As musicians, we all want to be the best we can be, even if we struggle to find the motivation to work toward it. But what exactly does it mean to be a great musician? What does it mean to achieve excellence in music-making?
The most popular conceptualisation of a great musician is one who is technically brilliant, creatively overflowing with innovative ideas, a great composer, an engaging performer… the list goes on. Conceptualising great musicians in this manner means that we can easily list musicians who fall nicely into this category - think of Mozart, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Paco de Lucia, and so on.
But what if we stop and think about the function of music making? Is music purely art for art’s sake, or can it do much more than hold artistic value?
The Function of Music
Music has long served humanity in many functions such as providing comfort amidst calamity, building communities and forging personal identities, accompanying important ceremonies and rituals, the list goes on. In many of these functions, the music doesn’t necessarily have to be technically brilliant, but it has to be keenly aware of the desired outcome of its existence in order to effectively achieve it.
In the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake, a song of hope sung by a technically brilliant vocalist who only cares about taking advantage of victims’ attention to increase her popularity would be ineffective in comforting the hearts of her listeners. We humans are much more attuned to emotions and intentions then we often believe.
On the other hand, a simple song written and sung by an earnest musician who can empathise with the victims’ suffering as she herself had gone through a similar experience would touch the hearts of her listeners and soothe their pain through solidarity.
In this case, the music’s technical ability isn’t as important as the genuine heart and soul behind it. Ultimately, the music has served its purpose excellently and the musician is great because of it.
What It Takes to be a Great Musician
With that in mind, we need to ask ourselves, are we trying to be just guitarists, or musicians? A guitarist can play his or her instrument, sure, but music making comprises so much more than physically playing your instrument. Music can and should serve its listeners - be it to entertain, to communicate, to express, or any other function.
Does that mean we don’t work toward technical brilliance? Not at all! But what it does mean is that we need to look beyond ourselves to recognise that as musicians, we can contribute so much more to the people and communities we care about - and we don’t need to be megastars to do so!
Now my question to you is this - what function does YOUR music serve?
Let me know in the comments below, I’m so eager to hear how you seek to use your music for others!
By Neil Chan