What Is A Natural Musician?
Close your eyes, and imagine what a natural musician looks like to you.
Maybe you’ve got a certain artist in mind, like prodigious cellist Yo-Yo Ma, guitar master Eddie Van Halen, or the inimitable avant-garde singer-songwriter Björk.
No matter who pops up in your mind’s ear, when they take the stage and play, they’re awe-inspiring. The music seems to flow out of them as effortlessly, instinctively, and naturally as if they’d been doing it in the womb.
Though this is, of course, awe-inspiring to bear witness to, it can also bum you out. “They look like they were born to do this – like it’s as natural as breathing to them. Why can’t I play like that? It must be because I wasn’t born with that particular talent.” I must not be a natural musician.
It’s time to dispel one of the most harmful myths circulating in the musical world today. And that myth is: a musician’s success and ability depend on a natural talent that you’re either born with or not – and if you’re not, you are doomed to depending on sheet music forever, unable to improvise, jam, compose, or otherwise be creative in your musical journey.
We repeat: existence of a natural musician is a myth.
There is precisely zero evidence to suggest that “talent” even exists in the first place. Professor Anders Ericsson, leading academic researcher on the topic of talent, has noted that what we perceive as “talent” is actually the result of a whole lot of practice – along with factors such as the mentorship and education the individual received, and how early they began their musical life. Long story short, it is the training that is critical – not the presence of some “musical gene”. Being a natural musician is a myth!
In other words: there’s no need to start planning a heist to get your hands on some of Mozart’s preserved DNA.
So if it’s indeed the training that can make you a natural musician, what is your training missing? What skills should you hone if you want to feel like a “real” musician? And how specifically will these skills benefit you in your musical life?
1. Playing By Ear
We’ll start with the big, obvious one. Every musician wants to be able to pick up their instrument and effortlessly play a piece of music they’ve just heard, without the need for tabs, sheet music, or a chord chart.
The skill that looks like magic reserved for the natural musician, those gifted few, is actually very learnable. Most music consists of three major musical dimensions: melodies, chords, and rhythm.
The majority of us can easily clap back or tap back a rhythm played to us. Once we learn to playback melodies and recognize chord progressions, we’re ready to playback whatever our ear hears on the fly.
Sound like a big undertaking? It certainly takes a lot of practice! Luckily, this path from hearing to playing can be bridged with the help of a second musicality skill…
2. Singing In Tune
Many musicians believe that as instrumentalists, they have no need to hone their singing voice – not realizing that singing is an amazing way to fill the gap between your instrument and the notes you want to play on it.
Singing in tune is your one-way ticket to being able to communicate your musical ideas to other musicians quickly and effectively, compose music on the fly whether you have your instrument in your hands or not, and best of all, play the music you hear on your instrument – using your singing voice as an intermediary to translate aural input into notes on your instrument. And the good news is that singing in tune is also not a skill of a natural musician. It can be learned.
So where to start if you are a newbie to singing? You first sing a note, any note. Then, practice pitch-matching, or singing back a note you hear. Finally, practice transitioning between notes to form a melody or phrase. It takes some time to get comfortable, but this is singing.
3. Sight Reading
Together, the skills of sight-reading and playing by ear ensure that you can play every piece of music thrown at you – whether you absorb it through the aural or the visual route.
When beginners get a page of music placed in front of them, they take it note-by-note, slowly learning the piece through practice and trial and error. More advanced players, however, can sit down in front of a piece of music and play through it beautifully, seeming like they don’t even have to stop and think.
How on earth is this advanced level of reading notation possible?
Though the piece of music placed in front of you each time is different, the core methodology behind learning to sight-read effectively remains the same, and your progress will depend on you flexing those sight-reading muscles regularly. As you practice more and more, your brain will get better at parsing the sheet music into notes on your instrument.
Eventually, as your audiation develops, you’ll be able to predict what the music will sound like before you even play it. You can not only hit all the right notes – but also play with expression and nuance, bringing the piece to life.
4. Jamming with Others
Music is not meant to be a solitary joy. Half of the fun comes from sharing music with other people through jam sessions.
For the uninitiated, jamming is when a group of musicians gets together to play with no set sheet music. Instead, an open-ended arrangement occurs where anything could happen and the music is written on the spot. It may never be played that way again!
There may be agreed-upon frameworks for the jam session (a common example is 12-bar blues-based improv), but the music will be totally unique and of course, created on the spot.
A jam session is a musician’s paradise. It’s a playground where you can try out new musical ideas, riff off other musicians, and see first-hand what works and what doesn’t. Best of all, the more you do it, the better you get – this skill will hone your musicality as you practice it!
5. Writing Your Own Music
Many musicians get so hung up on being able to faithfully replicate an existing piece of music that they forget about the musical ideas they have bouncing around inside them, just waiting to come out. You don’t have to be a natural musician to write music.
Writing your own music, whether it’s a simple four-chord tune or an orchestral symphony, is where you get to apply your musical knowledge. You know, that theory you’ve learned, your audiation, those harmonic and melodic ideas you have floating around in your head – to create something entirely new and your own.
You don’t need to reach a specific level of musicianship after which you can “allow yourself’ to write music. You can do it now. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. A chord progression, a riff, or a melody line, and you’re already in business.
Chances are, you personally know someone who seems to be equally at ease with a guitar, bass, and saxophone in their hands.
The wonderful thing about learning an instrument is that it makes learning subsequent ones easier. Skills carry over, particularly those ear skills that make you grasp music faster.
The list of benefits of multi-instrumentalism is long. It makes you a more versatile collaborator, songwriter, and performer. It enables you to explore more musical traditions, styles, and contexts. And it lets you look at music theory through multiple lenses, and it opens your ear up to different timbres and textures.
As anyone who has been up on stage can attest to, there’s a world of difference between practicing in the safe cocoon of privacy and showcasing your art to friends, family, and strangers. We can go so far as to say that performing is a whole different skill set than regular practice.
While so-called natural musicians may have an easier time feeling comfortable on stage, thankfully, it’s a skill set that can be learned, honed, and mastered. Ss you take the stage again and again during your musical journey, you’ll get plenty of changes to improve.
A performance is a special moment in time where you get to, in the moment, provide an enjoyable listening experience in a specific context to a group of people. Being able to put aside nerves, hangups, and technicalities to deliver that stellar performance is its own musical feat.
Musicality, for a Non Natural Musician
Every skill discussed is something you’ve likely witnessed a musician do. And in turn you’ve been wowed by their prowess. You thought they were just a natural musician. As we’ve said, these skills are just that – skills – and not inherent magical abilities. A
nd that means that with some good work from you, they can be learned and put to incredible use. You can learn to give the performance of a lifetime. With practice, you can become a master jammer to the point where you’re ready to join the Grateful Dead. With the proper training, playing by ear gets easier and easier, until you feel just as comfortable getting off the page as you do with sheet music.
At this point, you might be asking yourself this question. Do I need to learn all of the specific musicality skills listed above to become a natural musician?
The answer is a resounding no. You need to learn the ones that will best serve your own purposes as a musician!
Choose Your Weapons…
A more appropriate title for this piece may have been “Some of the Skills That Will Make You A “Natural” Musician”. The list of “musicality skills” is much, much longer than what you see above. And the wonderful thing about musicality is that it’s modular, changeable, customizable to your wants and goals.
One musician might aspire to become the world’s greatest session drummer. To them, the musicality skills of rhythm, playing by ear, and performance will be paramount. Another, meanwhile, might aim to lead a choir. Therefore placing special emphasis on the skills of singing in tune, sight-singing, and voice performance. A third will want a behind-the-scenes job-creating musical score for films. They’ll be busy honing their composition skills, their musical notation, and their musical vocabulary.
Choose your direction…
Your goals are your musicality compass. The skills you’re honing should be directly tied to what you hope to achieve in your musical life. And one of the best ways to figure out your musical direction is to figure out your goals. Don’t be shy. Write them down (the more detail, the better!). Then brainstorm the skills that will put you on the fast track to getting there.
Finally, create a concrete action plan to learn those skills and apply them in various musical contexts. Your action plan can include anything from daily practice plans to milestones you hope to reach along the way. Its purpose is to keep you motivated and moving in the right direction.
While you go about your action plan, it’s incredibly useful and encouraging to keep a journal of your progress – this will allow you to celebrate your successes, see what needs improvement, and foresee where your musical journey is going next – if your goals are your musicality compass, your progress journal is the map, showing you where you’ve been and where you’re going – the route towards your goals.
Remember that you can choose what “being musical” means to you, and that talent has nothing to do with it. Carry this empowering thought with you as you chart your own musical journey.