I consider myself to be a musician. I play guitar and sing. I’ve studied contemporary music and classical theory and composition, and I’ve had the privilege of performing all over the world. But does that make me an artist? Do I have to create music and sell records to be considered? Or is there more to it than that?
Musicians of a professional level who create and manipulate music are considered artists because being an artist is to take a specific medium (music) and create, engineer, augment and change that medium to express themselves and that medium on a professional level. However, not all musicians are artists and vice versa.
There is actually a lot to consider when looking at a musician as an artist. There are categories and subcategories of both being a musician and being an artist. So could a DJ be considered an artist, or how about a music producer? What about a singer? We’ll go into a little more detail to find the answer and find out exactly what the differences and similarities are.
Are musicians artists? What is the difference between a musician and an artist?
In today’s world, sometimes we have “blinkers” on, and we define one word and what that word describes as being very literal and is exactly what its dictionary definition describes.
To answer this question correctly, we first need to look at what a musician is, how they are classified and categorized, and then we have to do the same for artists and the arts. To get a true indication of whether a musician can be classified as an artist and vice versa, we have to figure out the similarities and then the differences, if there are any at all, in terms of what they do.
Defining a musician
How do we define a musician? Well let’s look at the dictionary definition from the oxford learners dictionary
Musician dictionary definition: A person who plays a musical instrument or writes music, especially as a job.
Great, so now we know what a modern-day musician is or is supposed to be. But there was actually a test that was created to test a person’s musical ability. This test was created back in 1919 by Carl Emil Seashore. He developed the Seashore Measures of Musical Talent.
Back in the day, talent was viewed mostly as a static. This means you were hardwired to either be good at something or you were not. This would not change over the span of your lifetime. You could obviously improve with practice; however, there was a limit or “ceiling” to your ability.
Seashore’s tests were a way of determining whether you should actually even bother attempting to become a musician at all. They involved and focused on different aspects of musical perception.
Some tests included distinguishing between pitches and rhythms, and so on. If you passed Seashores tests, you could study to become a musician and have it as a career, and it was worth your time. If you did not, then you would study some other facility like science or business depending.
Back to our current era. Seashores tests are all but gone, but other tests have replaced it to a degree with a genre sorting test and a self-evaluation questionnaire asking you about how you engage with music, how good you think you are, and how committed you are to it.
Please take a look at this YouTube video from 12tone; they go over the concept of Who Counts As A Musician.
We conclude that if we all had to be put through these tests and evaluations, perhaps some would not be classified as musicians. However, in today’s world, a musician has to play an instrument or sing. They could perhaps be a DJ or a composer or a conductor. So, someone could go to the music store today, buy a guitar, go home, and then call themselves musicians or could they?
So, is a musician an artist? Let’s define what an artist is.
Defining an artist
Taking a look at the Cambridge dictionary we have this definition.
Artist dictionary definition: Someone who paints, draws, or make sculptures: Someone who creates things with great skill and imagination.
This is a standard definition. We can also create a more in-depth definition ourselves, considering that facts and say. An artist is a person who intentionally, purposefully with meaning operates, changes, augments, and engineers a specific medium to create something that expresses that medium in their own way.
From that second entry of the Cambridge dictionary and with our own definition, we can see that perhaps musicians can fall into the artists’ category if they create music or aspects of music with great skill, imagination, purpose, and meaning.
Take a look at these two TEDx Talks with David Best, a world-renowned famous sculptor, and Alberto Martinez, a world-renowned painter famous for painting cityscapes. They both discuss What It Means To Be An Artist and what it means to communicate through creativity.
So, with the understanding and knowledge that we now know, we could perhaps put the likes of Quincy Jones, Mariah Carey, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven, and hundreds more into the classification of artists and musicians.
There are also different types of musicians, so let’s classify them and see if they would fall into the artist category.
Classifying musicians into categories
We will classify musicians into two main categories and then subcategorize them for all intense and purposes and see if we could classify them all as artists.
We will loosely create these two categories as Creators and Non-Creators. This does not mean that they cannot overlap, and if one is in one category, it cannot be in the other.
A producer in a recording studio can be defined as a person being able to take a melody, a lyric, or a song structure, or the makings of a song and then turn it into an actual song. We would definitely consider a producer as a creator because in some instances, just from a melody, a producer will create a number 1 hit song for the radio. So, could they be classified as an artist?
A singer, by definition, is someone who uses their voice as their instrument. Genre classification does not bind the definition of a singer. A signer can sing metal, pop, opera, country, etc.… A singer usually creates music, but on the other hand, you do get singers who are just performing in cover bands, and they sing other music that has been recorded.
By definition, an instrumentalist is a person who plays a musical instrument. So, technically you could be classified as an instrumentalist if you play the triangle. But would that make you an artist? Instrumentalists can create, or they can play other composed or recorded music. For example, a cello player could be part of an orchestra, and all they do is play classical pieces, and they may never write their own music. So, does this make them an artist?
A composer could be defined as a person who writes music, be it for film, television, or for a singer or an orchestra. Thinking about our definitions of musicians and artists, it is more than likely that a composer could fall under the two categories simultaneously.
By definition, a DJ would be a person who introduces and plays music on the radio or in a club and for an audience. However, DJs also now, with the invention of modern technology, create their own music. Take David Guetta, for example. So, does that make them an artist?
We classify an orchestrator as a trained musical professional. They will assign instruments to an orchestra (violin, cello, oboe, piano, etc.…) or television, film, and other musical ensembles. They assign the music, which is usually given to them by a composer. So, if they don’t create the music, could they be considered an artist. Remember, all these classifications are of musicians.
A conductor can be defined as a person who conducts (oversees) an ensemble of music, whether it be for an orchestra, an opera, a ballet, or any other musical group. The conductor will interpret the music in their own way and then help guide the performers in terms of rhythm, volume, accents, discretion, and more for the performers to bring the music to life and not just play what is in front of them. Conductors are usually composers as well.
Categorizing these musician categories into subcategories, we can also loosely boil it down into two categories.
The two categories are Amateur and Professional.
This is a musician and probably not a composer, conductor, or orchestrator who plays and creates music generally as a hobby and not as a profession where they will get paid to do so. An amateur musician is your cousin who plays Metallica’s Enter the Sandman, and that’s all they ever learn to play.
With this understanding, we can classify an amateur musician not to be an artist. However, they can still be classified as a musician.
We can loosely classify a professional musician as someone who knows and who has perfected their craft inside and out. They more than likely get paid to do it as a profession, but that is not always necessarily the case. It is more likely that a professional musician could be termed an artist as well as a musician.
Classifying the arts into categories
We are almost at a point where we can classify is a musician an artist. Let’s first look at what categories we can divide the arts into, and then we can determine if the music category actually falls into the category of the arts.
We won’t detail the arts categories because this is article is about are musicians artists, so I’ll give you a list.
- Conceptual art
One thing to note on this, though, is that even architecture, photography, and ceramics can be classified as art. Hence, a person in that field at a professional level could be considered an artist.
Another category of the arts is the performing arts, and the subcategories for the performing arts reveal an interesting thing. The categories are:
Aha! Here we can see that music does fall within the arts category, so with this information, we can definitively say that a musician can be classified on some level as an artist.
However, from looking at our list, even though a sculpture could be an artist, they do not have to be nor probably are a musician. The same would go for the other categories, although some artists have many fields in which they practice and specialize.
Do musicians and artists overlap?
We can definitely and definitively now say that musicians and artists do overlap. However, the lines can and are blurry. Depending on certain factors such as degree of talent, what category the musician would fall under, and whether they actually create or manipulate music to a professional degree would deem them an artist.
We conclude that a musician can and most definitely is an artist because they take music and either create or manipulate it with varying degrees to express themselves or the music.
However, we classify an artist as a professional, so Timmy down the road that sings and plays Sweet Home Alabama fifty times a day is the only song he knows how to sing and play would not be classified as an artist. He may, however, be classified as a musician.
Then lastly, artists can be classified as musicians if they play or create music. However, not all artists are musicians. They can be photographers, sculptures, architects, or even painters, but that does not mean they play a musical instrument, compose music or conduct it and therefore are not musicians.
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