What Does a Session Musician Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A Session Musician

Ashley Deleon Nicole/The Balance 

Session musicians are for-hire musicians who perform with solo artists and bands without officially being a part of the group. Session musicians play on recordings, play in live shows, or both. Although some give and take often happens during a recording, the general understanding is that session musicians play what they are asked to play, even when they may have musical reservations about the direction. Affability in these circumstances is key.

In general, session players don't write the music. They either play what others have written—the common practice in session work—or else they improvise a performance, often with not even a chord chart to guide them. For pop, rap, and soul session players, that's an essential part of the job. Sometimes an artist or producer will provide direction. At other times, they want you to come up with something on your own. Still, you have to do this with some sensitivity to the existing or intended musical direction.

Session Musician Duties & Responsibilities

This job generally requires the ability to do the following work:

  • Sing or play an instrument
  • Audition
  • Learn quickly
  • Rehearse and practice regularly
  • Perform live
  • Travel
  • Promote self

In addition to being skilled musicians, session musicians need to be versatile. While it’s great to be really good at one type of music, chances for work are increased greatly if you are able to adapt to a variety of genres. It’s also important to be able to get along with many different types of people. Those hiring session musicians will keep coming back to those who can play anything and fit in with just about anybody. This also increases the likelihood of getting longer gigs, such as tours.

Self-promotion also is a big part of the job. Session musicians need to get out and talk to as many other professionals in the music business as possible to get their names out there. By establishing a good reputation with a lot of people, work opportunities can grow by word of mouth.

Session Musician Salary

Most session musicians are hired for temporary or part-time jobs, and hourly pay can range from minimum wage to almost 10 times that rate, depending on the gig. Salaries listed below are calculated to show what the wages would equate to for a full-time job.

  • Median Annual Salary: $58,552 ($28.15/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $152,547 ($73.34/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $21,632 ($10.40/hour)

Education, Training, & Certification

There are no specific degree requirements or certifications necessary to get a job as a session musician, but it’s a profession that requires extensive knowledge and training.

  • Education: Session musicians are most marketable if they can play a variety of styles of music and are familiar with as many historical influences as possible. Degrees in music can help build this base of knowledge.
  • Training: Professional musicians typically have been taking formal lessons of some sort since childhood. Even accomplished professionals still might take lessons to help learn or refine new techniques or to learn new instruments.

Session Musician Skills & Competencies

Session musicians need to be experts with the instruments they play, but being successful in getting work requires some other soft skills.

  • Promotional skills: The musicians who can get out and meet as many other musicians and studio engineers as possible put themselves in the best positions to get hired for session work.
  • Flexibility: Work can present itself on short notice, so musicians need to be able to make themselves available on short notice. Those doing the hiring will want to call the session musicians who never, or rarely, say no.
  • Discipline: Being a good session musician requires expert-level skill as a musician and an ability to pick up new pieces quickly. This requires constant and regular practice.
  • People skills: In addition to having to market themselves, session musicians also need to be able to work with many different types of people. This requires an ability to get along with people and adapt to different types of personalities and demands.

Job Outlook

Job opportunities for musicians and singers are projected to increase by about 6% for the decade ending in 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This trails the 7% rate of growth projected for all occupations. The projection is for all musicians and singers and not specific to session musicians, but the report does state that demand for backup and session musicians might be slightly higher than for those in orchestras or operas, which often rely on donor support.

Because work for session musicians often is sporadic, most will supplement their incomes through other jobs. Some jobs, like offering music lessons, may be related to the industry, while others will not.

Work Environment

Most session musicians are independent contractors who establish relationships with other musicians and studio engineers over time. The actual work typically takes place in a recording studio and sometimes can be monotonous as one piece of music might need to be played repeatedly for the best possible recording. Session musicians sometimes will be hired to perform live with established bands or even tour with them.

Work Schedule

Hours can be unpredictable. Most session musicians work part-time, and studio time can be scheduled at any time on any day of the week.

How to Get the Job

WORD OF MOUTH

Establish your reputation as a go-to player for your instrument in your area.

ONLINE PRESENCE

In addition to a traditional resume, consider having a Youtube channel or other website that highlights your playing ability.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in working as a session musician also might consider one of the following career paths, listed with median annual salaries: