What Music Teaches Us About Teams

Published: December 15, 2020

Like human relationships, music composition is created by moving from dissonance to harmony. Composers know exactly how to take listeners on an emotional journey by establishing tension and then bringing the discomfort to resolution. Sometimes, a ‘wrong’ note is written into the piece with intention. Once the unexpected obstacle is introduced, it forces the listener to anticipate more harmonious interplay between the notes. Just like the problem solving that follows team conflict, it’s not about the wrong note. The way forward is about how we adapt to it.

Let’s begin with some basic music theory. In the Key of C, there are no sharps or flats. If a band is playing in this key signature, a piano player is safe to improvise with any of the white keys. But the choice to play a black key would sound out of tune. So, let’s say the piano player decides to play an F# (the black key furthest to the left in the group of three). In that moment, the musical performance sounds out of tune since someone has introduced tension to what otherwise was harmonious.

It’s all about what happens next. If the band chooses to remain in the Key of C, the tension will gradually increase and become unbearable. There are only a few paths available to resolution. The piano player with his or her toxic F# note can either return to the more comfortable white keys or the rest of the band can adapt to a new key signature that includes the F#. In our music theory example, the Key of G offers the easiest solution. If that adaptation happens, the music becomes measurably altered to the listener’s ear. In this case, problem-solving has sparked innovation.

Teams are faced with these stay-the-same or adapt dilemmas all the time. Human nature seeks sameness so choosing to change as a solution to a problem can feel unnatural. Even so, it is almost always where growth takes us sooner or later. We often resist the adjustment until the discomfort is no longer tolerable, but we eventually accept the adaptation with either support or reticence. And harmony inevitably follows.

Imagine an impasse in an argument. Both sides are stubbornly waiting for the other person to see it their way. Perhaps each view is legitimate within the context of that person’s circumstances but the combatants don’t share similar conditions. Changing the ‘key signature’ would require both parties to step back, widen the lens and understand each other’s perspective. In almost all cases, there is a key signature that allows both people to play the notes they prefer. In relationships, it’s found in the shared common vision for the future direction of the connection.

Music teaches us many lessons about teams. Sometimes, constant harmony is overrated. A courageous teammate might throw an F# into the Key of C just to stir things up. The team can either treat this moment as a mistake or an opportunity.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.