The terms “musician” and “performer/performing artist” are used almost interchangeably these days, but these terms are not actually synonymous. Musicians can certainly be performing artists, but performing artists cannot always be strictly considered musicians; musicianship involves a broad array of different skills; whereas performance involves a somewhat more limited set of them. Here are five key differences between musicians and performing artists.
A musician will always have some level of training in music theory, whether they undertook it in degree studies or via online classes and texts. A performing artist may have some theoretical ability as it applies to their professional practice, but they will rarely have the deeper understanding of music theory that a musician may have.
A musician will also typically have training in aural skills – the ability to analyze and learn music based on hearing. Performing artists, however, may have a sharper ear for tone, dynamic, and trouble spots, due to their extensive time spent with singing or playing music; a musician may not spend nearly as much time on performance as a performing artist. Some performing artists learn their instrument entirely by ear, and subsequently develop aural skills independently of academic training – in some, this can be more effective than the kind of aural skills drilling practiced in many music degree programs.
Musicians will, due to their theoretical training, generally have at least basic compositional ability whether via notation programs or on manuscript paper. Performing artists who are strictly that will generally not write their own music or lyrics; musicians who are also composers are often hired to write music for them.
Instrumental or Vocal Training
Generally, both musicians and performing artists will undertake academic training or private lessons on their instrument or for their voice part; but performing artists may spend somewhat more time training on their instrument(s) than musicians with more general practice. However, trained musicians often spend years – even entire lifetimes – receiving training on their instrument, whereas performing artists often only take lessons for a few years before embarking on their careers.
Because most musicians are trained, either privately or academically, they possess a greater array of tools (music theory, aural skills, and instrumental or vocal instruction) that permit them to pass the skills of musicianship to students. While some performing artists occasionally instruct, most performing artists have not gained the intensity and depth of musicianship necessary to teach as trained musicians have (though there is certainly crossover, as previously mentioned).
Ultimately, the role of the musician is broader, while the role of the performing artist is more focused; and dependent on the situation, either role may have an advantage in the creation or interpretation of music.