The Difference Between a Musician and a Singer


We are fortunate to have another guest blogger here at A Close Shake. While I have been busy with the launch of the Boston Chamber Orchestra’s Commission Competition, Nick Burtius has been kind enough to step in and write an entry which might ruffle the tail feathers of many a diva.

“For one who does what he does not understand
is considered an animal.”

His chosen topic? The difference between a musician and a singer. In his post, he contrasts someone who just “does” music and someone that understands the inner workings of it and makes correct judgements about performance based on that kno-[wledge. His post is a bit “wordier” and less infused with humor than mine usually are (or attempt to be), but to each his own. But more seriously, he hits upon what is often lacking and instead should be the cornerstone of todays performers: a solid foundation which is not based on the practical, but instead on the cultivation of knowledge in theory, history and logic. Thanks Nick!
Dearest friends, since the study of music is a natural science, and speculation or theory results in a superior and wiser understanding than practice, therefore a speculative musician is one who applies knowledge in considering singing not with the servitude of work but with the power of speculation. But if he spends time on practice he will not add a varied multitude of things to speculation, but rather its completion, and it should be known that through this he becomes a well-rounded musician who lacks nothing in speculation and in practice.

Speculation results from two causes, hearing and reason. Not hearing alone but reason also takes part in a definite judgment. Hearing is the beginning and in a certain way it holds a position of correction. But the final perfection of knowledge consists in reason, which adheres to certain rules and never falls into error. For we perceive consonances by ear, but the intervals by which they are separated we do not measure with our ears which are inexact in judgement, but with rules and reason.

Thus according to Boethius a musician is someone who has the faculty of speculation and understanding of musical ratios, not someone who is concerned only with a practical way of singing. Yet a practitioner of this discipline is a singer who sings and does not know what he sings. Also excluded from such speculation are string players, organists, and others who show their skill on instruments, since they are entirely lacking in theoretical reasoning. Poets also are drawn to song by a certain natural instinct rather than by speculation and reason, for our Boethius excludes them from musical speculation.

“So a musician is to a singer as a judge is to a court crier, for the crier proclaims the judge’s decisions without knowing why they were made, although the judge knows everything. Every musician is a singer but not every singer is a musician.” Otherwise not only small birds, wild beasts, and small animals, but also the ignorant and unskilled singing by nature alone and without instruction would be musicians. Thus the speculative excels the practical, for it is much better and more worthy to know what one does than to carry out what another knows. Guido said there is a great distance between musicians and singers. The latter sing, the former know what music contains. For one who does what he does not understand is considered an animal.

Nicholas Burtius, Bolonga, 1487
[translation from Burtius, Nicolaus, and Clement A. Miller. Musices Opusculum. [S.l.]: American Institute of Musicology, 1983.]

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