3 Listening to Musicians: Musical Roles, Contexts, and Categories

Learning Objectives

  • Identify different musical contexts.
  • Identify the role of the musical producer in the 20th century.
  • Compare and contrast recorded music and live music.
  • Identify how improvising is used in music performance.
  • Identify examples of music improvisation.

Musical Roles

Contributed by Francis Scully

Consider the following musical contexts and imagine yourself listening to music in these spaces:

Video 3.1: Stevie Wonder performs the song “Overjoyed” live in concert

Video 3.2: Listening to the song “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna while driving in your car

Video 3.3: Attending a classical music recital and hearing a piano piece by Beethoven performed by the pianist Lang Lang

Video 3.4: Listening to a choir sing “Amazing Grace” during a church service

Obviously, we couldn’t hear any of this music without the contributions of talented and generous musicians who have worked hard. But each of these situations involves different musicians in a variety of roles. Two critical roles musicians play include performer and composer. A composer is the musician who writes the music, often literally writing notes on music paper. This is the person who receives inspiration, perhaps hears the sounds in their head, or sits down at the piano and improvises and creates the musical idea. By contrast, the performer is the musician who takes the musical ideas of the composer and brings them to life in sound. Of course, performers can inject their own imagination and creativity into the music when they play it.

Let’s consider these roles in each of the above situations. In video 3.1, we hear Stevie Wonder as the performer, but he also wrote the music for this song, so in this situation the composer and the performer are the same person. In video 3.2, even though the musicians are not sitting there in the car with us, at one point, someone wrote the music down (the composer) and some musicians played this music (performers) into microphones so the music could be recorded. But in this case, the composer and performers are different people. Rihanna is the featured singer (the performer) and also the songwriter, having composed the song with a team of songwriters: Fred Ball and Joseph Angel, and citing herself as Robyn Fenty.

This separation of the roles of performer and composer continues in video 3.3: Lang Lang is the performer playing the notes on the piano, but he did not compose the music. In this case, Lang Lang is playing a piece of music written down by the composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). As you can see by the dates to the right of Beethoven’s name, the composer is no longer alive, and he lived well before the invention of audio recording. Beethoven wrote his music down on music paper, but there’s no way for us to really know what it might have sounded like if Beethoven performed it.

Video 3.4 adds an additional twist. The members of the church choir are obviously the performers and not the composers. But the story of the composition of this hymn is more complicated. While the words to “Amazing Grace” were written around 1772 by the English clergyman and poet John Newton, the composer of the musical part of the hymn (the melody to which the words are set) is unknown. The words were added at some point during the 1800s to a popular folk melody known as “New Britain.”

New Musical Role in the 20th Century: Producer

With the advent of recording technology in the twentieth century, a new musical role emerged, that of the producer. The producer is the person responsible for overseeing the technical elements of the recording. The producer has to think about the “overall sound” of the recording—how the music is recorded (where the microphones are placed, how the instruments sound, special effects, etc.) and how the music is mixed (how loud or soft the different instruments/voices sound when you listen to the recording). Oftentimes, producers play a role in composing the music as well because they are a part of the creative process while the artists are in the studio recording the song. With all of the digital technology available nowadays, producing can get very complicated.

Musical Contexts

Recorded Music vs. Live Music

While listening to Rihanna in the car, we can’t watch her and her band perform, but in the other three scenarios, performers are right in front of us and we can see them physically make the music. Aside from this obvious fact, what makes live performances different from recorded performances?

Recorded performances often represent a kind of “ideal” performance. Especially nowadays, every aspect of a recorded performance can be “perfected.” Even brilliant musicians play with imperfections—a note sung slightly flat or sharp, a bass drum hit that is a little early or late, or a guitar chord that is held for just a little too long. Recording technology allows producers to “fix” these technical errors and make the recording sound exactly a certain way. Most of the time, the different musicians on a recording don’t actually play their parts at the same time. A bass player and drummer might “lay down” their tracks, and then the guitarist comes in at a later time and maybe in a different room and plays over that recording. Then the vocalist records her track over all the other musicians. Then a producer mixes it all together. Sometimes, because the recording process is so intricate, an artist can’t necessarily make a live performance of the same song sound like the recording.

By contrast, what can make live performance so thrilling is the unpredictability and all of the little “imperfections.” When you hear someone play a song live, it doesn’t sound like their recording, and by its very nature it never sounds exactly the same way twice. There is always something different that happens. Sometimes, of course, we can be disappointed in a live performance, but live performance also offers the possibility for amazing things to happen.

Improvisation: Composing/Performing Live

Some musical styles combine the process of composing and performing into one. Jazz music is a style that usually requires performers to improvise while performing. Improvising involves making up a musical part in the moment of performance. This is a style of composing and performing pioneered by African-American jazz musicians in the first part of the twentieth century. To be sure, not everything in a jazz performance is “made up on the spot.” Jazz ensembles typically perform what are known as standards. A standard is a popular song that has been performed and recorded by many different artists. This collection of standards is often referred to as “The Great American Songbook.” Jazz musicians take the skeleton of this standard—its melody and harmonies—and invent music on top of this skeleton. Even in the world of improvisation, there is usually some kind of STRUCTURE (a basic FORM that the piece follows), but the performers have more freedom to change things up as they play.

Louis Armstrong plays the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm”

We’ll listen to the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) in a recording he made of “I Got Rhythm” from 1938. The song “I Got Rhythm” was originally composed by American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) in 1930 for a musical called “Girl Crazy.” The song “I Got Rhythm” became a popular hit and lots of jazz musicians used it as the basis of improvisational performances.

In this song, we’ll hear the band play the original tune (notice the tune itself has a mini ABA form, outlined below), after which each of the band members takes a turn improvising over the chords that supported the original tune.

Video 3.5: Follow along with the form chart below as you listen to Louis Armstrong play “I Got Rhythm.”

Louis Armstrong, “I Got Rhythm” Form Chart 
“the tune” 0:00-0:32a (0:00-0:15); b (0:16-0:22); a (0:23-0:32) 
0:33-1:05 | Louis Armstrong solos over the chords on trumpet
1:06-1:40 | Saxophone solos over the chords (Bud Freeman)
1:41-2:11 | Trombone solos over the chords (Jack Teagarden)
2:12-2:45 | Piano solos over the chords (Fats Waller)
2:46-3:34 | Armstrong comes back in with trumpet (with some additional material in trombone also)


Something to Think About

After listening to live performances and recorded performances, which do you prefer? Would you rather attend a live performance or listen to a great recording of your favorite artist?

Musical Categories

From Resonances: Engaging Music in Its Cultural Context
Edited by Esther M. Morgan-Ellis

What kinds of music do you like to listen to? Country? Hip-hop? Classical? EDM? Top 40? Whether we are talking to a friend, using a streaming service, or browsing records in a store, we like to think about music in terms of categories. These categories can be very useful. They can help us pick a radio station we might enjoy or decide whether or not to buy tickets to hear an unfamiliar band. At the same time, these categories are both artificial and extremely limiting.

Let us begin by considering the classic tripartite division of music into the categories of “classical,” “popular,” and “folk.” This approach has been around for a long time, and it has persevered because, in many ways, it works. If I tell you that I like “classical” music, you immediately understand that I probably mean orchestral music, or opera, and that I probably listen to music that is fairly old. But there are problems with this categorization. To begin with, much of what is “classical” today was “popular” in the past. When Mozart wrote his symphonies, for example, his object was to satisfy popular demand and sell concert tickets, and his audiences behaved the same way that fans at a rock concert do today. And what if I actually prefer experimental orchestral music composed last year? It is common practice to refer to such repertoire as “classical,” but it’s about as far from Mozart as you can get.

“Classical” music is usually associated with certain performance conventions, including formal dress, music reading, and standard ensembles such as the orchestra and choir pictured here, but none of these are essential.

classical orchestra and choir
Figure 3.1: Classical Orchestra | Attribution: AfroRomanzo | Source: Pexels | License: Free to Use

How about “popular” music? This category is generally understood to contain commercial music that appeals to large numbers of people. But what about individual artists or songs that fail to achieve any popularity whatsoever? What about experimental rock bands that take the same attitude towards their work as serious “classical” composers? Mozart, a “classical” composer, might have more in common with a “popular” artist like Jimi Hendrix than Hendrix has in common with Pink Floyd. Mozart and Hendrix were both gifted instrumentalists who dazzled their audiences with virtuosic performances and wrote music to showcase their skills, while the band Pink Floyd is known more for their nuanced production, complex song structures, and unusual instrumentation. Again, however, this category is not without its value. While there is an enormous diversity of “popular” musics, they tend to be characterized by certain forms, instrumentations, styles, and performance venues. There might be much to separate Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, but their music shares important elements of instrumentation and style, and it might be heard in the same types of settings.

“Folk” is also a slippery category. “Folk” music is typically described as music of unknown authorship that is passed down from generation to generation in a particular region. It tends to be fairly simple and in a distinctive style, and it is performed on instruments that are integral to the local musical culture. However, problems quickly arise as we try to label individual pieces or practices. In the United States, for example, the works of Stephen Foster have long been considered folk music. Songs like “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Camptown Races” have certainly entered folk culture, and many who sing or play them know nothing of their composer or origin. But can a commercial song, created and published by a professional composer, truly be considered “folk” music? Different problems arise as we address the musical practices of non-Western societies, many of which do not employ musical notation and reject notions of individual authorship. But does the absence of a named composer, official sheet music, and copyright notice mean that a work in the North Indian classical tradition is “folk” music? The complexity, sophistication, and technical demands of music in this category would suggest not.

Woody Guthrie, pictured here in 1943, is an icon of American folk music. However, he mostly performed songs that he himself wrote and had a successful commercial career—characteristics that put him more in line with “popular” musicians.

Woody Guthrie singing and playing a guitar that reads "This machine kills fascists"
Figure 3.2: Woody Guthrie | Attribution: Al Aumuller | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

A further challenge arises when we try to identify the “folk” music of a region or nation. Let us take the United States. If I tell you that I listen to American folk music, you will probably imagine someone like Joan Baez playing guitar and singing songs from the Anglo folk tradition.

Indeed, music such as hers has come to be known as Folk music (with a capital F). If I ask Spotify to play Folk music for me, I’ll hear Joan Baez and others like her. However, her music represents only one cultural strain within the United States. What about the polka music of midwestern communities? What about the corrido ballads of Spanish-speaking communities near the southern border? What about the dance music heard at Native American pow-wow gatherings? Are any of these traditions less “folk” or less “American” than the others?

For all the reasons explored above, this narrative is going to steer clear of “classical,” “popular,” and “folk” as categories and terms. They have been addressed here only because their use is so widespread. Instead, we will focus on what music across these categories shares in common: the purposes for which individual works were originally created and continue to be consumed. This book is organized around categories, but these categories have little to do with the style of the works contained therein. Instead, they have to do with the roles music plays in society. These categories lead us to first understand what music is for. Only then will we seek to address how the music works, who created it, and how it is rooted in its historical and cultural context.

These categories also have their shortcomings. Many musical examples included in a given category could just as easily be included in another. We will admit that at the outset. All the same, these categories seem more useful than “classical,” “popular,” and “folk,” and they tell us much more about what really matters: music as an integral aspect of the human experience.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we listened to different musical contexts and the critical roles musicians play as performer and composer. In each of the video examples, we looked at the role of the composer and the role of the performer, how music can be produced from someone who is both composer and performer, and music that is written by a composer and then performed by someone else.  We listened to music composed hundreds of years ago that is still being performed today and music that was composed in one era with words added to the composition in a different era.

With the advent of recording technology in the twentieth century, we explored the responsibilities of a producer overseeing the technical elements of the recording. The producer also looks at how the music is recorded (where the microphones are placed, how the instruments sound, special effects, etc.) and how the music is mixed.

We then compared recorded music with live music. We explored jazz music, where performers improvise while performing. Some jazz musicians take the skeleton of a standard jazz piece with its melody and harmonies and invent music on top of this skeleton. We showed how even in the world of improvisation, there is usually a basic form that the piece follows while still giving the performers freedom to change things up as they play.

We next reviewed how music is typically categorized into classical, popular, or folk categories and what was considered the definition of those categories. Classical music is associated with certain performance conventions, including formal dress, music reading, and standard ensembles such as the orchestra and choir. Popular music contains commercial music that appeals to large numbers of people, and folk music is typically described as music of unknown authorship passed down from generation to generation in a particular region. We also looked at how some music can be difficult to place in one of these categories.

Our next chapter will look at how a music notation system was developed and will compare music that was written before 1600 CE with music of the Middle Ages and music of the Renaissance periods.

Test Your Understanding


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