What does it mean to be a musician?

Music isn’t something you are born with. It isn’t an identity that you fall into. It is something you choose to do, and you decide whether you want to continue, or how often to do it, and how far with it you go. Society however attempts to create stereotypes for everything, and musicians aren’t sheltered from this. In many ways, they are mirroring what they have seen, what we have been shown in pop culture provides examples that they aspire to be, as well as reflect what they are becoming.

I have identified as a musician since I was about 11 years old. It started very similarly to how everyone seems to: I asked my parents for a guitar. I (just like everyone else) was going to be a rock star! I very quickly began learning everything that every other preteen musician was learning, listening to the same bands, and even began taking pictures like this:


Everyone was looking toward all the famous rock musicians from the past 40 years, and saw the same type of characters appearing again and again: They all lived an exciting lifestyle that showed extreme wealth, or sometimes even extreme poverty. They were all incredibly clever people that got anything and everything they wanted, and likewise were always falling in and out of love. These images bring to mind many popular musicians and their antics throughout the ages. Musicians sleeping with fans, clever and mischievous remarks to others, getting into trouble on their time off, and especially ego.

Many of these characteristics can be seen in the ‘rockumentary’ This is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984). One of the film’s lead characters, Nigel Tufnel, is a great example. While he is of course repeatedly shown as being a talented musician, he is more often shown as being shrewd toward the interviewer. This trait stands out in a scene in which he is giving a tour of his collection of guitars. In this scene, he often makes condescending, yet clever remarks for the interviewer not to touch, point, or even look at certain guitars. He is also quite witty when explaining details about certain instruments.


(Retrieved from: http://www.guitarworld.com/node/13103)

Toward the climax of the movie, most of the characters show one large characteristic of musicians in the form of their egos affecting their actions. In fact, at separate points, both Tufnel, as well as another band member, Ian Faith, are shown to quit the band as a result of events that they take offense toward. This is of course perhaps one of the biggest traits I had begun to see as I grew as a musician. Egos are a very dangerous matter than can in some circumstances completely destroy everything one has built up.

So then what happened? I managed to breakout of the rock scene, and into the jazz genre and really began to get an “outside perspective” on what it meant to be a “rock musician”. I even began to look down on musicians that weren’t jazz musicians; to me, they were all “egotistical druggies that think they are the best thing to walk the earth”. Of course, I very quickly became the best musician I knew (or more accurately, as I perceived to be within my school district), and was what one might call a “big fish”. But as fate would have it, I was merely a “big fish in a small pond”. And when I got to the university level, I became aware of the fact that this phenomenon happened all over the world. And that ultimately, I was just one more musician that perceived highly of them selves.

The musician itself is a character archetype that has been played with for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They come in many shapes and sizes, and play many different instruments. Why is it then, that musicians also have stereotypes associated with them? We often think of some of the same things that I had experienced when we watch musical characters.


(Retrieved from https://prezi.com/t2u_xcavx3jd/italian-renaissance-drama-commedia-dellarte/)

These musician characters can be seen throughout history in many dramas and literature, but one of the most well known is that of the Innamorati in the Commedia dell’Arte style. This character was one of the many ‘stock’ characters that emerged as a result of the need for improvised theatrical shows in the 16th century. They were expected to sing both as a character archetype, but also in a historical context, as the actors playing these parts began to be known for their talents (Rudlin, 1994).

Many of this type of character can be seen in interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Between Romeo and Juliet’s Romeo, The Taming of the Shrew’s Lucentio, Much Ado About Nothing’s Claudio, Merchant of Venice’s Bassanio, and the list could go on. As a character, they are mostly seen as “the lover”, while also being very musical and poetic in the way they interact with others and act throughout the stories. These two traits however, were the only ones we see present in modern musicians. Today, musicians (as well as other poetic artistic types) are known as most likely to “get the girl”, perhaps influenced by this early archetype.

We can see the characteristic of cleverness in another Commedia dell’Arte character: the Zanni. Traditionally, the Zanni were servants of the Innamorati. They were quite often shown as comedic and clever, often mixing the two to progress the story (Janik & Forti-Lewis, 1998). In the early 17th century however, we begin to see an evolution of the Zanni into Harlequin. Now the character began to have a love interest in the Colombina, often mirroring the main love story with their own happening in the background (Nicoll, 1963). With this, the Harlequin brought the emergence of a clever character that is also interested in love.

With the introduction of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Shakespeare, 1611) we can begin to see another character that merges traits. Often referred to as Shakespeare’s “most musical character”, Ariel still played the role of servant to his master Prospero. Depending on the production, he is almost always seen entering and exiting with music, and plays certain instrument himself. In fact, this musical trait is often used to drive the plot through calming the characters with song, or leading them toward their objective. He also shows his cleverness by using magic to deter those that attempt to plot against Prospero. The only love that this character shows, however, is a love for his master. This can be seen in his famous line “Do you love me, master?” Ultimately, Ariel is a much more unique character that shows a history of some of the traits musicians in media show today.

A modern day example of a musical character is Andy Dwyer in Parks and Rec (Daniels, 2009). He is a fun, lovable, often clever (but seemingly dim) musician character that has appeared since the show’s first episode. His character has of course evolved over the years, but at his roots, he very much exists as a Harlequin archetype.


(Retieved from http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/02/23/parks-and-recreation-25-great-andy-dwyer-quotes)

It is very easy to see from the beginning that he exists largely as the main comedic character, despite all the characters contributing humor toward the plot. This is seen in nearly every episode through the countless humorous interactions he has with others. On the surface, these interactions show him to be entirely dull. And while he can be naïve, some plots unfold to show him to be quite intelligent. Related to this is his ability to be clever in dire situations. Examples of this can be seen when he scored a perfect score on the police exam, as well as some of the interactions with other characters that get him jobs.

Of course, a big characteristic of his is that he is a musician. This has manifested itself in many episodes, but a few in particular use it as their plot. In the episode titled Swing Vote (Daniels, 2013), he even manages to show an egotistical side when deciding to quit the band due to them playing a show without him. This action is very similar to the one seen earlier in This is Spinal Tap. In each of these examples however, they do end up returning to their groups; something that is unfortunately not seen so often in reality.

As I networked with more jazz musicians, I began to see and hear about many of the same negative characteristics I saw earlier in my life with the rock musicians. Careless antics were rampant through student musicians, there were clever actions taken to outdo one another, yet they were also not the brightest people, and of course ego stimulated their daily interactions.

Ultimately, I escaped this toxic environment. But I began to wonder, where does this come from? Are we just mirroring the negative aspects we see in popular musicians throughout history? Why were musicians like Andy Dwyer portrayed as an idiot on the surface?


(Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/07/it-might-get-loud-review)

With the release of It might get loud (Guggenheim, 2009), we begin to get an inside look into the lives of some different musicians. It takes 3 guitar players, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, and places them in a room together with much of their musical equipment and has them in a sense have a conversation together. While it is true that in the past many famous musicians have had some negative problems in their lives such as drugs, this documentary shows that there is much more to being a musician. It describes the various backgrounds that these three musicians come from, and ultimately how they manage to create the sound they have, as well as how they became the people they are.

Interestingly, there are no negative traits present in the film. The three of them are having a productive conversation where they learn from each other and help each other understand the differences in the genres they play. On a sub-surface level, it is easy to see that the three of them may come from different places, but with sincerity and humility in their attitudes. Similarly, all three show intelligence when talking, and likewise aren’t trying to trick or outwit anyone else. And although this film only shows three examples, it is clear to see that many of the stereotypes seen throughout history might not necessarily be true everywhere we look.

Even though many of the musicians I have been surrounded by growing up show these qualities, I have a much greater awareness that it is easy to become assimilated to that type of lifestyle, and in the end I decided that I didn’t want to live like that. This doesn’t mean that I am any less of a musician than before. I chose to affiliate myself with this life, and of course have to interact with those that do unfortunately show many of these characteristics. But when comparing the documentary It Might Get Loud to some of the ‘mocumentaries’ such as Parks and Rec and This is Spinal Tap, it has shown that perhaps musicians aren’t like this in reality. This tells me that the stereotypes that exist in many of the ‘not-yet-professional’ musicians throughout the world are merely mirroring what we see in media, and not an accurate portrayal of what actually exists.


This Is Spinal Tap. Dir. Rob Reiner, Embassy Home Entertainment, 1984, Film.

Rudlin, J. (1994). Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook (pp. 67-90, 106, 118). New York: Routledge

Janik, V., & Forti-Lewis, A. (1998). Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History (pp. 151-152). Greenwood Press.

Nicoll, A. (1963). The World of Harlequin: A Critical Study of the Commedia Dell’Arte (pp. 1-9). Cambridge University Press.

Shakespeare, W. (1611). The Tempest

Daniels, Greg. Parks and Recreation. Prod. Michael Schur. NBC. Television. 2009

Daniels, Greg. “Swing Vote.” Parks and Recreation. Prod. Michael Schur. NBC. Television. 2013

It Might Get Loud. Dir. David Guggenheim. Perf. Jimmy Page, Jack White, and David Evans. Sony Pictures Classics, 2009.

Images from:

The top 10 reasons to Quit Playing Guitar. (2014, October 3). Retrieved from http://www.guitarworld.com/node/13103

Anselmi, C. (2014, December 4). Italian Renaissance Drama & Commedia dell’Arte. Retrieved from https://prezi.com/t2u_xcavx3jd/italian-renaissance-drama-commedia-dellarte/

Fowler, M. (2015, February 25). PARKS AND RECREATION: 25 GREAT ANDY DWYR QUOTES. Retieved from http://www.ign.com/articles/2015/02/23/parks-and-recreation-25-great-andy-dwyer-quotes

Pulver, A. (2010, January 7) Film Review: It Might Get Loud. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/07/it-might-get-loud-review


5 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a musician?

  1. Hi Shay,
    I am so impressed by your essay. I loved all the sources that you used from Shakespeare to Parks and Rec. You really did a great job showing examples of where these stereotypes came from. It really shows the immense amount of work that you did for this essay. Fantastic job, I hope you have a great summer!

  2. Hi Shay,
    I definitely enjoyed reading through your blog post. Although I can’t be considered a musician since I quit band in the 7th grade, my boyfriend definitely is. What’s interesting to me is that as I was reading through your post, I came across all of the stereotypes we all know, but that my boyfriend has personally had to combat. This included expectations for him to drugs, sleep around, etc. Many people don’t think these stereotypes are actually debilitating, but they definitely can be! Anyway, I appreciated that the sources you chose were very different from each other and not all the same genre for example, and I think you put forth some good work. Well done!

    • Has he discovered ways to combat them? Its definitely something I am interested in, as even though I have no desire to rely on music as a career, I will most definitely always continue interacting with other musicians, creating music, and living a musical life!

  3. Hey Shay

    I really enjoyed reading your post on what it means to be a musician. You seemed to touch on all the classic stereotypes of musicians because I found as I was reading through that I could relate to most of your examples or at least found myself saying “oh yeah I know what he means”. I wanted to be a musician myself when I was younger and had dreams of playing the guitar for a living. I learned the piano when I was young and took some guitar classes before I finally figured out that I am happy with just enjoying music by listening to it then playing it. Good post!

    • I hope that you still do play music though! It can definitely be rewarding, and I always encourage anyone I meet that wants to start, not to be deterred from doing it just because there are so many negative aspects to the dynamics that can exist.

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