Musicality: The secret ingredient? Part 1

Hey, my name is Tochi and I’m a guitarist. I’ve been playing since around 2004/2005 and I primarily play acoustic guitar. I’m not the best guitarist, but I have been privileged to play in some amazing situations with some amazing musicians. In this blog, I just want to explore the concept of musicianship/musicality which I think is the secret ingredient that can elevate your playing to greater heights.

 

One of the great jazz guitar teachers Ted Greene provides a cautionary word which is definitely important to remember as musicians. He states the following in his introduction to the classic ‘Chord chemistry’, "...you might like the sound of a chord or chord pattern given in the section on moving voices, and you might fit it into a blues...however, be careful not to delude yourself into thinking something is great just because it is different. The desire to be different can be a healthy thing as long as it does not become more important than the desire to play music that is enjoyable to listen to."

https://www.scribd.com/doc/2088025/Chord-Chemistry-by-Ted-Greene 

He talks about the decision making process a musician goes through when arranging a song, and highlights that there is a need to make choices that lead to enjoyable music rather than just music that is different. While the desire to play music which is different is not necessarily bad, I think that playing music which is enjoyable to listen to is infinitely more important. I think the skill of 'musicality' is one which helps with making that happen.

Musicality is something that I’ve heard some great musicians describe/talk about and is also something that I’ve observed when I’ve witnessed some of the greats while they play. I think it’s very possibly the secret ingredient  that helps to bridge the gap from 'decent' to 'great' as a musician. More than imparting good technical ability, the great musical teachers are concerned with imparting deeper values; an ability to understand the music and be intentional when making choices while playing a piece of music. 

I would like to have a closer look at what musicality is, and perhaps explore some of the skills which form part of musicality and how this applies to us as gospel musicians, working on honing our craft for God’s glory.

The desire to be different can be a healthy thing as long as it does not become more important than the desire to play music that is enjoyable to listen to.”

 

Definition

The Oxford English Dictionary defines musicality as:

1: Musical talent or sensitivity:  2: The quality of having a pleasant sound; melodiousness:

Webster’s dictionary’s definition is somewhat similar:

1:  sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music

2:  the quality or state of being musical : melodiousness

These definitions highlight ‘sensitivity’ which is an interesting concept which recurs in both definitions and is something we’ll come back to a bit later. In doing some digging online, I came across a great definition at this site (https://www.musical-u.com/blog/what-is-musicality/) which explains it as follows:

"Musicality is a set of “inner skills” which let you freely and confidently express yourself in music.”

This definition brings to mind that it’s a set of skills, which give you freedom and confidence to be expressive in playing. This is somewhat similar to the more traditional and perhaps classical idea of ‘Musicianship’. I’d even argue that Musicality is essentially a colloquial version of this word.

For me, ‘musicality’ or ‘musicianship’ is essentially skills which give a musician the ability to make correct musical decisions in the moment when playing or singing a song. Another idea which is somewhat synonymous with this is the idea of having the right ‘feel’ for music which many have claimed cannot be taught. A prime example for me is the illustrious and great guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. I love his playing because his decision-making is impeccable. This is demonstrated in the video clip below where he plays over a simple motif and shows how to play the right thing to enhance the music everytime.

In the iconic album ‘Gospel According to Jazz chapter 1’ - his impeccable decision-making is also evident. In every single song, every single solo, he makes the right musical decision every time, and harking back to Ted Greene’s idea, it makes the music that much more enjoyable to listen to. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9mlQTQxeFA - Lord I want to be a Christian

This track is a prime example of 2 masters demonstrating their intense musicality and this comes out in how they play together. In the "Lord I want to be a Christian" track, notice how for the first 3 minutes, the track is pretty much just saxophone and guitar. While the sax is leading, Paul Jackson Jr does some little but beautiful and tasteful moves on the guitar to fill the spaces. Then in the call and response section, he mirrors Kirk Whalum but with a bit of extra spice added. This is musicality in action. 

In conclusion, while having a knowledge of many chords is great, and knowledge or progressions, riffs and songs is great, I think that greater skill is having the skill of musicality or musicianship which helps with making good choices when deciding what/how to play. It would be better to know less chords but understand how to use them in the best way than to have a plethora of chords with no clue on their usage. If you want to make the next step in your musical journey, maybe, just  maybe musicality is the missing secret ingredient. 

In part 2, we’ll look at some of the core musicianship skills which I think are most important. I hope you enjoyed the blog - let me know what you think below.