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How do I Become a Session Musician?

By J.S. Metzker Erdemir
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A session musician is a freelance singer or instrumentalist. Session musicians might play with groups who need an extra player on a temporary basis, or they may be hired to play for an event or to record music for an advertisement. No special degrees are required to become a session musician, but artists need to do a lot of preparation before applying for jobs.

There is a need for session musicians for all types of music, like rock, classical, hip-hop, or big band. An artist who wants to make a career as a session musician should be quite versatile, and able to play in a variety of genres. If a musician can only play heavy metal, for example, the number of jobs that are available diminishes significantly. Being competent in many styles of music prepares a session musician to do almost any kind of work.

Natural talent is an important asset for anyone who wants to become a session musician, but developing musical ability is also crucial. A session musician has to be able to sight read music, and it helps to be able to read charts and tabs as well. Usually, learning to sight read music can be learned and practiced at home without lessons. If an artist can play a song upon seeing it, the band or producer can move along with recording without a lot of practice time.

Ear training and a solid grounding in music theory are other skills that will help an artist become a session musician. For some people, this might require formal training. Ear training is particularly important for singers who want to hit the right note every time, but it also helps musicians come up with harmony parts or play music from hearing it when sheet music isn’t provided.

No one can become a session musician without hard work, tenacious job hunting, and contacts. When applying for jobs, a musician should have a good demo recording and some black and white head shots. Radio and TV stations hire freelance musicians to do jingles or backup work, and classified ads often list jobs playing music for parties, weddings, or other events. For musicians that have more work experience, there are producers, songwriters, and studios that advertise in trade magazines or studio technology magazines that need musicians for making demos or doing backup work. Session musicians can also apply for jobs with recording studios or directly with agents.

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Discussion Comments
By peabody — On Aug 06, 2011

@shell4life - You're right, it's all about who you know. In any case, most musicians tend to have a network of music contacts simply from performing and working with others. The key is to actually use these contacts and let them know that you're available for session work. Consider adding a note about that to business cards, websites and other promo materials.

By jsmay — On Aug 05, 2011

@bluespirit - amysamp is absolutely correct. Many session musicians end up making their living in advertising. New York would likely be another type of city where there would be plenty of this type of work. However (there's always a catch!) it may also be very saturated due to the population and number of musicians drawn to such cities.

By shell4life — On Aug 05, 2011

In some areas, it really helps to know someone in a studio when trying to become a session musician. I know a producer, and he frequently calls me in to play piano for singers who don’t have a pianist.

Since I can play by ear and read music, I am a valuable asset to the producer. He charges a certain fee from the singer or band in need of my services, and I receive a percentage of that fee. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

By orangey03 — On Aug 04, 2011

The best quality a session musician can possess is the ability to play music by ear. Certain people are just born with the ability to pick out notes and melodies using only their hearing.

Of course, training with a certain instrument is necessary to develop this ability, but if you have it, you can play just about anything. If you are learning to read music, your ear will help you know if you are playing it correctly.

Singing by ear is a very important ability. The best singers know when they are on pitch and when they are off-key, even slightly.

By amysamp — On Aug 04, 2011

@bluespirit - My husband who is a musician says it is a little different for a musician who is trying to be more of a session musician than a musician in a band.

If you are trying to be a session musician, because they are used in many advertising campaigns you are likely to also find jobs in your more typical large city such as Chicago; whereas a musician in a band might find it easier to find work in Nashville as opposed to just any big city because of the music culture there just as you had assumed.

By bluespirit — On Aug 03, 2011

It seems from an outsider's perspective if you want to get a job as a musician you have to move to Los Angeles or Nashville or Austin.

Is this true for session musicians as well or are they more common in all job markets?

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