The Difference between Singing and Playing an Instrument
I believe that everyone can sing. Singing is a fun and healthy thing to do whether you think you’re good at it or not. We are all singers. Please keep this in mind as I explain what I see as the main difference between singing and playing an instrument.
The difference is most noticeable when it comes to “playing by ear”. This is the ability to figure out how to play a song on an instrument just by listening to it. Not everyone can do this because it takes time and effort to learn how. Now, I’ll bet you’ve never heard the phrase “singing by ear”. That’s because all singing is singing by ear. Anyone who sings along to the radio in the car knows this. You simply listen to the song and sing along. Easy! Instantaneously, without thinking about it, you recall what the song sounds like, you hear it in your imagination first, and then you make sounds with your voice that match what you hear in your head. In this process, you don’t necessarily know what notes you are singing.
When you are learning how to play an instrument, you will be able to play notes without hearing them in your head first. All you have to do is learn the physical technique of playing that note on your instrument. You will probably know what note you are playing because you likely had to learn what note you were playing before you learned how to play it.
There are two skills here. The skill of “hearing it in your head before you play it” is easy and natural for singers, but not for instrumentalists. The skill of “knowing what notes you are playing” is easier for instrumentalists and harder for singers. A fluent musician is good at both of these things, regardless of whether they are a singer or an instrumentalist.
If you are an instrumentalist, it is good to learn how to play the things you hear in your head because it allows you to truly express yourself. Your musical ideas will exist in your imagination before you can play them.
If you are a singer, why would you want to know what notes you are singing? Well, you may not want this. I can see why some people may not want intellectual knowledge to get in the way of their “pure” experience of singing. Thinking about what notes you are singing might distract you from the emotional and spiritual experience you are having. However, I believe you can have the best of both worlds. Knowing what notes you are singing will help you learn songs faster because you will be able to build an intellectual map of the song. It will also help you add harmonies to songs. Adding harmonies is quite easy when you know what notes you are singing. And it will help you in situations where you are unsure of the notes you are singing. You will be able to tell if you are singing the notes you want to sing or not, and you will be able to correct yourself. If you find yourself playing music with other people, especially instrumentalists, you will be able to communicate your ideas to them. Musicians will be very impressed with you and your rehearsals will go much smoother if instead of saying “that sounds wrong,” you say “don’t put a G in that chord”.
Instrumentalists and singers have unique challenges, and this is why I recommend that singers learn an instrument, and instrumentalists learn to sing. You will become a more well-rounded musician as a result. In the end, a musician is a musician, whether you sing or play an instrument.