What Does a Session Musician Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows a trio of musicians playing trumpet, violin, and clarinet. Text reads:

Image by Ashley Nicole DeLeon © The Balance 2019

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 they improvise a performance, often without 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 the session musician to come up with something that retains 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
  • Self-promote

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 for those that can adapt to a variety of genres. It’s also important to get along with many different types of people. Those who hire session musicians keep going back to those who can play anything and fit in with 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 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)

Session musicians that supplement their income or that work as independent contractors incur business-related expenses. These expenses may include but are not limited to travel, licenses, studio space, and musical instruments.

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 play a variety of styles of music and are familiar with a range of historical influences. Degrees in music can help build this base of knowledge.
  • Training: Professional musicians typically begin taking formal lessons of some sort in childhood. Accomplished professionals may take lessons to learn or refine new techniques or to learn new instruments.

Session Musician Skills & Competencies

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

  • Promotional skills: The musicians who 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 make themselves available on short notice. Those who do the hiring call 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 marketing themselves, session musicians also 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. For example, one piece of music may be played repeatedly for the best possible recording. Session musicians may 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

NETWORK

Establish your reputation as a go-to player for your instrument in your area. Network with others, visit local studios, and use other strategies to find work as a session musician.

ONLINE PRESENCE

In addition to the traditional resume for a music industry job, start a Youtube channel or other website that highlights your musical 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: