Music as Metaphor for the Business World

Most of the skills I have used for the past 20 years in the software vendor space derive from my childhood and young adult years learning, playing, listening to and composing music. Here's a quick run through of those crossover skills. None of these skills have a finish line - you're never "done". And when I say "software" I could just as easily describe the modern business world in general. As I reread what I have written below, I am left thinking "yeah, this is all kind of obvious!" but I'm a big fan of checklists and summarization statements - so it was still worth getting it written down.

Listen (and sometimes observe)

We have all heard about how important listening skills are in the business world: It's just words on a page from the latest self-help management guru book. Nothing prepares you for large business meetings like playing in an orchestra or large chamber group of classical musicians. You have to listen. It's that simple. Not listening means that you will stray off tempo, that you will stick out like a sore thumb, and mostly, that you just weren't following the directions - of the printed music, or of your fellow jazz improvisors. I've struggled with dedicated and intent listening my whole adult life (just ask Lauren). Haven't we all? It's something we all will spend our entire lives improving upon.

You also have to observe - but not always because that looks weird or awkward. Maybe out of the corner of your eye you're watching the conductor while you read the printed music. In a sales meeting you are watching for visual cues of success or failure. In internal meetings you are looking for emotional feedback from your peers. When programming, your software tools have all kinds of visual feedback for you to consume. 

Listen and observe. It's Nike time: just do it.

Play in tune

In the music world, unless we are talking about certain ethnomusicology subjects, this concept is pretty straightforward. You play in tune or else it sounds like crap. But what does "in tune" actually mean? The metaphor for software comes into play when we compare "pure tuning" versus "well-tempered" tuning. In musical "pure tuning" which uses mathematically even intervals, the numbers are correct but it sounds dissonant. Cold and harsh to the ear. In early music there were often intervals whose pureness of tuning left them unusable and isolated - known as "wolf" intervals at the time. A pure tuning system also left the performers will almost no ability to transpose the music to a different key (see transpose on sight, below).

Defined and refined in the 18th and 19th century, a "tempered" tuning system attempts to compromise all of the possible music tunings/intervals so that no one interval is favored over the others. All the intervals were slightly impure, but taken as a group, more pleasing to the ear. I'm going to stop here because there are entire college classes on this subject and literally hundreds of books to read on tempered tuning styles.

The metaphor for business is that if you stick to your exact tuning eventually you will look like an annoying, inflexible robot to your peers. It's when we temper the tuning and compromise our speech, work manner, or coding style ever so slightly that we start to sound congruent and consonant. We start to sound like a team.

Learn the hard passages flawlessly

In my younger days, there were a few pieces of orchestra music which had passages that defied normal human ability - for myself at least. Specific to clarinet and specific to my childhood, I'm referring to Stravinsky's firebird suite and Mozart's clarinet concerto. While most of the clarinet passages were normal and learnable, there were always a few select moments that were excruciating and difficult. If only there had been a pill, salve or ointment I could have used to learn these moments of insane compositional brilliance! My clarinet teacher at the time had nothing to offer except "you have to practice these lines until it's like breathing or walking - until you don't even think about it". OK fine, cue the Nike theme again.

In the business world just like with music, these moments are few and far between but they stick out as the most memorable. Perhaps you are practicing an important presentation for a full room of thousands. It had better be perfect! You can't even appear to be making it look hard. It has to look easy. Maybe you are working on a tricky demo moment where things have to be "just perfect" in the script. Sometimes you are coding a solution with lots of tricky edge cases that require special error handling or else the whole process falls apart. Perfection is not an option here - it's a requirement. This leads to...


Writing this section felt stupid to me. Why is this a concept that even needs discussion? Did you not read the previous section about being flawless? In all my years of giving software demonstrations, I have enough data to now state without reservation that the demos I practiced were far better than the demos where I just winged it. And I winged quite a few of them..

I guess the only thing I have to add to the ubiquitous phrase practice makes perfect is that it's OK to practice even the boring things that you think you have already mastered. There are two reasons for that: First, it's fun to practice the simple stuff you already know! If you take a sales call with the most junior rep - or take on a code project that seems simple and obvious to you - you will find yourself chuckling at the newbie factor but also reliving your past a little bit. Enjoy it! Teach your coworkers something along the way! The other reason is that revisiting a trusted subject often leads to a new discovery. The human mind wants to free itself from the traps and patterns that it sets for itself, and when you allow that to happen by repeating something you already know, the brain muscle attempts to discover something new. It's intrinsic - the attempt at new discovery will just happen like breathing and walking.

Surprise people / Improvise

Improv is what sets a good actor apart from the crowd. A jazz musician from someone classically trained. And it's the same in business or software. There are multiple management training courses that talk about being able to "call an audible" - the football reference where the quarterback changes the play at the last moment - and what they're talking about is the art of surprise. This ability to play some jazz. To improvise. Two comments here. First, part of the subtlety of improv is that you can't overdo it - less is more! Otherwise you will exhaust yourself and your peers. Second, you have to improvise against a baseline (see previous section about practicing), otherwise by definition it's not improvisation. The feeling people get when they sort-of, kind-of recognize what you're doing but it also feels new to them? That's the sweet spot of business improvisation.

However, if your goals are machiavellian, you should forget it. Catching people off guard in order to get something from them is a bad way to do business and a terrible way to live your life. This entire section is really about the "small stuff" in the business world. I would not pin "Surprise People / Improvise" to the huge, strategic concepts you may be dealing with or a really large sales deal you are trying to close. In my software career, this mostly came down to having a few easter eggs / secrets in all of my demonstrations, things not even my coworkers knew about until the big reveal. It's fun to surprise people in a light-hearted and non-consequential manner - as long as it's not attached to a result or goal.

Play counterpoint

This is another subject for which entire libraries of knowledge exist so I won't get into the music detail or history too much except to say counterpoint makes things interesting and complex, and not everyone seems to like interesting and complex things. This certainly plays out in the business world - maybe you have been in a meeting or situation where one person was going "left" while the rest went "right" with the discussion. It's awkward. People in the room fidget. The person in question was probably a bit uncomfortable. I bet they had a great idea, though.

We have all heard the phrase "keep it simple" and there's certainly truth to that in most cases. Counterpoint is a deliberate attempt to introduce complexity into a situation. In music and in business, counterpoint creates tension, and good counterpoint creates and then resolves tension.

This isn't about value judgements or morals. Not all counterpoint is good counterpoint. However, the idea of introducing complexity into a situation is just a good idea. It may not always work out well, it may not always result in a new patent, brilliant idea or solved problem - but that should not prevent us from embracing counterpoint and complexity whenever possible. The person tacking "left" while the rest are going "right" is doing you a favor. They're creating a real-time parallelism, one that just might improve, fix or create something new.

Learn the language, transpose-on-sight and have cultural literacy

I think the best way to describe these concepts is with several examples.

Music examples for "learn the language" and "cultural literacy": 

  • Understanding what jazz is, and its many sub types. Knowing the sub type when you hear it.
  • Understanding what Gamelan is and what its structures and pace sound like.
  • Knowing the difference between a baroque and classical piece of music.
  • And so forth and so on - many hundreds of examples come to mind.

Music examples for "transpose-on-site" - these all happened to me at some point or another:

  • Playing a trumpet part on the clarinet - transpose from C to B-flat.
  • Playing a cello part on the clarinet - transpose from C to B-flat and also read in bass clef. E.g. the printed notes are both "wrong by key" and "wrong by staff line on page" and you correct both in real time.
  • Playing jazz standards on the piano in different keys for different singers.

Software/Business examples:

  • When you reuse a demonstration but tweak it for your new prospect. (transposing on site)
  • When you go into a meeting with bankers and you have a baseline understanding of banker language and process. (learning the language) If your line of work requires you to go into many different markets - like mine did at Tableau - you are learning many different "languages". (cultural literacy)
  • When you take your knowledge of one programming language and apply it to a new one (transposing on site).
  • Understanding modern computing and software design themes and stay current on their trends (cultural literacy)
  • When you take an idea or concept from unrelated parts of the business and apply them to other parts of the business (transposing on site)

This entire section is somewhat obvious and there are analogies to anyone who has ever learned multiple human languages. Those types of folks will tell you that a) it gets easier and easier with each new language and b) even in cases where their knowledge is shallow or topical, they are still able to digest and understand otherwise foreign sounding ideas.

My good friend Miguel described it to me like this one day: "I'm having my daughter take piano lessons, and I'm teaching her chess. I don't care if she ends up being a concert pianist or chess master. I just want her to have literacy in these subjects and as many others as possible." His point was that in doing this, his daughter would be able to communicate with an ever-growing collection of different types of people, and have an ever-growing collection of literacy tools to use in new and different situations.


Here's the summary list version of this write up. Thanks for reading!

  • Listen (and sometimes observe)

  • Play in tune

  • Learn the hard passages flawlessly

  • Practice

  • Surprise people / Improvise

  • Play counterpoint

  • Learn the language, transpose-on-sight and have cultural literacy