What making music teaches me about work

Before I worked a day in my life, I made music. I tapped on things. (I still tap on things) I took my first music lesson when I was 5, making one of my earliest memories playing The Indian Song on piano.

That was a long time ago, and my musical life since has ebbed and flowed. At it’s peak, I left home at 19 to go live in India and dive into a deep study of music and improvisation. At it’s trough — well, there have been far too many troughs to list.

Now, 10 years later, I work as a designer. In a creative industry, yes, but far from the life of a professional musician. Being an improvisational musician, however, teaches me some essential lessons about being a collaborator, innovator, and overall better teammate to spend 40ish hours a week with.

1. Music Needs an Audience

The earliest performance lesson I learned was to approach your audience with respect and grace. Their presence — whether in a live performance or listening on a device — is essential to music making. An audience that actively listens can feed musicians the creative energy they need to make good music.

In work, consider your audiences. Though it may not apply to every profession, think about who benefits from your work. Whether you know them or not, respect them and have gratitude. Without them, what is the role of your job?

2. Music is Better with Friends

Sure, music can be made solo. I’ve been doing it for years, thought mostly out of necessity. To make music with other people changes the game, and brings a new meaning to what making music means. There is nothing in the world I’ve felt akin to jamming in sync with another musician. It can be an existential experience.

The value of the collaboration carries over into the professional world. Like music, people can work solo and be content with that. But real collaboration and partnership opens up a world of possibility. It capitalizes on the power of more minds, all with unique perspectives and life experiences. In the end, what you create is stronger due to the collaboration.

3. Music Reminds you to Shut Up

In the famous words of Claude Debussy, “Music is the silence between the notes”. When collaborating with other musicians it is important to know when to shut up and stop playing. You share a stage, and it’s your responsibility to give everyone their time to shine, and contribute to the whole. It makes for better music, too.

The opposite of this plays out in work settings every day. The loudest voice, or the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion), overpowers everyone in the room. We don’t have total control, but we can advocate for everyone having the opportunity to contribute. No one should have to speak over others to get their perspectives out.

4. Music is Constant Innovation

I grew up in a style of music that is almost completely improvisational. This point speaks most to types of music making that are spontaneous and improvisational in nature. Improvising is hard, but when exercised, it gets stronger and more intuitive over time. It requires systematic practice, as well as a firm grasp on the structure within which you’re playing.

Innovating in the workplace also requires some muscle memory. It’s not easy for creative professionals to get into a flow state, and quickly come up with new ideas. Oh, and within the 9–5 window they’re expected to be in the office. Yet if you flex that muscle, you will improve your ability to be spontaneous, and let go of any fears of judgement or disapproval. Be aware of how your creative mind works, and act accordingly.

5. Music is Emotion

My experience with music has taught me that emotion is its heart. The act of creating and consuming music is an emotional exchange between parties. It is the opening up of hearts on both ends. It is an expression of a composer’s gut. Since the medium is abstract, listeners may have different emotional experiences of the same piece, making it a very personal experience for everyone involved.

How does this tie to work? Well, I would say good, fulfilling work should satisfy us on an emotional level. Work is changing, and will continue to change faster and faster in the coming years. What is growing is a desire for people to be in work that fulfils a larger purpose for themselves and for the world. An emotional commitment to that work — where work becomes something more than work — is how an individual can decide that on their own terms.