Becoming a musician just means you learn to play an instrument, right? Not quite… In fact, as music learners quickly discover, there are a wide variety of skills involved in being a capable and versatile musician. These go far beyond just knowing the movements to make your instrument play the right notes.

Dr. Chad West is an Associate Professor and Chair of Music Education at Ithaca College and frequently presents at music education conferences. He is a leading expert on the core musicianship skills mentioned above, and has codified them as five distinct skill groups to be learned:

  • Executive
  • Notation
  • Rhythmic
  • Tonal
  • Creativity

The “executive” skills are the ones we think of first—how to play a physical musical instrument—and the “notation” skills are the ones traditionally taught as part of music theory and sheet music reading. These Dr. West classes as the “external” skills of musicianship. However it is the other three, the “internal” skills, which are sometimes overlooked: having a good sense of rhythm, understanding melodies and harmony, and being creative with your own musical ideas.

The approach recommended by Dr. West, covering all of these “Big 5” areas, is one which aligns well with what we teach here at Easy Ear Training and at Musical U: that the instrument and music theory skills are essential, but you must also dedicate time and practice to the third component: your “inner skills” of musicality. These are the skills which allow you to bring music to life in your own way and truly feel ownership and mastery of the notes you play in an intimate way.

After reading about Dr. West’s work on the SmartMusic blog recently we were very keen to talk with him about his fascinating research and find out more about how he views modern musicality training.

Q: Thank you, Dr. West, for joining us today, and welcome to!

Your concept of approaching music education in terms of the “Big 5” (rhythmic, tonal, notation, creativity and executive skills) clearly and concisely captures the various aspects of musicianship.

However, I think it’s fair to say that traditional music education – from personal instrument lessons and exams, to school music classes in the US and UK, to online courses and video tutorials – tend to be very lop-sided when viewed in this framework, focusing heavily on the executive skills, and to some extent the notation.

Why do you think that is? Why has “inner musicianship” been so neglected in 20th century music education?

chad-west-photoMany of us, when we refer to “traditional” music education, are really talking about school music education in the latter part of the 20th century and today. If we go back a little further, we recall that “traditional” music education was very much in line with developing internal musicianship skills.

Just think of the transmission process before music became heavily schoolified: music was passed on aurally in communities, homes, and churches. This form of (traditional) music education was much less heavily focused on notation and executive skills than in schools today. Instead of referring to “traditional” music education in this context, I tend to refer to it as “current practice.” If one were to say that “current practice tends to focus heavily on executive skills and notation,” then I would agree.

Why do I think that current practice tends to focus heavily on these skills, often at the expense of developing internal musicianship skills? I think it is in part because notation and technique are easier to teach and more quantifiable to assess. It is difficult to know if a student is audiating, but it is very easy to see if they can not interpret notation or manipulate their instrument. We need to remember, however, that just because something is observable and quantifiable, does not necessarily make it the most important. As the old saying goes, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Why has internal musicianship been so neglected in 20th century music education? It is actually not neglected in the very best elementary general music classrooms. Just think of music teachers that are skilled in Kodály, Music Learning Theory, Dalcroze, Orff, and Suzuki.

Children's music lesson

In these classrooms, you see children moving, singing, chanting, listening, and improvising. The emphasis is not so much on executive skills such as vocal production or playing technique, but on basic musicianship skills such as audiating, matching pitch, keeping steady time, and creating. These teachers know that when students have highly developed internal musicianship skills (often referred to as “readiness skills”), they are much more successful at manipulating their instruments and bringing meaning to notation.

As a young band director, I remember being appalled that my middle school students were coming to me not knowing much about notation. I thought, “what are they doing in elementary general music if not learning the basics of notation?”

After a few years, I realized that they were coming to me with something much more valuable: the internal musicianship skills that made my job as a band director much easier. If students could audiate, match pitch, keep steady time, and have a musical thought that was not dictated to them, then I could be free to develop their technique and notation abilities.

Unfortunately, this is the trap that some secondary ensemble directors fall into – assuming that students come to them with these readiness skills and failing to continue their development past the elementary general experience. That was the point of my “Big 5” article: to remind ensemble directors that developing students’ internal instruments (tonal, rhythmic, and creative skills) is as much our job as developing students’ external instruments (executive skills and notation).

Q: One key aspect of your work on the “Big 5” is a focus on helping students develop their audiation skills. For the uninitiated, what do you mean by audiation, and what benefits does it bring to a musician?

Audiation is a term coined by Edwin Gordon and is used to refer to hearing and comprehending in one’s mind sounds that are not physically present. A simple example of this would be when you get a tune “stuck in your head.” Another example would be when you hear a I-IV-V7 progression and then anticipate in your mind the resolution to the I chord. Another example would be where you hear the first half of a familiar musical phrase and then, in your mind, hear an alternate ending. These are all examples of audiating.

When students are not hearing pitches in their mind before they play them, not feeling time in their body as the music unfolds, and are not generating expressive musical ideas in relation to the sounds around them, then they are not being musical; they are simply being mechanical. As music teachers, we want to develop internal musicianship, not just external mechanics.

”Without audiation, students are simply pushing buttons as they decode dots on a page.”

When students aurally recognize missed notes, feel when they are rushing or dragging, and have musical ideas apart from that which is dictated to them, then they are functioning as musicians. Without audiation, students are simply pushing buttons as they decode dots on a page.

Q: How does your work relate to the “Music Learning Theory” pioneered at The Gordon Instit