The music of leadership

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Jul 26 2016 by Michael Jones Print This Article

Too often our world seems filled with bits and fragments that don’t make sense. But then we hear the music that tells the story and our world feels coherent and whole again.

Two thousand years ago Plato wrote about how “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul”. His words reveal the extent to which music has stirred our imaginations since the beginning of time. For Plato music was even more important than physics and philosophy…” for it is through these patterns of music and the arts that we find the essential keys for learning.”

For over twenty years I have been integrating musical performances into my work with leaders. What has been most memorable for many is to listen to the music from under the piano. It has been in the intimacy of this felt experience of the music that we realize what Plato first observed - there is no one single part of the brain that is stimulated through sound. Instead the whole body and mind lights up and comes alive through the musical experience.

From the moment my aunt first set me on her lap and helped guide my fingers on the piano keys I have been fascinated with music. I particularly enjoyed how music could co-mingle with the sounds of nature around me. During my years at a summer wilderness camp, I often found delight in creating musical soundtracks for the thunderstorms that would sweep over the camp on hot humid summer afternoons. I would play to the rain, to the wind and to the thunder, taking care to play to the feeling of the elements rather than simply idea or concept of them. So music has always been an intimate and personal creation, often conceived in response to the feeling and need of the moment rather than repeating a formal composition conceived in advance.

In the future, music will be seen not only as background or entertainment but also as a force for healing, change and transformation. The field of neuroscience is delving deeper into how the musical elements of time, pitch and volume correspond to the bodily experiences of pulse, breath and movement, which in turn are an echo of the heart’s expressions and joy, sadness and exhilaration.

Perhaps it helps to understand the power of music if we think of it as a vibration. The sound waves emitted through its performance directly alter the tone, atmosphere and feeling in the room. In this respect sound is energy. The music enters the body. It is the language of breath and aspiration and as such awakens us to seeing new possibilities and brings together the fragmented parts and make them whole again.

One of the reasons that music holds such power in that in the Western world, where our cues are almost all visual, is that it reawakens our ability to truly hear. And while we can only see one thing at a time, we can hear everything at once. Furthermore, what we see may be dead or inert but to hear something it must be fully alive. So music itself is a language of life. As we listen, our senses act as a giant ear and the body becomes a symphony, which equips us to respond to the music's most subtle cues.

One executive I worked with told me, “after listening to you play, my team was inspired to have the conversation we have never had before.” Too often we hear a leader say in response to the challenges of sudden and unanticipated change, “we didn’t see it coming!” Music offers us the gift of prescience. It helps us anticipate and prepare for what is emerging on the far horizon. In this respect, music is the key to our future and not only a nostalgic journey into the past.

And this reflects the power that music has on us; it slows our pulse rate, calms the mind, relaxes the body and releases the emotions. It equips us to tune into the vibration world, one ripe with meaning and insight and one which holds critical information that is not as available to the linear or rational mind.

Elena Mannes’s film The Music Instinct includes an interview with musician Bobby Mc Ferrin, who shares a story about his close friend and globally-acclaimed cellist, Yo Yo Ma. On a trip to Africa, Yo Yo wanted to learn how to be more improvisational and responsive to the moment in his playing. He visited a Shaman who he was told could help him learn how to do this. In his first meeting the Shaman sang a song. It was a very beautiful song and Yo Yo started writing it down. But he was not able to complete his notation so he asked the Shaman to sing it again.

When the Shaman sang the song again, it was different.

“That’s not the same song that you sang before,” Yo Yo said.

The Shaman laughed. “Well the first time I sang it, there was a herd of antelope in the distance. And the cloud was passing over the sun. In the few minutes that have passed since I first sang the song, the wind had shifted and the people were feeling different: the song could not be the same the second time.”

As a communicator, when my speaking originates from the same place the music comes from, what I say and how I say it will always be different. My voice cannot be separate and apart from the larger vibrational field that is unfolding continuously within and around me. Yet still we live a fragmented existence in the notes and miss the music.

So when we do listen the music, we may also hear again the rhythm and harmony that offer the inward path to the life of our own soul.

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About The Author

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a leadership educator, author and Juno-nominated pianist/composer. His most recent book, The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community, is the third in a series asking how leaders can re- imagine places as living systems inspired by nature, art, community and our deepening humanity.