Finding the Meaning in Music: Quick Ideas to Build Musicianship

What is this supposed to be?

The jigsaw puzzle pieces were spread on the table and I had just completed the first critical phase in any jigsaw puzzle assembly, putting all the edge pieces together. My question arose from a discovery I had made along the way: the puzzle I was assembling was definitely not the one pictured on the box. The box had a beautiful view of Neuschwanstein, the famous German castle that was the inspiration for the Disney Cinderella castle. From the pieces on the table, it looked as if the picture might be a building, maybe even a castle but it was clear from the colors and the edge pieces that it wasn’t going to be Neuschwanstein.

Not knowing what the puzzle was going to look like made the challenge of putting it together considerably more difficult. It’s like being lost in a strange city without a map or trying to read a book in a language of which you only know a few words.

It’s like trying to be a musician without knowing anything about musicianship.

Imagine a musical puzzle. It’s a collection of notes and rhythms, but they aren’t on a staff and there is no key signature or meter signature. There is no title or composer indicated. How could you tell anything about the meaning of those notes? You could create a piece from them, but would it be the right piece?

Musicianship is the craft of music. It’s the understanding that breathes life into our performance of the notes on the page. It’s the knowledge of the musical fundamentals such as theory and history, and being able to use that knowledge to inform your playing.

The stronger your musicianship skills, the easier it is to learn music, to sight read, to memorize, to improvise. In short, the more you can connect your intellectual understanding of music to your performance, the better your performance will be.

It’s not unlike trying to read aloud from a book written in a language you are just beginning to learn. There are familiar words and phrases, but you encounter complex grammatical constructions and unfamiliar idioms. You can’t grasp the full meaning of what you are reading and as a result, your inflection and pacing is awkward and sounds strange.

But as your fluency with that language develops, so does your reading both in terms of your own comprehension and in its power to communicate an idea to a listener.

As complex as musicianship is, you can begin to strengthen your own musicianship and bring more depth and expression to your playing with some very simple exercises like the ones below. They are designed to connect the concepts of musicianship to your playing in a very practical, relevant way. I call them “Flash Strategies” because they can be done in a flash, and hopefully, they will create a flash of understanding too. Give them a try in your practice and create your own.


  1. Do you know the key, meter, title and composer of your piece?
  2. Do you know the meaning of every musical term, symbol and foreign word on the page?
  3. How does this piece relate to a time period, place or musical style and how might that affect the way you play it?
  4. What are the notes and rhythms in the main melody? Try playing them in a different key.
  5. What patterns do you notice in the piece? Are there repeated sections or phrases?
  6. What is the harmony of the first and last phrases in the piece?
  7. How would you describe this piece to a friend without using any musical terms?

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