Music Education Will Make You Business Savvy?

Will music training prepare you to deal with the demands of the business world?  Brian Pertl, a musician, former Microsoft senior manager and now Dean of Lawrence Conservatory of Music, believes so.  He writes about the qualities that companies are looking for in prospective employees, including focus, self-motivation, a collaborative attitude, good communication skills, and creativity.  Being a successful musician, Pertl argues, necessarily involves developing those five skills and they can directly translate into success in business.  He writes:

“. . . from where I sit now, as a conservatory trained trombonist, the current dean of a major conservatory of music, and a former senior manager at Microsoft with 16 years of experience in the business world, I see the connections between conservatory training and core business skills from a unique vantage point. Over the years, as I analyzed the reasons for my successes as a business manager, it always came back to the skills I had learned as a musician and had honed at my conservatory of music. Now that I am back in the world of the conservatory, many worried parents of prospective students ask me what good conservatory training will do if their child doesn’t happen to become a professional musician.”

I really want to agree with Pertl, but I think he’s piling on a lot of spin on this topic. First, I think I’d be hard pressed to come up with any subject that one can study that doesn’t deal with focus, motivation, collaboration, communication, and creativity.  This argument also sounds very similar to what many will say about a liberal arts education, which is a different educational experience from the conservatory environment that Pertl deals in.

My next thought is whether the reverse correlation would be true.  I would argue that good business skills are essential for the average professional musician to have, but I don’t necessarily think that business education will translate to more successful musical skills, just help you deal with the business aspect of making a living playing music.  If it takes music practice to get good at music, perhaps it really takes a similar focus on business to develop the skills and abilities necessary for success in the business world.

I’m reminded of the infamous “Mozart Effect” that was all the rage among some of my music teacher colleagues a while back.  In 1993, a paper was published in Nature that looked at the effect listening to Mozart had on spatial reasoning.  The study got blown way out of proportion in the media and many music teachers were trumpeting it as evidence for why music programs are important (I see that this web site is still pushing this misleading fact).  Similarly, the idea that music education can translate into useful skills in other subjects has a lot of proponents, but it’s tough to find any serious research that suggests this is true.  Yes, you can find papers that show a school with a good music program has high test scores, but that mostly really shows that schools with the resources and budget to put together excellent music programs also have the budget to put together good “core academic” programs.

Ultimately, I think pushing music education as providing a huge non-musical benefit is misleading and ultimately shooting ourselves in the foot.  Obviously, if you want to develop skill in a particular discipline you should study that subject.  Learning to learn is the goal of all education, and isn’t particular to music education.  Music is interesting and a universal part of the human condition.  Like all areas of human knowledge, music has connections to everything else, but the best validation for music education is for its own sake.

David Cutler

Thanks for your response to Brian Pertl’s article. You make some compelling points. Absolutely, we have to be careful of overpromising to budding musicians. Do you believe that music study can foster transferable skills, or that it’s an entity unto itself?

My take on the topic is in an article called “Does Conservatory Really Prepare for Business Success”:

Incidentally since you mentioned it, Pertl is in an interesting environment. Lawrence actually has a conservatory within a liberal arts college, which (optimally) allows students access to the best of both worlds. Certainly a fasinating model to observe.

Thanks again for your thoughts!

Brian G. Pertl

First, I am happy that you read my blog and that it sparked your response, thanks. I think you make some excellent points. The topic is a complex one and certainly has many more gray areas than I had time to address in a few paragraphs. Here are a few additional thoughts.

Having lived the transition from conservatory to Microsoft, I absolutely think that there are transferable skills. I am not advocating the Conservatory should be used as a business school–far from it, but to treat conservatories as some sort of cloistered environment separate from the rest of our world, including the business world, is the wrong approach. Music is a part of our humanity and should be seen as something that is deeply integrated with all facets of our world. It should not be segregated.

I often talk to prospective music students and parents who have the attitude that somehow musical training is completely non-transferable, and somehow deficient–not a “real” degree. My blog argues against that belief. I am not saying that other areas of educational focus don’t provide transferable skills. I am saying that music training in particular puts the student in situations that are potentially helpful in other areas of life, in this case, business.

If all this talk sounds a little “liberal arsty,” it’s because it is! I am a passionate believer in a liberal arts education. As Dave mentions, The Lawrence Conservatory of Music is one of the few conservatories in the country that sits within a small liberal arts college. I have seen the positive results of combining conservatory training with a liberal arts education.

I hope that the 21st century conservatory can embrace the lessons of entrepreneurship that David Cutler outlines in The Savvy Musician, not because I want Conservatory graduates to work at Microsoft, but because I want them to have the greatest opportunities to be successful, happy, musicians in the world we live in now.

Our world is very different from the one that the conservatory model of training was originally designed for hundreds of years ago. We still need to maintain the highest level of musical training, but we also need to integrate new entrepreneurial approaches to musicianship. At my conservatory, that also includes a well-rounded liberal arts focus. We need to bring the world into the conservatory and the conservatory into the world. I would also argue that I’m not saying that Conservatory training WILL give you strong tools for the world of business, but rather that it has the potential to do so. And it is incumbent on the Conservatory and its students to recognize these connections and get the very most out of this potential.


Thanks for taking the time to respond! I’m glad for your clarification and look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

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