This paper offers a new, cross-cultural paradigm for understanding the location of professional musicians in modern social hierarchies. Basing my argument on Victor Turner’s theories of liminality and on primary-source research on North Indian musicians in the Mughal empire (c. 1658–1858), I maintain that professional musicians in most, if not all, societies possess institutionally liminal status. Although the occupation of ‘musician’ is relatively low, being essentially both service profession and cultural labour, the cultural capital that accrues to the product of their labour – their music – enables musicians to cross over into higher-status spaces, to mingle on more equal terms with their patrons, and, in the moment of performance, to exercise power over them. While this may offer opportunities of permanent social elevation for the best performers, in many societies patrons may apply subtle social sanctions to those who attempt to overstep the boundaries, in order to keep musicians in their place. While this hypothesis has clear resonances with Merriam’s famous tripartite formulation of low status/high importance/tolerance of ‘deviance’, institutional liminality also makes sense of the puzzling exceptions to his rule.