Being a musician at any level helps you develop whole-brain integration, says Gerald Leonard, author of Culture is the Bass and Workplace Jazz. This means your left and right brains are both working, which helps you see the big goal as well as the details needed to get there, he shares. Many great thinkers were also musicians, and Leonard believes that countries and organizations that want to help people reach the highest level should demand a musical education. He has been a musician since the age of 10 but has found work in IT and business. He saw similarities between the worlds of music and business, and he explores these intersections in his two books. Leonard says the logic and structure of music bears similarities to software development, and the bond that musicians form when playing together can also be achieved by business teams that work well together.
Gerald, I see a keyboard behind you. I see the words “culture” and “low”. How do these things even come together in your office?
It’s my business office and my music office. I started playing music when I was 10 years old. I grew up in Lakeland, Florida, and around 1974 they started the Lakeland Civic Center. All the big groups have passed. Back then, as a kid, you could mow lawns and buy a ticket and go see your favorite band. It had an incredible influence on me. I went there and did my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree. I studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory. I had the chance to play at Carnegie Hall in college. Then I did ministry work, started a family, and made a decision. I really didn’t want to be on the road, so I was playing locally. That’s when I got into IT and business. But I kept playing music because that’s what I loved doing.
I did a lot of business certifications. Later, as my children got older, they also started to be more interested in music. So that brought music full force back into my life in a major way, and I started to see the fusion between the two. I started to see the similarities between a great performance in music and a great project in business. When you find yourself with other musicians, there is a brotherhood, no matter where you come from, what language you speak or what color you are. There is an emotional brotherhood or sisterhood that happens when you come together and play music. I found that business teams where people who are really good at what they did but were willing to leave their egos at the door and think about the bigger picture would normally develop the same camaraderie.
You will find that many software developers are also musicians. Music develops the mathematical part of the brain and also creates what is called “whole brain integration”. A few people who had this were Winston Churchill and Henry Ford. Henry Ford was also a trained violinist. Winston Churchill was a prolific painter as well as being the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But these two gentlemen faced major challenges in their lives, and they needed the ability to think about the big picture as well as the details. What whole brain integration gives you is the ability to use your right brain and left brain simultaneously. As a musician, when you read music or play music and play the instrument, you use your right brain and your left brain. As you train as a musician, you naturally develop whole-brain integration. It gives you the opportunity in life to see the big picture while being very aware and intimately involved in the details.
I’ve never had anyone come up to me and say, “If you want to be a better software engineer, you should keep playing the saxophone.” Why is it? What is going on here that is not trivial to conceptualize for many people?
If you look at a lot of current research in neuroscience, it’s beginning to uncover the power of music on the brain. I was reading an article the other day about the influence of music on our working memory, both short and long term. You should keep this song in your working memory while you play it. While you’re doing this and having fun doing it, you’re actually developing the neurological pathways for stronger working memory. These are the same pathways where the majority of your mathematical thinking takes place.
My experience is that there are a lot of developers who are musicians. It’s easy for musicians to get into computers and become software developers because music makes a lot of sense. There is a pattern, and everything has to fit. Everything has a structure. At the same time, the music is very improvised.
It seems to go back to what you mentioned earlier about our ability to both have a detail-oriented mindset, but also have a high-level understanding of the story we’re telling. Right?
Exactly. Einstein was also a musician. So if you think about it, it’s like some of the greatest thinkers in the world have a very strong musical background.
In that case, we should all learn music.
Exactly. Now, one of my pet peeves with the school system is when they say, “Well, we have to cut the budget, so let’s cut music lessons.” But if educators understood neural science and the mental development that happens with music, for me, music would become a fundamental requirement for any country or any organization that really wants to develop its people to the highest level.
With music, you develop whole-brain integration in a very short time when you start playing. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional or an amateur, as long as you practice, play and play, it develops.
I think something that can be very discouraging is how daunting it is to start. How can we overcome these barriers so that we can reintroduce music as a central part of how we grow in this world?
If you think about it, music is a language. Now obviously you speak very, very good English. Did you grow up intimidated to speak English when your parents and brother spoke at a much higher level? No. As a talking kid, you have the opportunity to play and practice with professionals all day, which helped you grow quickly, even before you knew the theory of what a name was or what was a verb. The music is the same way. It’s almost like the Suzuki method of teaching the violin, where you first teach the child to play the violin. I first learned to play guitar and bass by ear. Later, as I started to get better playing, I started studying and took classes and studied in school. We learn from professionals who encourage us. They just encourage you to keep talking and keep talking. You listen and you imitate.
With English, first you learn by ear, you learn by doing, then you go to study the theory of grammar. In software engineering, the best software engineers are the ones who will tell you, “I didn’t learn it from a textbook. I learned it because I started playing with it. Then I was working with someone who was better and I was getting code reviews’ playing with professionals.
Exactly. I was listening to Satya Nadella who taught leadership at Microsoft, and he said they had a model now called MCC: model, coach, and care. This is what we need from our leaders: someone who can model the behavior, coach us in that behavior, and care about us as human beings.
I’ll do my research and I’ll come back in another episode and ask you some more meaningful questions about choosing your brain.
I talked about it a lot in my last book, Workplace Jazz. Each of these principles are skills that musicians develop, whether it’s a positive attitude or the ability to use deliberate practice or the very idea of whole-brain integration. I provide research from peer-reviewed organizations, empirical data that shows these skills actually have a positive impact on us, and they are skills that move the needle for you personally, professionally, and organizationally.
Michael Matias, Forbes 30 Under 30, is the author of Age is Only an Int: Lessons I Learned as a Young Entrepreneur. He studies artificial intelligence at Stanford University, is a venture capital partner at J-Ventures and was an engineer at Hippo Insurance. Matias was previously an officer in Unit 8200. 20MinuteLeaders is a series of tech entrepreneurship interviews featuring one-on-one interviews with fascinating founders, innovators and thought leaders sharing their journeys and experiences.
Contributing Editors: Michael Matias, Megan Ryan