Is Musicianship Defined by the Instrument You Play?

Posted: July 4, 2013 in Piano

Good morning.

I begin with a hypothetical as it was written by someone on Twitter.  “If your instrument of choice is a board with nobs [sic] and buttons..sorry but you’re not a musician.

The statement is a generalization of course, but is there a kernel of truth in it? Let me begin with a story.

Once upon a time there was an instrument called a ‘pipe organ’. It used forced air through a series of tuned pipes to produce audio waves. It was a very popular instrument. Those who loved it most formed an association. With that association were many experts who knew which pipe organs were better than the others. They even defined what a pipe organ was. It had to have certain features. If it did not, then it was not considered to be an organ.

(INSERT – I change the hypothetical now: “If your instrument of choice is not an approved form of the pipe organ…sorry but you’re not an organist.)

The story continues. In 1935, a clock maker named Laurens revealed a machine intended to replace the pipe organ. It worked using tone wheels, based on an invention created in 1897 by another man Thaddeus. When the pipe organ industry found out about the new machine, they went crazy and foamed at the mouth. They challenged Laurens’ right to call the instrument an organ. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission intervened in order to resolve the complaint. Laurens prevailed and today the instrument which offended the purists is known as the Hammond Organ.

(INSERT – “If your instrument of choice is not an approved form of the pipe organ…sorry but it isn’t an organ.)

Hammond organs were made for many years, but eventually the cost of the tone wheels needed to generate the sounds became prohibitive.  The production of Hammond Organs ceased until digital technology enabled a new generation of inventors to make a new line of electronic Hammond Organs. As you might expect, those who remembered the original Hammond Organ remained loyal to the old technology.  They held the view that the digital Hammonds were not as good as the old ones. In fact, according to the purists, the new Hammonds weren’t really Hammonds at all.

(INSERT – “If your instrument of choice is not an original Hammond organ…sorry but it isn’t a Hammond.)

In 1984, another man named Ray revealed a newly invented keyboard that used digital sampling technology to replicate the sound of a piano and many other orchestral instruments. The new keyboard was called the K-250. With 4 meg of onboard memory and a lot of  “knobs and buttons” it became widely popular. In fact, some theaters in New York City used the K-250 instead of hiring an orchestra, which only made the Musician’s Union crazy and they started foaming at the mouth. The conflict was resolved by permitting the theaters to use the K-250, but they also had to hire as many musicians as they would have had they not used the K-250. Comical.

These stories are one step away from dismissing the musicianship of any artist who plays a non-standard instrument or one dependent on emerging technologies. It is easy to be dismissive of the musician if one does not like the instrument that he or she chooses. I shall call this musical ad hominem and define it as a fallacious logical argument which seeks to dismiss the worth of a musician by arguing that the instrument is not an acceptable device.

Therefore, the hypothetical is false in all applications. It is never true that your degree of musicianship is dependent on the kind of instrument you play.

Musicianship is merely a form of human expression. It refers to the process by which sound is ordered to produce sounds that are pleasing to the author. Some people are very good at it. Others are crazy and foam at the mouth. Quality is not a determinant in who is a musician and who is not. Musicianship therefore is in everyone. It is part of being a human being. We hit wood, strum strings, blow through tubes, bang on trash can lids, turn knobs and dials, manipulate sine waves, hum through waxed paper and a comb, pluck a steel wire stretched across the top of an empty cigar box, tap spoons, rub washboards, and engage in an seemingly endless list of activities in an effort to express the siren within. But none of these devices define musicianship. Musicianship is internal. Instruments are merely objects we use to express the musicianship within.

Life is the song. The world and everything in it is the instrument. Musicianship is, and will forever remain, within each of us. It is the essential element in human expression.

  1. Thank you for correcting the warped concept of musicianship some poor soul was harboring. Well done, sir!