While we all know that musicians play musical instruments, there are several other areas of music study that are less frequently considered when discussing music, or considering taking music lessons. Often these skills are developed in order to enhance the musician’s arsenal and improve their playing, but many musicians choose to become specialists in these relatively neglected areas. Many of these areas provide a rich and challenging musical experience in and of themselves. Areas such as composition & improvisation, conducting, music technology, and music theory are all perfectly valid forms of musical endeavour and, while admittedly they may not have the immediate or popular appeal of singing or instrumental performance, the degree to which a knowledge of these areas can enhance your singing or playing, and your appreciation of music, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Arranging and orchestration is a highly specialised skill that not only requires a vast knowledge of musical instruments and how they sound, but also a keen musical ear and imagination. Arrangers and orchestrators are traditionally composers also and the two areas are closing related. Arranging music involves taking the raw elements of a piece of music, for example a simple chord chart, and turning it into a fully formed piece of music. This may involve the invention of motifs, riffs and licks (small musical ideas – often repeated throughout the piece), choosing the instruments to be played and writing each instrument’s part, and even deciding on the appropriate mood or character for the piece. Orchestration is a specialised form of arranging. The orchestrator may arrange a piece of music from scratch, choosing the orchestra as the appropriate instrument, or they may take a piece of music that has been arranged for a different group of instruments and re-arrange it for the orchestra. Many film scores today and in the past will have both a composer and an arranger/orchestrator.
Composition & improvisation may be the most widely recognised of these musical skills and in recent years has been gaining popularity and receiving more attention in the music lesson. In the past no one could call themselves a musician if they couldn’t compose or improvise. How well one composed and improvised was, to a degree, the measure of their musical ability. Towards the end of the 19th century, a spate of virtuosos (particularly for the piano) arose and instrumental performance became the public’s primary interest. As a result the interest in musical composition & improvisation began to diminish. Musicians increasingly became reproducing artists rather than the creators of music. Today, however, musicians and music teachers are increasingly becoming aware of the value of composition and improvisation, not just for those wanting to be composers, or improvising performers, but even for the reproducing artists (concert pianists, opera singers, orchestral musicians), as experience in these areas provides an insight into the mind of composers that would otherwise be unavailable to the performer. Composition & improvisation have traditionally been, and still remain, the core of virtually every musical tradition that exists today.
Conducting, believe it or not, is actually a special kind of instrumental performance. The instrument the conductor plays is the orchestra and the orchestral playings. A conductor must have excellent communication skill as they will often need to communicate very subtle and complex ideas with little more than a flick of the wrist or raising of the eyebrows. In the 18th century orchestras didn’t have conductors. Instead, the 1st violinist would lead the orchestra, setting the tempo and giving the appropriate cues to the other players when not playing himself. As music became more complex this task would prove too difficult for the first violinist (who had to play themselves after all) and so a conductor as we know them today was needed. Gradually the role of the conductor grew from someone to keep time and give the musician their cues to interpreting performers in their own right, responsible for the shaping and crafting of the performance, which they do through the orchestra.
Ear training, while not really an area of specialisation (except perhaps for teachers), is an invaluable tool for any musician. What ear training allow you to do is associate audible sounds with the notes on the page or the keys on your instrument. There are two main areas of ear training. One involves translating audible sounds into written notation, or and instrumental performance, often called ‘aural perception’. The other involves the reverse, translating written music notation into audible sound. In other words, singing notes written on the page without the aid of a musical instrument. This is usually called to as ‘solfege.’
Music technology, as I’m sure you could guess, is the newest area of musical study and in many ways it is a particularly interesting one. Not only is music technology, like all technology today, developing extremely rapidly, but it is also allow musicians and composers to do things that would have been literally impossible 100 years ago. Music technology allows the musician to go beyond the constraints of the physical world (the natural properties of sound, the logistics of gathering and coordinating real musicians and their instruments, as well as the limitations of musicians and their instruments) and do things that would be impossible otherwise. It is also an excellent tool for students and beginners. Music technology has produced remarkable learning aids as well as tools that allow beginners to create music much sooner than they might have using traditional methods only.
While the thought or suggestion of studying music theory is often met with chagrin, what many people fail to realise is that music theory is not only fascinating, but it is also not a particularly difficult area of study either. While it is true that it takes time to fully appreciate the elegance and symmetry of music theory, the insights it reveals in any music that you may be learning makes the investment well worth it. Music theory also opens up doors to the creative and imaginative musician may have otherwise remained closed.