The Music of Innovation (and vice versa)

The Music of Innovation (and vice versa)I am no student of music. My foray into music reaches extends to screeching my recorder (or miming it) in unison with my other classmates at school assemblies or other such events designed to make audiences’ ears bleed. Nor am I student of science – particularly the science of sound psychoacoustics. But after reading a particularly interesting article from the brainiacs at The Aftermatter, I began to appreciate the parallels between music and innovation.

The article helped me realise something very obvious. When two instruments play the same note, they still don’t sound the same – I know my brain works slowly, but it does get there in the end! This, as explained in the article, has to do with harmonics and the sound vibrations produced by the instrument reacting in an infinite number of ways. The vibrations, emitted as sounds, are also affected by the musician’s playing styles, the type of instrument and quite likely the number of drinks consumed.

So there is this wonderful paradox of bringing together all these competing variables to generate the harmonious sound that is music.

How is innovation dissimilar?

Innovation has its composers, students and influencers. It can be generated by individuals, teams (bands) or groups and yet still has an infinite number of variables that can be fused together to produce the same, but different, ’sound’, the appreciation of which is subject to criticism, awards and ambivalence. NB: It is also subject to rip-offs and piracy.

But where are the conservatoriums of innovation? Universities are… arguably. The Fraunhofers of the world are closer to the ideal. For many hundreds of years the world has had institutions established throughout the world to perfect the art, and science, of music. Public and private sectors acknowledge the richness music bestows on us - how can we do the same to make the richness of innovation music to our ears?

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The Music of Innovation (and vice versa)Steve Bryant is a specialist marketer, strategist and author at QMI Solutions, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping SMEs implement innovative solutions to improve profitability and grow. He is also author of the blog: Thought Catalyst For Industry or follow him on Twitter @QMI_Solutions

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8 Responses to The Music of Innovation (and vice versa)

  1. Peter Cook says:

    Thank you Steve for this – I think you may well enjoy my books ‘Sex, Leadership and Rock’n'Roll’ and ‘Punk Rock People Management’ which explore parallels between music and business – a rich seam of learning.

    Peter Cook – Rock’n'Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.

  2. Interesting topic, Steve–one that I’ve been pondering for years. I have a formal degree in music composition from Rutgers University, where I was mainly working with atonal music. I’m also a jazz musician (bass) and regularly compose for my combo. In my day job, I’m now a design and innovation consultant. So I understand a little from both sides of your analogy.

    While studying composition, I essentially learned about the forces that make music “go” (to phrase it at a very high level): rhythm, melody, and harmony, as well as other things, like instrument timbre that you mention. But contrary to popular belief, perhaps, when staring at a blank piece of music paper, combining all of those elements into a coherent piece of music isn’t just “doing what you feel.” There formal styles, principles, and theories that guide music composition. This even applies to jazz improvisation. Believe it or not, those wild solos of players like John Coltrane have a tremendous amount of logic and even structure.

    In innovation, we oft question whether there can be a method or process to consistently innovate. After all, most innovation efforts fail, or so we’re told. While I don’t think there is a specific, tactical recipe book for innovation, I do believe we can identify the forces that make innovation “go,” much as in music composition.

    That means both composition and innovation can be learned. And we can train ourselves to become better. This point is made very clearly in the recent book _The Innovator’s DNA_, for instance. They outline principles of innovations and provide exercises to develop innovation skills.

    One such skill that I think crosses over between music composition and innovation for me is “association.” Others refer “abductive thinking” in a similar way, such as Roger Martin. It’s the ability to creatively combine ideas together in novel ways that’s important in both activities. Think about it: Western music really on has twelve different notes. But you can combine and recombine them in innovative ways for an endless variation of musical pieces.

    In the history of Western classical music, it’s the innovators that we tend to point to and revere–in other words, those composers that pushed the boundaries and opened up new possibilities. It’s Bach, Beethoven and Brahms we remember rather than their respective contemporaries Telemann, Hummel and Zemlinski (all of whom were fine composers). The history of Western music is the history of music innovators, really.

    The aspect of music they were innovating was primarily *dissonance*. They kept finding new ways to introduce and handle more and more dissonance as music evolved. In business, I believe this notion corresponds to *solving customer problems*. Ultimately, an innovation has to fill a gap or provide new value to be successful. So taking our cue from music composition, you need to find the dissonance and resolve it to be innovative.

    There’s more about the relationships between the two I could go into. Ping me offline if you’re interested in a direct dialog.


    ps – here’s a list of some of my compositions. The atonal stuff is at the bottom of the list; the most recent stuff are jazz heads:

    • Steve Bryant says:


      I’m glad I made some sense to someone as immersed in the study of music as yourself. There is a great sybiosis between the creativity and structure/logic of music and I wondered if that same relationship could be emulated in the innovation process.

      I liked your point about the “dissonance innovators” and an obvious comparison is that with disruptive innovation – a common topic on the IE blog. My limited knowledge of composers leads me to believe Stephen Sondheim is a contemporary dissonance composer. I stand to be corrected on that one.

      I’m not sure that we remember innovators the same way we remember the music innovators. We certainly remember the innovation enablers but then again, execution is half the achievement isn’t it?

      Thanks for the insightful reply.

  3. Undoubtedly composition and innovation skills can be learned Jim. And, on dissonance, you are on the money as well. Have a look at the Deep Purple article and see what you make of that.

    I tred to sign up for your blog by the way but found no sign up button other than an RSS feed. Can you assist?

    Peter Cook – The Rock’n'Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence

    • Steve Bryant says:

      Underneath the “share” function on the RHS there is a Feedburner subscription function where you just enter your email address and you’ll automatically subscribe to the blog, after being sent an activation email.
      - Steve

  4. uday pasricha says:

    My interest and learning started with Indian classical and over years has extended to Jazz and blues as a natural pull. Simultaneous interest in cognitive research and practice has shown that having a structure to think within is a positive environment to facilitate innovation. Structure also means constraint ( not in a negative sense) as in Indian classical music there is a strict rule where in every raag there is a rule to ascend and when one descends the scale. This makes it very structured and specific. Then keeping time to the many types of beat called taals which have mathematical numbers of beats form the very basic skill to perform.Then the Raag and playing is different according to the time of day, season and mood. Each have different raagas which form the next set of constraints ( structure) that have to be followed. Very few music forms can improvise for 6 to 8 hours within one melody but it is very common in Indian classical to practice 6 to 8 hours on just ONE Raag. I believe this is because when constraint/structure is laid down then the mind is best equipped to ideate for relevant output. (Perhaps pop art contemporary painters are exempt).
    This logic is now used for business solutions where “implement ability” is the focus. The constraints laid down are “existing resources” and we start with the assumption that no external resource will be used for ideation. While this is just ONE of so many successful processes for innovation it works very well for SME where implementation within existing resources is the need and focus. In cognitive terms i believe this could mean, that when one is trying to create something new it is easier to start using existing synaptic connections, and then try to create a new/additional neuron instead of trying to create something which is totally alien to current abilities and knowledge ( a new neuron) and try and implement that.

  5. Peter Cook says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that constraints do not hinder creativity (in music or business) Uday. Ragas often use a single note as their root to the piece, yet enormous creativity can spring from this. Perhaps we could consider an article or interview on ‘Raga and Roll’?

    Peter Cook

    Rock’n'Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence

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