5 Reasons Why Musicians Succeed in Business

I stumbled across this article that was, oddly enough, written by a friend of mine I have known since high school. Rob Henson is a talented musician and composer who lives in Seattle and works in the ever-evolving world of image and creative content licensing (stock photos, video, etc). I thought this was a nice companion to the TED ED video, How Playing an Instrument can Benefit your Brain.


5 Reasons Why Musicians Succeed in Business
by Robert Henson

Like many liberal arts majors in college, I didn’t ultimately find a career in my field of study (Music). While I never felt that this incongruity posed any real problems for me, I still get raised eyebrows when the subject comes up. Some perceptions might be negative, but most are positive – I even had someone who owns a large IT consulting firm tell me at an alumni event, upon hearing my major, that he makes two resume piles when recruiting: one for music majors and the other one (I jokingly asked, “do you burn the music one?”). He went on to espouse the qualities he finds in those with a strong music background, qualities that he sees in practice day to day.

This gave me pause, as I have often read about the qualities that music education offers, but never had I talked to someone so adamant about specifically recruiting with this background. And led me to contemplate, leaning on my own experience of having gone through the gauntlet of a music education and subsequent experience in business, just what those qualities might be and how they emerge through business practices. I found the list unfurls way beyond 5, but brevity reigns over volume [hey, that’s a decent #6]…

1. Failing

Failing is a process of incomplete attempts at something, and what can be construed as practicing is nothing more than intensive, incomplete, focused attempts at a goal. Any musician can tell you that a first read through, and subsequent tries, is an iterative confidence builder. You parse meaning, intent, phrasing, fingering and an impossible amount of information in real time – and hit wall after wall. Only through mastering each problem, will you achieve your goal. The end result rests on a mountain of tiny failures, met and overcome through the process of practice.

2. Improvising

You make a plan, have a script then the plan deviates from the script. So goes in business as in music (although, more purposely in music). Still, improvising is a skill, and a skill that is built on being in the moment, being aware of what is happening around you, making judgment calls, and executing. When you improvise, you’re bringing to bear your entire prior experience and understanding. The notion that improvisers don’t need to prepare is far from the truth. All good improvisers practice a great deal, honing their skill and technique so that they’re executing with confidence. As in music, so follows the business world – the daily involvement of yourself in problem solving and collaboration is practice, for those moments when improvisation means success or failure.

3. Reading from the same page

Ever played in an ensemble, or sang in a choir? No? You should. For those that have, the innate understanding of how critical it is for everyone to be read from the same score, and know their part in relation to the score, is an obvious one. Deviate a little, and you stick out, you don’t blend accurately, and your objective as an ensemble becomes that much more difficult. People notice, and they start to not buy what you’re selling. Alignment between an organization’s mission, how people execute against that mission and in other areas of duties should be as nuanced, subtle and close as a group of musicians reading off the same score with the same intent.

4. Contingency thinking

Writing music is process of contingency thought and planning. The organization of events, combinations, and complexity of how timbre and timing is an intensely-focused exercise in strategy – and all of it occurs well before anyone picks up their instruments to perform, which then demands another set of variables that must be taken into consideration during the planning (writing) phase. What can go wrong might go wrong, but much of that can be circumvented with the employment of contingency thinking. Lawyers aren’t the only professional group that must live in the future and build various interdependent models of probability. Music is a temporal form that exists somewhere beyond where we are, and the only map to it is a set of instructions and strategy that must have the rigor and thought to be successful.

5. Listening

Shhh. You hear that? No? Well, your hearing is fine, but your listening skills suck. Not so with musicians, who’ve suffered through years of courses designed to hone ones’ focus; one might listen through hearing, but the real discipline is listening, and listening is really just focusing. The ability to focus through listening is only one part of the skill, the other being the discernment between all of the information one is hearing. Extracting themes from the overall narrative, understanding the relationship of supportive roles and dominant ones, and ultimately what is being communicated and conveyed is something good listeners can do. The deeper we listen, the more information we’ll extract, and the more we focus on and parse that information, the more we’ll get closer to understanding. In a culture of increasing noise, maintaining the ratio to signal isn’t just good hearing sense: it’s good business sense.

Musicians, through years of discipline, have these qualities inherent in their makeup. That certainly doesn’t mean that non-musicians don’t, and I’ve met many great listeners who might border on the amusia spectrum. Still, as a language and practice that transcends other forms of communication, the benefits and effects should be obvious to most, and it’s never too late to integrate music into your life.


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