Instrumentalists vs Musicians – What’s the difference?

An instrumentalist is someone highly competent with an instrument to the point that it is inspiring and praiseworthy. A musician is a person with great passion and love for making music, regardless of their skill level.

These words are often used interchangeability, but they are not the same thing. They are also not mutually exclusive. Someone can be a musician and instrumentalist at the same time.

What’s the difference?

In my opinion, an instrumentalist is someone who has a great knowledge of their instrument. Excellent technique and lots of knowledge about music theory are a must.

Simply said, this person has a high level of proficiency on a certain musical instrument. Someone who can quickly learn to play any piece of music can be considered as an instrumentalist.

However, that doesn’t make them a musician. In many cases, instrumentalists just learn to play tunes that are already written and they don’t actually have that kind of composing aspiration.

On the other side, a musician doesn’t necessarily need to be that proficient in terms of playing skills. However, he has an excellent sense of musicality and he knows to make a difference between something that sounds good and something that sounds bad. They could be one of those band members who never stands out, but the band simply doesn’t sound right without them.

Of course, they often have composing and songwriting aspirations, which don’t necessarily have to reflect in making new tunes. For example, someone who has great improvisation skills, or has arranging talent can also be considered as a talented musician, no matter how good or bad their playing skills are.

We came to the point where we can say that being an amazing player doesn’t make you a musician. You need to have something more than that, something we could call musicality.

Musicality is the word we’re looking for

As I’ve just mentioned, musicality is something that turns instrumentalist into a musician. You can find thousands of instrumentalists with an amazing technique that play with perfect precision. However, being a musician means to have more than the ability for faithful reproduction of pitches, rhythms, and composer dynamic markings.

Sometimes, this can be hardly noticed, especially if you hear someone to play a complex piece of music. The best way to see if someone is musical or not is to hear him or her in a band. There you can see how good musicians interact and share their feelings and expressions, even though we are talking about the reproduction of a bunch of notes.

Being a musician means you are able to express something greater than just playing your individual parts. That requires a sense of many things, starting from rhythm, dynamics, improvisation skills, etc

Can someone be a good musician without being a good instrumentalist?

Quite possibly. There are many cases of singer songwriters that only know the basic chords of the guitar. Though even in these cases, they can often play these very well and with good skill.

In most cases, both aspects of musicianship need to be developed to a certain level. Some are better instrumentalists, others are more musical, but the majority of them are decently strong in both fields.

Let’s try to explain this with a funny comparison. If you look at football players, all of them are pretty strong in terms of technique, athleticism, and other necessary skills. However, that doesn’t make them great players.

A good player stands out not because of excellent technique or speed, but because of things like flair, anticipation, creativity, determination, etc. The same thing is with music. Besides excellent proficiency in playing a certain instrument, you also need a high level of musicality.

Strive to have both competences in your playing

Therefore, it’s not hard to make a conclusion that you have to work on both aspects of playing. A good musician is strong in both fields. While things are pretty obvious with the instrumentalist part, a great thing to know is that there are many ways to become improve your musicality and become a better musician, despite that many believe this is something you simply have or don’t have.

How To Improve Musicality?

Almost anyone can improve their musicality, to some point at least. It’s often up for debate whether an ear for music is an innate skill vs a learned one. I think it’s the latter for the most part.

However, I think some people have an advantage based on having music lessons as a child, being immersed in a culture or family with a lot of music, having a group of friends with a large enthusiasm or diversity of music, etc. 

With a proper approach, I think almost everyone can improve their sense of rhythm or improvisation skills. Moreover, there is a whole bunch of tips I could give. Work on them and I guarantee you will realize that you are much more talented than you think.

Of course, one of the first things that come to mind is to listen to as much music as possible. By this, I don’t mean listening to the same tunes over and over.

You should listen to different music styles carefully, even if you don’t like a particular genre. With such an approach, you will learn a lot about different approaches to music, which you can later implement into your playing style.

Playing in a band and jamming with other musicians is a perfect way to improve your musicality. No exercise can replace rehearsals and live performances. Also, record everything you play, so can hear and see which aspects of your playing don’t sound very musical and think about how they can be improved.

Don’t be a slave to a technician! This is by far the best advice you can get. You have to be aware that most of your playing will never sound perfect. There is always something to get better at, but that shouldn’t be your obsession.

Being uptight and angry because something isn’t going in the way you want is the worst thing you can do to yourself. You will suppress your creativity and won’t be able to focus on things that really matter.

Once you get relaxed, you will finally be able to pay attention to things that are happening around. Things like memory lapses, tempo misunderstandings, unwanted noise can actually be a great source of inspiration if you look at them from a different perspective.

How to be a better instrumentalist?

Your musicality has never been questioned, but you can’t say you are a proficient player. (Un)Fortunately for you, things are pretty simple in this case. You have to practice more.

There are many ways to work on your technique or learn music theory. The only thing that is required is your hard work. A certain level of discipline is required too, and that’s the price you have to pay.


Being a proficient instrumentalist is great. Being musical is fantastic. However, if you want to be a really good musician, both things are equally important. They should go together in one package.

Musicality without the ability to materialize your ideas means nothing if you want to create original music. The shame is even bigger if you have proficient playing skills but don’t work on the creative side of your musical personality.

Therefore, it is important to realize that you need to work on both aspects of your playing if you want to become an accomplished musician.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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