano, and can play it back with a lot of effort and practice, but I wouldn't consider myself a piano player. I can play the violin, though – badly, since I'm out of practice. The distinction between my piano playing and my violin playing is that with the piano, I focus on the mechanics of what I'm doing, while with the violin, I focus on the expression I want to create. The mechanical stuff comes naturally, except (now) the tricky bits.

For me, it's like cycling. I spend 5-10 hours a week on my bike, sometimes more. By this point, it's rare that I have to consciously think about when to shift, how hard to pedal, what line to take through a curve, etc. I'm not a really fast cyclist, mind you, but I'm experienced. If I were more arrogant or more insecure, I might claim that people on the bike path who ride a few times a year, with rusted chains and saddles way too low, in a gear that's too high or too low, aren't really cyclists. But I'm not enough of an asshat to say that, though I'm happy to offer advice if someone asks. Then again, there are club cyclists who might not consider me a cyclist because I don't have a lot of experience riding in a paceline and I'm not interested in going as fast as possible.

I recall a story about a famous elderly musician who still practiced for hours a day because, he said, he had so much still to learn. That's the right attitude!
posted by brianogilvie at 5:59 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most basic answer to your explicit question is kinda included in the question itself: a riff-reproducing machine doesn't create anything new, while an instrument player plays on and off page, begins to create and interpret.

To answer the broader question, I think there's a continuum of musicianship and in my opinion what brings someone to the far end (the non-beginner end) of that continuum is, paradoxically, the ability to actively listen, and to respond to what's occurring in addition to their discrete music-making, beyond "am I playing the correct notes in the correct order at the correct time." Some examples...

- A musician will experiment with things that may not be literal on the page: emphasis, timing, dynamics. They’ll “fool around” and not feel it’s a waste of time. They’re willing to make mistakes in order to see if there’s something beyond the mistake.

- Playing solo or practicing, a musician will feel comfortable bringing reality (emotions and circumstances from his or her day and life) to the playing. "I'm tired and happy and overwhelmed and the kick drum’s sounding weak and I have only 15 minutes to play. How’s that going to affect my playing? What can I do to either compensate for that or incorporate it?” They’re not “absenting themselves” from their instrument or their playing in order to be only technically correct, yet are skilled enough to maintain proficiency regardless of the circumstances. I think good musicians do this subliminally.

- Good musicians attune for different settings or audiences, and make subjective but informed decisions about the nature of his or her playing.

- When playing with others, a musician can listen subtly enough beyond his or her own instrument to hear the others, and can accommodate or support or move out front as needed.

Stuff like that…
posted by cocoagirl at 6:03 PM on August 10, 2014

Nthing Percussive Paul, and suggest adding that when you feel that the instrument is so comfortable that it performs as an extension of your hands/arms/breath, then you are there. It is one of the most complicated relationships you will ever build, and it grows over an entire lifetime.

And for all the trombone haters out there, I'll remind you that all it requires is having perfect pitch while you're listening to yourself in your left ear at all times.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:18 PM on August 10, 2014

Original quote: I was reading this thread and one of the comments struck me: 'these people just memorized some tabs, and can't actually play guitar.'

This comment is technically incorrect. If you can memorize some tabs, then you can play guitar.
posted by ovvl at 7:00 PM on August 10, 2014

If you play music, you're a musician.

I used to build professional level musical instruments (trumpets) for a living, and got to interact with a wide array of professional musicians. One observation I've made is that there are mostly two types of musicians: those who love playing an instrument, and those who love playing music.

The former were often professional and very accomplished, but had an odd quirk about playing: they were often quite hesitant to play someone else's instrument, or even their own if it wasn't adjusted properly. They'd sometimes get pretty weird about it, too. It did feel as though they limited themselves only to what they know, similar to someone who's "limited" to the notes they've memorized.

The latter just liked to play music. If they didn't have their own, they'd pick up someone else's instrument, or a different instrument, or jangle keys, or rap on a box. Even if they didn't know how to play other instruments, they weren't hesitant to try to translate their feel for music in other ways. It was easier to recognize this type of musician as having a very intimate knowledge about the hows and whys music is made. Simply because they had no hesitancy to be adventurous in front of the world.

But there's no way I'd say one was more musician than the other.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:23 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

To be cynical, a "real musician" plays at least as well as oneself, and "not a real musician" is anybody below that level. I wouldn't read much if anything into the idea. Even if there is some magical point at which one is awarded Official Real Musician status, that matters not at all to you, for two reasons. First, because you are not at at point (yet), so it is not personally relevant, and second, because the only way to get better is a little bit at a time. Sure, there are prodigies and virtuosi who can pick up an instrument overnight, but for the vast majority of us the only path to Carnegie Hall is the proverbial one. But what do I know, I just spent an hour this morning working on a single drum rudiment and still can only play it at quarter the required speed. Sigh.
posted by wnissen at 8:50 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the sentiments that comment was expressing is that someone who can hold a guitar and tune it and who's practiced piece X can sound like an intermediate/advanced musician if all you ever ask them to do is to play piece X, but that they're still basically a beginner, as would be evidenced if you asked them to play any other piece of music.

One of the things that's specific to guitar (or other accompaniment-type instruments) is that you can learn a piece by memorizing the tabs/chords, and if you learn enough pieces (or are a music theory fan) you start to figure out why those chords get played at that point in the music, and you get a feel for how chords get chosen, and which of 5 different ways you might choose express an E chord, such that if you were handed a piece of music with no tabs, you could sit down and figure out what might sound good. The comment you mention was pointing out that just playing what you're told without understanding how the chords relate to the music is like doing a paint-by-numbers art piece - looks pretty, but you're expressing art designed by somebody else, there's not much personal touch. From the perspective of a melody player, however, that stops making as much sense. If this is the way the tune goes, those are the notes you play on a flute, and there's less of a big-picture to be understood, and less of a personal touch to give it; so it would be really hard to make sense of that comment at all.

That said, it is incredibly unfair to say that a beginner "doesn't really play guitar". One might say they aren't as good as they seem to think they are, or they've got a long way to go before they've mastered the instrument, but if they're doing a great job of playing that one piece, you can't deny that they play it.
posted by aimedwander at 6:43 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Music isn't notes. Notes are part of music. There's a whole load of other stuff - the stuff that's there in written music - phrasing, articulation, dynamics (all of which have to be judged - they're relative, subjective measures), but also little elements you'd need some fairly sophisticated analytics to determine (at which point, you're dissecting, and the music dies...). Once you put a player in the context of an ensemble or band, you throw in the ability to do all of those things to shape your performance in the context of the things everyone else is doing.

I once had a boss who could play fistfulls of right notes (and the other stuff on the score) at jaw-dropping speed. He had numerous degree/diploma level qualifications. Could play pretty much anything. I never heard music there, and I know I'm not alone.

Much later, I had a student that I first met at the age of 8 or 9. At that point, she could play her first-study instrument to around Grade 3 standard - but when she did, it sounded like a much more technically proficient player; every nuance of the music was in there. Ten years later, she's studying music and is one of the most natural musicians I know.

I'm not a big fan of 'natural talent' as an explanation, but you need the awareness of how everything you do shapes the music. You need to know how to get to the music behind the notes. You need the technique to be able to do that; but the technique has to be led by the music, rather than vice versa.

To sum up, what you do with your hands/feet/larynx has to be guided by the music. You can't just put everything in the right place and expect the music to shape itself out of that.
posted by monkey closet at 7:08 AM on August 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can open a book and play the song passably and with confidence, you can play that instrument.

I must admit that I've expressed much the same sentiment that the comment you highlight does — "Then again I've played with guys that could bang out Satriani solos note-for-note, but couldn't take a turn holding down the rhythm on Sweet Home Chicago." — but I'd never say that my friend from long-ago who I was referring to couldn't play guitar. Rather I'd say that he was great at lead, but not good at rhythm. If I was feeling less charitable, I might say he's a good player but not a good musician.

One other thing to consider is that even being a great musician doesn't mean someone is a great performer. Playing in front of people is its own skill set. Playing your instrument confidently is only part of it.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:51 AM on August 11, 2014

I'm probably what the snobbery would expect from a self-defining musician: polymathic, extemporaneous, compositional, collaberational, multi-backgrounded, educated, theorized, recorded, etc. etc. Not that I'm particularly amazing though if you want to define your rubric to include a musician's yardstick there's my bona-fides.

I'm glad there was an Ask as the thread and this question have what to me seems an unusual distinction bias between musician-as-artist and musician-as-technician and whether the latter somehow qualifies. A parallel case is of a painter who builds up an image using nothing but brushes and someone who completes a paint-by-numbers kit. In both cases they are artists as people who create art but the latter as a "mere technician" gets little respect unless it exceeds an extraordinary bar.

You know who are "mere technicians"? Members of the orchestra. A technician should be able to excellently execute an identical performance every time; that's the orchestra. Are those people musicians? Of course, unquestionably. The space between that and the Guitar Center Riffer is what then? At best nuance or range of expression, mastery issues. I'm pretty sure you can be a paid-ass, stage-playing musician without either of these as I've seen the Dead Milkmen live (Rodney, I kid).

The Ask here covers that and at what point you can self-respectingly call yourself a musician. I think that's pretty much up to the musician-candidate to be able to stand on convincingly and with self-respect. Whether others see you as a musician is really up to them.

For me, as a musician, a musician is someone who tries, who has trying in them, who has the interest in trying in them. Like "artist" its a label we want to reserve for some sort of greatness that's perhaps rarely endowed and intrinsic and that's silly. There's someone in rush-hour right now who is probably a perfectly-fine musician singing along with the car radio but would never consider themselves as anything other than a person who sings along with the car radio.

I play a lot of instruments, some considerably worse than others. I can make strange sounds on about anything and apply rhythm and structure and it will be music. Maybe not great or long-listenable or whatever, but when it just sort of comes out, that's when I feel like musician.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 8:19 AM on August 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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