classically trained piano

What Does It Mean To Be Classically Trained?

Author: Dan Leeman Published on: December 29, 2020

What does it mean to be classically-trained?

First of all, we should clarify what is meant by being classically-trained in anything. 

One might associate this with “Classical” music, but the reality is that there are many different vocations and fields of study that produce expert artisans, such as classically-trained chefs, dancers, or actors.

You can think of classical training as a systematic approach to mastering the art of your craft.

Most of us can throw together a delicious meal from a recipe, but we lack a deeper understanding of how each ingredient works independently and as part of a whole to create different taste sensations.

What does it mean to be a classically-trained musician?

From a musical perspective, this is not tied to a specific era or genre of music or geography. For example, we commonly think about classically-trained musicians as being classically-trained pianists or orchestral musicians who are experts in Western art music. 

But you could also be a classically-trained jazz musician or classically-trained in the art of Japanese music.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume you’re interested in what a typical classically-trained musician has deep knowledge of:

Music performance and technique

You’ve undergone rigorous training to master your instrument or voice, usually with private lessons, masterclasses, recitals, solo, and ensemble performances. 

Training may begin even in early childhood: it’s not uncommon for toddlers to begin the basics of piano or Suzuki for string instruments.

It should be noted that being a child prodigy is not a requirement to be considered a “classically-trained” musician. Wind instrumentalists may not start until middle school or later. And no matter how old you are, music is a lifelong journey that you can start at any point!

Learning your instrument or voice is not simply a checkbox in your musical journey. Even the most talented musicians in the world continue to study and learn from other great musicians around them.

Music history

Closely tied to music performance is music history, both in the context of your instrument and as a greater whole.

Just as we learn about world history to understand driving cultural forces that affect how society operates today, understanding the development and progression of instruments, repertoire, and the forces that shaped them can influence our own musical performances.

For example, the way we add phrasing and dynamics is interpreted very differently if you are playing a piece from the Romantic period versus the Baroque. 

If you add dramatic crescendos and decrescendos and wildly change the musical beat of a Baroque piece, other musicians would look at you a little funny as that would not be characteristic of the style.

Music theory

Music theory is a deeper understanding of the underlying rules that guide the composition of music. At a very base level, this is having an understanding of key signatures and chord qualities.

At more advanced levels, classically-trained musicians understand voice leading and counterpoint and common compositional techniques, even if they themselves are not considered composers.

Ear-training / aural skills

A related study to music theory is that of aural skills; being able to hear, analyze, transcribe, and perform musical patterns.

The basics of aural skills usually include identifying the intervals between musical pitches and hearing how chords work together to form a chord progression.

Later applications of aural skills involve singing complex melodies by sight, even ones without a tonal center (atonal music) or performing complex polyrhythms.

I think of music theory as the rules that govern how music is structured, and aural skills are the application of those rules in performance.

Other areas

For a Bachelor of Music degree or most music conservatory degrees, you’ll find additional areas of study that will continue to build upon the core fundamentals.

Individualized repertoire and music history classes, conducting instruction, learning instruments and vocal skills outside of one’s primary instrument are all common at the collegiate level.

That brings us to our next question:

Do I need a degree in music to be considered classically-trained?

While there is no formal definition of classical training that requires a collegiate degree, I consider it quite rare to find a classically-trained musician who has not attained a music degree.

For example, many high school seniors take A.P. music theory courses, study their instrument privately, and engage in a variety of solo and ensemble activities. But this is really just the cusp of the music training that one would experience in a conservatory or university.

However, there are certainly exceptions. A violinist or pianist who has been studying with world-class musicians since toddlerhood could certainly be considered classically-trained. One of my best high school students was certainly in this position. She won state and national competitions in flute and piano, studied music her entire life, and ultimately went on to serve in the medical field. 

Did she have a music degree? No, but she certainly had the same qualifications regardless of an academic degree.

Does any of this really matter?

Forgive me for going into detail of what it means to be classically-trained and then saving this juicy conclusion for the end.

There are very few circumstances where anyone really cares that you are “classically-trained.”

Think about it.

If you’re a professional classical musician in an orchestra, a chamber ensemble, or a vocalist in the opera, you’re certainly classically-trained. So are all of your colleagues. No one cares, because that is a very base threshold.

If you’re a public or private school music teacher or have your own private wind/string/percussion/classical voice studio, you’re most likely classically-trained as well. So are all of your peers.

If you’re a self-taught musician who learned everything you need to know about electric guitar from YouTube, you’re (probably) not a classically-trained musician. But who the heck cares? Not your target audience, and not the members of your rock band.

To be honest, the only times I really hear this come up in conversation are when commentators are throwing out some kind of stat about a pop artist.

If you ever watch the NFL, you’ll hear commentators throw out the same tired snippets about players over and over again:

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick attended Harvard - trying to draw some kind of storyline that his academic pedigree is correlated with his “analytical mind” as a quarterback.

It’s the same thing for pop musicians:

Alicia Keys is a classically-trained pianist.

Does it affect her performance? Maybe.

Would you like or dislike her music any more if she wasn’t? Maybe?

I think it’s always a great goal for young musicians to want to explore their craft more deeply. For some, that means learning a little bit about the theory behind their music. For others, that may be an advanced degree in performance to carefully hone their skills.

Regardless of where you’re at, keep learning in your musical journey!

Dan Leeman

Dan Leeman

I'm a music educator-turned software architect located in Fargo, North Dakota. I started Notestem in 2013 to distribute my sheet music arrangements to fellow musicians.