Music, Culture, and Leadership
Setting the tone for your organization
“As oil will find its way into crevices where water cannot penetrate, so song will find its way where speech can no longer enter.” — Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1856
Grab your headphones for this one.
No, seriously. I need you to listen to a couple of clips to help make the point of this edition of the newsletter.
In the previous edition of the newsletter when I talked about leadership as shown through a clip in The Big Country, I promised you an analysis of the “Main Title” track from Jerome Moross’ iconic soundtrack to the film.
Moross’ score was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music (it lost to Dimitri Tiomkin’s The Old Man and the Sea), but it redefined the sound of the Western. Between the cinematography and the score, we’re given a sense of wide-open spaces and the grandeur of the Old West. It’s a style that inspired others yet to come, from Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven to John Barry’s Dances With Wolves.
In an essay on the life of Jerome Moross, Jon Burlingame captures the essence of what the composer did with The Big Country:
Film-music historian John Caps cited “the authentic folk-song quality of the score, intentional and quantifiable,” finding the music “rhythmically alive... [containing] that maverick, reckless, runaway pulse” that helped to define it as belonging to the American West. [Christopher] Palmer declared its rhythms “sturdy, muscular, rugged, sprung of the native soil. Moross’ musical language — its tunes, its chords, its rhythms, its structure — is basically very simple. It is also personal to Moross.”
Let’s begin by listening to the three-minute “Main Title” together:
Is that enough to make you want to head way out west or hop on a horse?
From the very beginning, with the swirling strings and brass fanfares and crashing cymbals, you know something big is coming. Then, beginning at 0:38, Moross uses an old technique that finds its origins in folk music: he repeats the bass rhythm over and over.
At the same time, the main melody comes into play via the strings: an open and hopeful tune in a major chord, that at the end of eight bars (at 0:55) feels like it has brought us to a natural resolution; like the circle is complete. All the while, there’s that reassuring and rugged bass rhythm in the background.
Then the counter-melody comes in until we reach 1:29 for a rousing and more muscularly scored version of the initial theme we heard at 0:38, now with brass backing the strings. And it’s back to the opening swirl of strings at 1:52. But instead of repeating the main melody, we get another counter-melody, this time with a heroic and lone French horn before things wrap up.
In three short minutes, we’re given what we should expect throughout the film: music that is sometimes gentle and sometimes rousing, with a sense of spaciousness and reassurance, interspersed with heroism.
What a perfect metaphor for communication in leadership.
Leaders set the culture for the organization. Everything they say and do is scrutinized, and it either reinforces or diminishes the culture.
The swirling strings can be seen as an executive preparing their team for a big announcement, as if they’re sharing the anticipation and excitement around what’s coming next. The eight bars of the melody provide a sense of hope and direction, with that resolution that brings the message home.
The rhythmic and syncopated bass give us a sense of predictability and regularity about things, as leaders should be communicating often and consistently. Consistency in messaging is key in both crises and normal situations, as it’s reassuring and builds trust.
The repetition of the theme with brass backing the strings represents getting everyone on board with a message. It’s not enough for leadership to understand the vision and message of what a company is trying to do; employees need to be equally as familiar and comfortable with it. Like the main melody, keeping that message short and simple is a way to ensure employees can participate.
The lone French horn is symbolic of the voice of the leader, heroic and out front, providing a clarion call that brings everyone together.
We often remember iconic films for their cinematography, clever lines, or special effects. Yet film composers bring all of these together with music, as culture brings an organization together.
“Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches; nor do men in red capes. There is no Force. Dinosaurs don’t walk the Earth … You take our movies, many of them about our most impossible dreams, and through your musical genius, you make them real and everlasting for billions and billions of people.” — Steven Spielberg, 2016
I’d like to leave you with something that shows what it’s like in the absence of such a leader—how we might not realize the importance of culture (or in this case, music) until it’s gone.
This clip is from a recording of the Boston Pops in the early 1990s, when John Williams was still the music director of the Pops. Richard Dreyfuss was there to provide the introduction as a clip from Jaws was shown, first without Williams’ iconic music, and then with it:
One coda to this story: I was in the audience that night, and it was even more thrilling to watch in person.
It was around the same time that my fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi, inducted John Williams into our chapter at Boston University, giving him the nickname “Pops” on the back of his fraternity shirt.
And hey, while you’re at it, if you enjoy film scores, check out my podcast Music at the Movies. It’s like liner notes on audio.
Timely: Present Tense
“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.” — Henry David Thoreau, 1857
There’s no lack of music streaming platforms, and we all have a favorite. But considering that some of our music clips above were from YouTube, it should be no surprise that the video giant plans to capitalize on that as well. Inside YouTube’s plans to win the music streaming wars. (Protocol)
Spotify will let podcast hosts use full songs in their podcasts, rather than just clips. This will shake up how some podcasts are created and give Spotify an advantage over other platforms. (The Verge)
Facebook is introducing paid livestreams for musicians and other creators. (Variety)
Timeless: For the Curious Mind
“The finer the music, the less the ignorant enjoy it.” — Honoré de Balzac, 1841
You heard a portion of the score above, but it’s helpful to pause and consider why the music of Jaws is still terrifying. (Boston.com)
Walt Whitman on Beethoven and music as the profoundest expression of nature. (Brain Pickings)
Engravings from an ambitious and beautiful attempt to catalogue, for the first time, the musical instruments of the world. (Public Domain Review)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“What passion cannot music raise and quell!” — John Dryden, 1687
🎧 The Soundtrack Show is a weekly look at film scores and soundtracks for some of the most popular movies, TV shows, video games and theater pieces of all time.
📘 Part of the “Longman Topics” reader series, Music and Culture by Anna Tomasino explores social and cultural issues through music—its personalities, business aspects, diversity, and the sounds themselves—and is intended to promote critical thinking and writing through its accessible, balanced variety of reading selections.
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Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.