How good a musician are you?

Musicians are often regarded as scatter brained, undisciplined, unfocused people.

When it comes to playing their instruments, though, business leaders can learn a lot from musicians.

Ask most people their general opinion of musicians and they’ll probably tell stories of long haired, untidy people who create the impression that they’re very undisciplined, non-conformist, unreliable and unco-operative.

That may be a stereotype of “play hard, live hard” musicians but, if you were to analyse things a little more carefully, you would discover that nothing could be further from the truth. Good musicians are highly focused, highly disciplined, extremely reliable, exceptionally compliant and highly co-operative.

If they weren’t, they could never be part of an orchestra, jazz band, rock group, pop group or any other form of music group. You may also be surprised to hear that they also meticulously follow the rules – of music.

Yes, to be a musician of any level of competence and standing, you HAVE to follow the rules of music. And every good musician knows and understands what the rules of music are. They know that every piece of music is written in a certain key and that you have to play in that key. You can’t just decide to play in another key. That would be disastrous and no-one would hire you again.

To play in the correct key, you have to know your scales – your major and minor scales and all the other scales. The chromatic scale features all 12 notes in an octave. The octatonic scale has eight notes per octave and is used in jazz and modern classical music. The heptatonic scale has seven notes per octave and is the most common modern Western scale. The hexatonic scale has six notes per octave and is common in Western folk music. The pentatonic scale has five notes per octave with the anhemitonic form (lacking semitones) common in folk music, especially in oriental music. It’s also known as the “black note” scale. Then the tetratonic scale has four notes, the tritonic has three notes, and the ditonic scale has two notes. These last scales are generally limited to prehistoric or very primitive music.

Many musicians may not know the names of these scales but they still comply strictly with what notes to use when playing any particular piece of music.

Those musicians who can read music will also follow the rules and play the music as it’s written.

“What about jazz musicians who improvise?” I hear you say. Good question. They also comply with the rules of music even though they make up a piece as they’re going along. They have to use the notes of a scale in the key they’re playing in. Improvisation is a skill all talented jazz musicians develop and the business equivalent would be innovation. Business leaders today need to innovate in their particular fields and this means making up as you go along. You don’t know if something is going to work until you’ve tried it. That means that business leaders have to understand the “rules of music” in their particular field and use those to come up with new tunes, so to speak.

Like in music, innovation skills in the business world can be learned. Business leaders at the most senior levels would do well to get help to learn such skills.

Another key competence that all musicians have is timing. They understand the importance of playing the right note at the right time. Playing a note too soon or too late can wreck a piece of music. Again, musicians who have no sense of timing never, repeat never, make it very far.

Business leaders would also do well to learn about timing from musicians. They may know the right thing to do, but if they do it too soon or wait too long, they could wreck their businesses. Kodak is a classic case in point. They dominated the camera and film world for decades. Then digital cameras became a reality. Kodak, in fact, had the technology to produce digital cameras but they chose not to as they did not want to affect the sales of film that they were selling for existing cameras. Where’s Kodak today? They took themselves out of the market because of poor timing.

Business leaders who want to thrive and lead with competence in the next decade must start polishing their “musician skills”!

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine,, @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and teaches business leaders and managers of all generations how to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site as one of the “Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter”.

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